Kolkata has many facets. Trapped within the cliche of an iconic bridge, trams, hand-pulled rickshaws and colonial buildings, it is hard to imagine a slumberous city coming back to life on a five day event of grand celebration. Though North Kolkata, where the city originated, may continue to be a living museum of the olden times, but the metropolis, on the whole, is no longer what you saw in black-and-white Bengali movies.
I have written an extensive photo essay on Durga Puja, and how and why it makes such a very distinctive memory for me. But to get an opportunity to visit the locality that makes the exquisite idols was a fortune that cannot be negated; It is a dream come true for a traveler, a photographer, a story-teller, an artist, and just simply any individual who loves to see something new.
Kumartuli is derived from the the word ‘Coomar-toli’ which literally means the locality of the potters. Why is it called so? Well there is a bit of an history as well lore behind it.
According to the lore, the first kumbhar was brought over to the region from Krisnanagar (Nadia district in Bengal) by Raja Nabakrisna Deb to build a Durga idol to commemorate the worship of the deity in honour of the victory of the British at the Battle of Plassey against the Muslim power of Siraj-ud-Daullah in 1757. Eventually, inspired by the example, several other rich families of the region started giving similar orders to the kumbhar to build clay idols for their respective families. As gradually the demand started increasing, the kumbhar found it a daunting task to travel to and from Krisnanagar to build the idols and requested for a place of residence along with the artisans and other artists to assist in the process of idol making. Thus, as the wishes of the kumbhars were granted, Kumartuli came into existence as a centre for clay art in Kolkata. Behind the patronage of the kumbhars of Kumartuli, stands the financial help of several erstwhile wealthy families of 18th century.
History mentions the first military victory of the East India Company for British arms on Indian soil at the Battle of Plassey.
One of the earliest references of Kumartuli is found in the book of HEA Cotton’s Calcutta Old & New. According to Cotton, the newly rebuilt Fort William was situated beside the river and at the centre of the “populous flourishing village” of Govindpore and a portion of the “restitution money” was spent in compensating the inhabitants to settle in other parts of the town notably, Toltollah, Kumartooly and Sobhabazar. It is also mentioned that Holwell, the companys agent, under the direction of the directors allotted separate districts to the companys workmen including Suriparah (place of wine-sellers), Maidaputty (flour market), Colootollah (oil-sellers), Chuttarparah (for carpenters), Chunam Gully (lime lane), Molunga (place of salt works), Aheeritollah (cowherds quarters) and Coomartolly (potters quarters).
As a 300 year old settlement founded by potters looking for a better source of income, Kumartuli may still look like a typical Indian narrow lanes but it has evolved in its size and repute. Flanked deceptively with cavernous workshops, these narrow lanes can be described at best as the nerve centre of sheer ingenuity and creativity.
Most of these workshops are actually family owned and have been in part of a family heirloom. With over 450 workshops located around Banamali Sarkar Street, Kumartuli is known to create close to 4,000 sets of Durga idols every year, some of which are shipped abroad. The idols are always pre-ordered and never sold off-the-shelf. Of course, when it comes to making idols, Durga is not all we Bengalis worship.
Meandering through the street packed with large idols of Durga and her four children in various stages of completion, I came across artisans squatting on the street, kneading the clay or working on smaller idols or focusing on the details that goes into each model.
With the permission of the shop owners and the artisans, most of these pictures has been clicked. But the most memorable aspect of the whole place was how easy it was to converse with them, especially when I was familiar with the native language and I took the time to ask them few simple questions.
A typical Kumartuli idol, as I was informed, has the distinction of being environmental friendly since they are created using bamboo, hay and clay as a raw ingredient – the bamboo serves as the skeleton and hay the flesh. Once the structure is ready, it gets a skin of entel maati, a sticky variety of clay procured from the riverbed of Hooghly, also known as ‘ganga-mati’ or the soil of the river Ganges. Once it dries up, the finishing touches are given with bele maati, a finer variety of clay which also comes from the river. The soil also has another important aspect. The soil from the river is mixed with a handful of soil from the doorstep of a prostitute with her blessing also known as ‘vaishya-mati’. Most people I spoke to abided by the tradition and mentioned it as being a ritual to include all members of the society in the puja or even purging of their (prostitute’s) sins. It is an integral part in the creation of the Durga idols and no idol is created without this soil. Some of the artisans however contradicted this by stating that only the idols belonging to big and renowned pandals are made using the punya matti. To read more about punya matti, you have to trace few steps back to my earlier post.
Once the sculpture has been covered in the second layer of clay, it is then left to dry till it develops a slight crack. Then it is covered with a thin cloth and a final round of sculpting take place before it is painted. The paint is usually mixed with the flour of tamarind seeds, which lends it a gummy texture, thus helping to hold the sculpture better. It is then decorated with various pieces of fine cloth and accessories. There are various styles of decorating a Durga idol, and most of it is based on what a customer wants. Some of the well known decoration types are: Bangla, Art Bangla, and Dhakershaaj – where idols are decorated with fine white Shola or Indian cork made from the Sholapith plants found in marshy areas. A large number of sculptures are adorned with real clothes, while some have clothes sculpted on them and then painted.
The entire composition clearly differentiates it from the idols of Lord Ganesh that are seen during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Mumbai., which are predominantly made out of Plaster of Paris.
What impressed me more was the level of dedication that existed among the artisans. No amount how much we gawked and asked questions and flashed our camera, they had the patience and focus to carry on with their work without any fault.
It was a completely irrelevant matter for them that each and every one of their creation will end up in a display where thousands of people are going to gape and gasp in admiration for consecutive five days with folded hands and silent prayers on their lips. All that mattered to them was that by making these gods, they are earning their means of survival. The end result may be a God is majestic grandeur, but right now it’s simply a structure that is being molded from hay and clay
Where is Kumartuli?
North Kolkata. The main location is Banamali Sarkar Street.
How to Get There?
It’s easiest to take a taxi (it will take around 30 minutes from central Kolkata) to Kumartuli. Otherwise, buses and trains go there. The nearest railway station is the Sovabazar Metro. Sovabazar Launch Ghat (alongside the Ganges river) is also close by. Taking a walk to the riverbank is worthwhile, as you’ll get to see old Gothic & Victorian style mansions. From there you can get a boat back to central Kolkata.
Tours to Kumartuli
Prefer to go on a guided tour? Check out this special The Goddess Beckons tour offered by Calcutta Photo Tours, and also the Kumartuli walking tour in this guide to Kolkata walks. I wouldn’t exactly recommend them since we traveled there by ourselves, without any restriction or hassle.
When is the Best Time to Visit?
Idol making for various festivals happens mostly from June to January, but the peak season starts from June on wards. The frenzy of activity is at its prime prior to 20 days before the Durga Puja festival commences.Traditionally, the eyes of the Goddess are drawn on (in an auspicious ritual called Chokkhu Daan) on Mahalaya — around a week before Durga Puja starts, something that can be considered as a privilege to see on a first-hand basis.