Know what I am talking about? No? Well, Kumortuli is a neighbourhood in north Kolkata. This place is particularly famous for its residents who are mostly potters. They supply clay idols of hindu gods and goddesses to whole Kolkata and its surrounding areas. Nowadays many cooperative societies from all over west bengal get idols from them. Few idols fly to foreign countries too. This year luckily I am coming to Kolkata frequently and trying to document the process of idol making. Most of the artisans here learned the trade from their fathers and grandfathers. On a visit I came across a lady artist who is having her workshop in Kumortuli. She gave me lots of input. There are many lady artists in Kumortuli today, as she informed. Creating idols has been an age old tradition for the Kumors (potters). Making of Durga idols is a lengthy and a strenuous process. This is done slowly and systematically by the artisans to create the most exquisite pieces of artistry. An organised and composed team work brings this idol making to perfection, the skeleton structure of bamboo and straw are assembled by one group of artisans while the clay mixing and applications are done by another group and finally the head, palms and feet are done by the most adept artisans. Main raw material of this business is clay, most of which comes from Baghbazaar ghat, which is very near to the place. Clay is processed properly before work. This is a crucial stage because the bonding of the clay is very important. Clay brought from the river has very loose bonding which must have the optimum tightness to begin the work.
The next stage involves applying the clay in multiple layers. An old ritual of collecting the first clay sample from a prostitute’s house is still followed today. The belief stands that a man enters a prostitute’s house after leaving all his good and holy part of soul on the doorsteps. The land outside the house of a prostitute is therefore considered holy and divine. The potters collect clay from there, offer prayers and start laying clay over the bamboo and straw structure.
Coat of clay solution with high percentage of water is applied on the straw structure at first. This process helps to fill the crevices in the straw structure. The second layer is applied with great caution as it is the most important layer giving prominence to the figure. The clay mixed in this step has to be pure. Palms, head and feet which are separately made are attached with the main torso at this stage. Making the head of the idols is done by the most experienced of the team. Moulds are used to make this.
The artisans make the head of the Goddess with fine clay creating each feature with great care and skill. Liquid plaster of paris is poured over it to create a mould. When dried, the mould is then separated from the clay head. This mould is then used to create innumerable clay heads for the idols of Goddess Durga. Finally pieces of cloth soaked in fine clay from the river bed of Ganges is applied on the joints of the figure which develops cracks after drying. This thin coat of clay is applied to strengthen the joints. On completing the clay structure the figure is painted with white earth colour. Finally the whole statue is painted with pink or yellow earth colours. The last earth colour applied is the blood colour. The eyes are then painted and other detailing are done by the main artist. The idols of Durga are then varnished. Hair made of jute is glued and then the idol is dressed and ornamented. As of August first week, most of the workshops are having clay idols, finished and unfinished ones. Some places, they are making the hay structures. Everybody is working hard. Lots of work to complete. Kids are dancing on the streets though. Pujo is coming. I remember my childhood days. So wonderful those were! My father used to get the puja special magazines home; it was the start. From that very day, I used to start planning for the puja days. So many plans for so little span of Pujo! The feeling that puja is coming, is far better than the puja days.
As of September first week, most of the places are adorned by clay idols still. At few places they have started putting some colors, but the number is very few indeed. Most of the artists are happy though, as the major task of making clay idols got almost over. They work all the seven days of the week, on Sundays Kumortuli usually gets many tourists and photographers. Some of the artists looked as if they were enjoying the appreciation in visitors’ eyes. There is only one workshop where the gentleman makes beautiful idols of all shapes made of clay and Plaster of Paris.
I was watching for long time, after sometime it became real hard for me to resist myself from trying my hands on clay. Some other time! Most of the artists had completed their work for the first half of the day.
Younger ones were observing my camera and trying to guess the operation of the dial. I was changing apertures and sometimes for low shutter speed. I was waiting for my 50 mm prime lens. Canon guys were doing much delay in delivering it. Many compositions and different angles were coming in my mind but I could not do with my 18-55 kit lens.
Got my 50 mm Prime lens. As of September 28th, they have almost completed their work. Only 7 - 8 places they are still with clay stage. On the day of Mahalaya, they painted the eyes of Devi.
Puja started on 4th October. Clubs and puja organisers across Kolkata went mad with so many competetions for Best pandal, Best idol, Best Lion.. to give example. I was in Kolkata for the first 2 days and made a trip to Meghalaya after that. In that short span I managed to get glimpses of some of Kolkata’s best pujas. Artists from in and around Kolkata put huge effort to build up the pandals and the whole set up. One has to see these to understand what Puja means in Bengal. There was rush everywhere; but when you get to see those amazing art works you really feel releived. So much effort; and all these would be destructed just after the puja. Sigh*