Who has not heard about the famous Durga Puja of Bengal and especially Kolkata? Just the thought of it generates the visuals of Kali, dressed up and being revered by the devotees. The color and the festivity for days together and finally the immersion of the idols in the river. While many enjoy the celebrations and all that it brings with it, new clothes, good food, unlimited entertainment with a general feeling of joy and bliss. Not many stops by and think about those Kumartuli Idol Makers. Who work for months together to make the idols of the Goddess and others.
Idol Makers of Kumartuli, Kolkata
On our way to Bishnupur in West Bengal, we stopped over at Kolkata. Roamed around in the lanes and by-lanes of Kumartuli. The area is known for idol making, especially that of Goddess Durga. As you step into this area, you get a feel of the old-world charm, with flowers being sold on the footpaths on both sides of the roads. Trams move to and fro at a speed where you wonder if people could walk faster. And artisans are busy working on their masterpieces. I was particularly attracted to the deep blue Aparajita flower, which is not so common in other parts of the country. Surprisingly, the area is conspicuously free of modern world symbols like soft drinks and illuminated carts vying for your attention. There are no glaring lights and the whole ambiance is in its own color.
There are narrow shops cum workshops where the artisans are working on making idols, from the streets, they almost look like shacks. The idols are literally stacked across the length of the workshop. And the artist moves from piece to piece to work on it. Besides idols, you would also see shops selling articles that are used at weddings.
While the best-known idols from this Kumor or idol maker community are Kali and Durga with her entourage. They also craft clay idols for Vishwakarma, Ganesh, Lakshmi, and Saraswati Puja. At this point in time, we could see a lot of Ganesha idols as Ganesh Chaturthi is around the corner. Some of the artisans, who I observed are on the main road rather than the by lanes also work on human models. They also make fiberglass models along with the traditional clay idols. You would see the ubiquitous Rabindra Nath Tagore’s bust in most shops along with other national leaders like Indira Gandhi and her family.
Made to order Statues
We were told that you can get a statue made to order. And all you have to give is a good photograph of the person whose statue is to be made. It was a revelation that many people order statue’s for their parents or ancestors who have passed away. The price quoted was very reasonable. And you can very easily afford it even if you are not affluent. We were also told that a substantial part of these statues are exported and the export prices are better.
Ganesha Idols in the making at Kumartuli, Kolkatta
Half-painted Ganesha idols looked very interesting, it almost felt like the artists are dressing up God, preparing him for a party or a festival. Some of the works on the idols were so intricate and fine, that it was difficult to believe that it has been made in clay and molded by hand. It was a sheer pleasure to stand by and see the artisans run their expert fingers across the idols and give them curves and shapes that finally become an expression. Jewelry almost comes alive and you can make a clear distinction between the floral one and the metal one even when the idols are yet to be painted. If you run your eyes across the lane, you would see half-finished idols staring at you.
Some of them have the body but are yet to be colored, some have the body but are yet to get the head part, some are colored and waiting to be clothed, and some are getting the jewelry sculpted into their bodies. There are roaring lions and other animals like rats to accompany the main idols. You get a feeling of a whole population being created by these artisans.
This place is also called the native’s village. It is a part of the ancient pilgrimage route going to Kalighat in the south of the city. Being close to the river, they have easy access to the clay needed for idol making. Most of the artisans belong to families that have done this for generations. I am not sure if they have been formally trained, my guess is that they grew up observing and learning this inherent family art. Idols are made with a core of hay, wrapped around with clay, and baked. There is a finish given with clay with hands by the artisans and adornments sculpted. Then comes the paint followed by clothes and other decorations.
Come to think of it the idols have a yearly cycle of creation and destruction. Every year they are again and again created from and merged into the same clay. With the exports of these idols on the rise to cater to the Bengalis living across the world, you can say that it is Bengal’s clay that is being spread across the world. I was told that you have to order the idols well in advance. There are very few of them available off the shelf.
Traditionally, the artisans were invited by rich families and the idols were custom made at their homes rather than purchasing them. It is said that spiritual practices like meditation and other rituals were done before the third eye of the Goddess was painted, which marks the completion of the idol that is now a symbol of the Shakti or the Power of the Goddess.
While in that area, I was touched by the simplicity of the place. Everyone was busy working on his idols. Everyone gladly allowed us to take pictures of the idols that were actually in various stages of work in progress. There was no expectation of any kind in return. All the questions we asked were answered with amazing simplicity and somehow we felt welcome.
Paradoxically, I would hate to see this place crowded with tourists. But at the same time, I would like people to see a local art form. And the work behind the famous Durga Pujas.
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