The smell of wet clay from Ganges and other rivers, the dry crackling of straw beneath your feet, the criss-cross patterns of bamboo spread out within the narrow confines of a ramshackle, eight-by-eight studio blend seamlessly to create the traditional homes of the artisans where Goddess Durga takes ‘birth.’ The place is called Kumortuli. For the average Indian who is a stranger to Calcutta, the name Kumortuli may not ring any bell of nostalgia.

On the first day of the Bengali New Year which falls somewhere in the middle of April, skilled and creative hands get busy shaping clay, fixing beautifully sculptured feet to the Durga idol in preparation for her installation in one of the hundreds of pandals in Kolkata and West Bengal. The concentration is complete, with rings of smoke rising from bidis and cigarettes adding to the claustrophobia within the narrow space of these workshops.

The average studio is merely a ‘fenced-off’ space, where most of the earthen floors of around 450 workshops/studios are not paved. The walls are a fencing of two wooden boards held together with rope. Tin and matting are some of the materials used in constructing the roof. Electric lighting is minimal, and the bulbs are of low wattage. Most of the craftsmen squat on the floor while at work, and the odd wooden stool or chair is meant for customers. Some of them are perched on a temporary bamboo scaffolding to work on a higher level if the idol is very tall. Clay, the principal raw material, is brought by boat down the river Hooghly from Uluberia, a village near Calcutta. This clay is notable for its glutinous property, ideal for shaping images from conception to fruition.

The name “Kumortuli” is derived from the original Bengali word ‘kumore’ meaning ‘potter’ in English. Over time, it has corrupted itself to be labelled Kumartuli. Western literature referring to the Pals as ‘kumars’ is incorrect. “Tuli” is a Bengali word that roughly translates as ‘a small space’ or ‘place’ where the potters stay. So, the word ‘Kumartuli.’ Call them what you may – potters, idol makers or artistans, their work is the same, handed over from one generation to the next.

Today, the workshop area of Kumartuli in the northern extremes of Kolkata has become a tourists’ paradise and entry tickets have been introduced to keep out the rush which also adds to the kitty of the idol makers of the area. Travel agents have created designer tours of Kumartuli especially during Durga Pooja. The place is an integral part of the city’s cultural history and geographical map. The idol makers now have their own website with dozens of photographic images of the idols they have given shape to. Their organization – Shilpi Kendra was founded by the late Ramesh Chandra Pal, mentor to many idol makers. His son Prasanta Pal now looks after the organization.

Kumartuli's clay model-makers claim their descent from people who made images of Durga for Maharaja Krishna Chandra of Krishnanagar. Many historians opine that the ancestors of the artisans were potters who drifted in during the days of the Raj. Another story says that it was Raja Nabakrishna Deb who brought the Pals to Calcutta. He wanted to celebrate Durga Pooja in honour of the British victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The story goes that he summoned a young Pal family member from Krishnanagar to make the idol for his pooja. Eventually several other well-to-do families wanted to follow the Raja's example. The Pals were inundated with work and began complaining that they had to travel from Krishnanagar. The young man requested permanent residence for himself and his apprentices. His wish was granted and Kumartuli was established in the north of Calcutta as a centre for clay art.

“Every Kumartuli family is rigid about the time, place and quality of the earth picked up from different places in Uluberia, especially where the river flows towards the south. The special kind of straw used for the basic The bamboo comes from Murshidabad and is kept immersed in water near Baranagar so that termites cannot enter the hollows,” said Ganesh Chandra Pal, one of the most senior artisans of Kumartuli. The painting in of the eyes of the Mother Goddess has ritualistic connotations. “We must take a bath and wear fresh clothes before we begin to paint in the eyes. Imagine that when Gopeshwar Pal and Jatin Pal began sculpting, the city did not have electricity; there was gaslight alone to offer light. Water would be drawn on bullock carts, and means of transport were minimal. In fact, the history of Kumartuli offers a glimpse into the history and evolution of the city of Calcutta.”

The field remains male-dominated with very few women practicing the trade. Four prominent women - China Pal, Namita Pal, Shibani Pal and Shipra Ghodui are now firmly established in this art. Namita is placed in Potopara near Kalighat, China lives and works in Kumartuli and Shipra and Shibani have their work units in Andul. Each Durga ‘family’ – Durga with her four children, their vahanas, her lion and Asura - takes around two months to complete and is priced within Rs.5000 and Rs.1.50 lakhs. Orders from abroad must be completed and shipped by April-May mainly through reputed couriers. They are packed in locked, ply boxes. “I was the first among the Kumartuli artists to visit USA in 1970 followed by two trips to London a month before the Poojas,” informed Ganesh Chandra Pal.

Ashok Pal, pushing sixty is differently abled from birth. His two hands are shorter than the normal average, the palms are almost non-existent and fingers are abnormal. He cannot work without help. Yet, his creations of Durga are amazing in their beauty and craftsmanship.. “I used to shape models as a child. I made clay dolls to sell in the market. This did not satisfy me. I began to follow my father and work on bigger idols. “The only problem I face while working on an idol is when I have to sit on a scaffolding to work on the upper part of an idol. It takes me much longer than it would take a physically fit man. My lament is that the government is interested in focusing on high-profile fine arts and not in cottage and traditional crafts like the one we are involved in.” But he sees hope in the future though he is responsible for the upkeep of his family and the workers who work for him.

“We work round the clock to create exquisite works of art. But it sometimes hurts when we see our own creations being destroyed. Our year-long efforts are sunk without a trace” says an idol maker but all the same, he waits for that light at the end of the dark tunnel.