The smell of wet clay from the Ganges

The smell of wet clay from the Ganges, 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 Kumartuli may not ring any bell of nostalgia. However, Kumartuli is not just a place in Kolkata or merely a name; Kumartuli is a manifestation to Bengalis; an emotion. It is synonymous with Durga puja, which has been serving as a cultural identify for the Bengalis for ages. People staggering, crowded narrow lanes, bargaing over the price of the idols and skilled hands carefully painting the eyes of Devi Durga: this is the common scenario of a busy day in Kumartuli. After all, this is the place from where the journey of the idols starts to the pandals of The City of Joy as it prepares itself for its greatest carnival.
The name “Kumortuli” is derived from the original Bengali word ‘kumore’ meaning ‘potter’ in English. “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.
They are indeed a unique community: Artists and businessmen at the same time and the both by birth. From belonging to traditional potters’ family, they say, Kumartuli is almost as old as the 300-plus-year old Kolkata. It is believed that traditional clay artisans from Krishnanagar in the Nadia district of West Bengal setteled here after the introduction of community pujas.
The community pujas has been a great boon for Kumartuli. Almost every locality holds one and that means more idols. But the trend of community pujas has changed. The city hs chanced its character: its culture, people and peoples’ mindset has gone through a lot of changes. Theme pujas has replaced the age old traditional pujas. Modern art has experimented with the form of ‘ekchala murti’; metals and artificial fibers and even glass and bamboo and wood has replaced clay to cope up with the changing scenarios. The world is small and Durga puja is now global. The idols from the narrow lanes of Kumartuli have made their journey beyond borders. Idols has been placed and showcased in museums instead of ‘puja pandals’. Calcutta has become Kolkata; many of the Bengalis prefer to call themselves bongs these days. Hasn’t Kumartuli changed since its inception, with passing time and change in the city’s culture? It has.
The involvement of the clay-modellers or idol-makers in these Pujas has been reduced to a minimum. Though this is one of the few craft cultures that has experienced an influx of new artisans, the medium of craft does not follow the traditional practices but is constantly evolving. The traditional artisans who have failed to adapt to the demands of the changing popular culture of the puja, are experiencing a threat to their art of idolmaking.
These changes have also led to the breakdown of division of labour among the caste, the erstwhile limitation of women not being involved in idol making has gradually changed with the rise of female artists among the clay-modelers who may or may not belong to the potter caste. Individuals having a ritually low status like widows and artisan from other religion like Islam have also made their presence felt, though these are more of a one-off incident than a regular practice.
Thus, this changing economy and industry of today’s Durga Puja raises questions of survival and revival of people from different layers of society who depend either directly or indirectly on the extra income that is assured through the innumerable jobs required for the successful completion of the puja. This is because idol making involves thousands of artisans. While there are the chief artisans along with numerous small image-makers, there are others like the suppliers of raw materials, dressmakers and jewellery designers all of whom form a part of the larger community of the idol makers. While crores are being spent during the festival of Durga Puja throughout whole Kolkata, the question arises as to what ways are the artisans involved and how do they benefit from this annual extravaganza.
Kumartuli is the lagest idol making workshop in the whole world. It is one of the oldest surviving colonies of India. Thus, it is important to dig deep into the present conditions of Kumartuli. Its survival and revival has its own importance and a role to play in the conservation of Bengali culture, heritage and history.
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