Even as the rains continue to pour down, the streets of Kumartuli bustle as they make way for the dawn of an important festival that marks the end of patriarchy―Durgatsav.
Amidst the many stories of the Kumbhars of Eastern India, those of the area of Kumartuli of Kolkata are of historical significance. For generations, these workers have been moulding high-quality clay idols of several dieties, especially those of the goddess Durga. Today, their craftsmanship has even reached foreign shores as their idols find their way into several regions all around the globe.
Kumartuli, known for its sculpting prowess, is a traditional potters’ quarter located in northern Kolkata, West Bengal. It not only manufactures clay idols for various festivals, but also regularly exports them. The victory of the British East India Company in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave way to the British colonisation of India. The Company decided to build a new settlement for Fort William in Gobindhapur village and allotted separate districts to their workmen. These neighbourhoods acquired work-related names, and one of them was the locality of Kumartuli. As the city of Kolkata grew and developed, loads of people shifted into these localities and eventually dispersed into various communities. However, the artisans of Kumartuli, who came to the area in search of a better livelihood, survived in large numbers. Since 1950, Kumartuli has been the home of several talented potters who, in the beginning, used to make pots by the river to sell later at the bazaar, but quickly advanced to making clay idols of gods and goddesses, which started to be worshipped popularly at mansions and palaces around the city.
This potters’ hub houses around 150 families, who earn their living by sculpting idols in approximately 550 workshops. Most of the idols that they create feature Goddess Durga, who is seen riding a lion and slaying the demon Mahishasura. Certain specific artisans’ workshops are also booked by various pandals for making their idols. The process of making these idols is very tough and intricate, and it is a wonderful experience to watch these artisans at work as one roams around Banamali Sarkar street in North Kolkata. With nothing but cheap equipment and materials, such as clay, straw, ropes, and bamboo sticks, their skilled hands magically transform shapeless clay into mesmerising idols that never fail to leave us in awe.
However, for all their hard work and talent, these artisans live in poor conditions. As one walks down the narrow lanes, it is evident that the workshops are in congested areas with no proper ventilation and with small windows that barely let the daylight enter. The materials that they use are cheap as they cannot afford good-quality ones. Even though the situation has changed for the better since the early days, much improvement would be required to provide these talented workers with the life that they deserve.
Despite these hardships, Kumartuli is a place enriched with the culture and heritage of Kolkata. For many, this is a place full of that familiar nostalgia and excitement that is associated with Durga puja. Whether one is an art connoisseur or not, a visit to Kumartuli is a must if they wish to get a glimpse into the unique culture and emotion that it is suffused with.
By Swaroopa Mitra