The Legend of Kumortuli
The colony of artisans keeps Kolkata's century-old cultural legacy alive
The place is not only known for the most famous artisan colony but is also acknowledged by UNESCO. The name of Kumortuli is spreading rapidly for its artisan legacy.
Even though pandemic,Amphan storm and other diversities, the demand for Kumortuli's innovative artwork is increasing rapidly as its list of supply markets is widening throughout the globe. From Nigeria to Malaysia, Sweden to Johannesburg, Washington DC to London , today, Kumortuli's markets among the non residential Indians are spread across various distant lands, including the US, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
Every year, during the time of Durga Pujas, handcrafted idols by Kolkata's potters make their way to several puja pandals arranged by Indian communities even who are living abroad, such as Bay Area Probasee Inc in San Francisco, "Antorik" in Dallas, the USA, and London Durga Puja, organised by Indian steel tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal.
In the narrow lanes of Kumortuli in north Kolkata, barely wide enough for a hand-pulled rickshaw to pass though, the only people you will usually meet are the Kumars – the idol-makers of the city. It is from here that idols of Goddess Durga and other deities make their way into Kolkata
Kumortuli in Kolkata, is known the world over as the place where clay idols of the goddess Dugra are handcrafted by artisans who have inherited their trade and kept the tradition alive for ages. Kumortuli is home to potters and artisans who work through the night to finish the clay idols that will soon be sent out across the city in time for Durga Puja. Many artisans also export the idols on demand.
Filled with the rich smell of wet clay, the essence of Kumortuli is its old world charm, which captivates the visitors. It's magical to watch master craftsmen conjure the deities one by one. Though Kumortuli has been in existence since the inception of the eastern metropolis, its fame as the world's biggest idol market gained prominence in the era of Sarbojonin Durgotsav or community Durga Puja. This UNESCO World Heritage site, the abode of over 400 idol makers and their families, is nestled in the labyrinths of North Kolkata's Sovabazar-Bagbazar area, close to river Hooghly.
Even though pandemic, the Amphan storm and other diversities, the demand for Kumortuli's innovative artwork is increasing rapidly as its list of supply markets is widening throughout the globe. From Nigeria to Malaysia, Sweden to Johannesburg, Washington DC to London, Kumortuli's international market is spread across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
Every year, as Durga Puja approaches, idols handcrafted by Kolkata's artisans make their way to several puja pandals across the world. The biggest celebrations are organised by Indian expat groups, such as Bay Area Probasee Inc in San Francisco, "Antorik" in Dallas, and the London Durga Puja, organised by industrialist steel tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal.
In the narrow lanes of Kumortuli in north Kolkata, barely wide enough for a hand-pulled rickshaw to pass though, the only people you will usually meet are the Kumars, the clay artisans, who make all the idols.
We met sculptor Amalendu Pal, who has a workshop here. It is a shed made of hay, bamboo and plastic sheets. It is well known in the area by its official name 'Pal and Co.' Pal shared the elaborated and layered process of making each idol. A blend of soils such as Ganga mati (mud from the banks of the river) and path mati (a mixture of jute particles and Ganga mati ) are used during the different stages of making an idol.
Amalendu spends extra time creating the hands of goddess Laxmi's idol, expertly moulding the wet clay adding fine detail to the sculpture. He uses a paint brush and a chiyari, a sculpting tool, to add a final polish.
Not far away, at another workshop of Gopal Ghosh was preparing a natural glue to stick a fine sheet onto the clay structure. This process is supposed to give the figure a skin-textured finish.
Gopal is from Krishnanagar of Nadia district, around 120 kilometres north of Kolkata. Most of the workers of Kumortuli are from the same district. The workers are hired months before the peak season and live in quarters next to their workspaces, provided by the workshop owners. They work in eight-hour shifts on regular days, but just before festival season these artisans often work through the night and get paid for the overtime.
The process of making an idol starts with the 'kathamo', a bamboo structure to support the idol. Once the bamboo structure is ready, straw is methodically bound together to give shape to an idol; the raw materials for this come from the nearby Bagbazar market. An artisan applies sticky black clay on the straw structure to give the idol its final shape; the clay structure is then put out in the sun to dry for 3 to 4 days.
The first potters in Kumortuli migrated from Krishnanagar some 300 years ago, say locals. They stayed in the then newly-forming Kumortuli for a few months, close to Bagbazar ghat, so that clay from the river could be procured easily. The sculptors worked in the homes of zamindars, making the idols at the thakurdalans (demarcated areas for religious festivals inside the zamindars ' residential premises). This work would begin weeks ahead of the Durga Puja festival.
During the Bengal partition, numbers of highly skilled migrant potters from Bangladesh flocked to Kumortuli. And with the decline of Bengal's zamindari system, community pujas became popular.
Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, starts with Mahalaya, usually in late September-early October. On this day, thousands offer prayers to their ancestors at the banks of the Ganga (locally, the Hooghly) in a ritual called Tarpan.
The 'inauguration' of the idol takes place on the days of Choturthi, Panchami or Shasthi. The main puja goes on for three days – Maha-saptami, Maha-astami, Maha-nabami. The puja rituals are long and detailed. After the three days, on Dashami (the final day), many in Kolkata offer an emotional farewell to the goddess by immersing the idols at Babughat and other spots on the Hooghly.
At his workshop in Kumortuli, still giving the finishing touches to an idol, Karthik tells us that he and his workers even make the colours themselves. They mix khori mati (a special clay prepared with sea foam) with colouring chemicals and a glue prepared from khai-bichi or tamarind seeds. Tamarind seed powder helps to make the colours stay vibrant for a longer period of time
After a while, the idols are ready, all decked up to start their journeys into the city and beyond. The dimly-lit studios of Kumortuli will soon say goodbye to their works of art, which will find newer homes in the brightly-illuminated pandals across the country, and abroad.