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Kumortuli’s date with deities and demons

Chandrima Pal | Updated on October 04, 2019 Published on October 04, 2019

Make some noise: While nothing can match the scale and grandeur of Durga Puja, there has been a rise in the decibel levels of other celebrations   -  IMAGES: RAJARSHI MUKHERJEE

Competitive religiosity and hyper-nationalism has cast a shadow over the carnivalesque status of the Durga Puja in Kolkata. Nowhere is it more evident than in Kumortuli, where potters are making idols of gods, gargoyles and spiritual icons through the year

It has stopped raining for a few hours after three grey, nagging days. In north Kolkata’s Kumortuli, home to hundreds of artisans working with clay, it is time for frenetic activity. The artisans use blowtorches to speed up the drying process, and sellers of decorative accessories negotiate with buyers, and labourers buzz around the hundreds of Durga idols being prepped for delivery. Every now and then, people make way as the goddess and her family move from the dingy workshops to the mini-trucks waiting outside — to be dropped off at the numerous puja pandals set up across the city, and elsewhere in West Bengal.

Durga Puja, the defining cultural event in the Bengali calendar, is no longer merely a celebration of the goddess in her unique avatar over four days. It is being branded the “world’s biggest street art festival” by the West Bengal government, with the contagious revelry extending into 10 days, and the makeshift pavilions, or pandals, and the idols they house attaining near-mythic proportions. And it all begins at Kumortuli, in a haphazard cluster of modest residences and workshops, where deft hands and keen eyes create some of the most beautiful clay art that is meant to be worshipped, adored and then immersed in the river on the 10th day.

Kumortuli, or the colony of potters, was created by the East India Company when the city’s neighbourhoods were being demarcated in accordance with the predominant commercial activity. Kumors, or potters, sourced fresh clay from the riverside and made idols of gods and goddesses for the Bengali aristocrats living in the mansions of yore. Over the decades, most of the potters and artisans disappeared. Alongside the few who remained, others from what is today’s Bangladesh joined in to give this neighbourhood its identity. The crumbling houses that stand cheek by jowl are at least a hundred years old. Many of them have been marked unsafe and may well collapse in the next spell of heavy showers. It is a time capsule, where the ebb and flow of the river next door and the sea of humanity that rises and falls at this time every year are the only constant.

But change is in the air. And Kumortuli is remodelling itself to keep up with a world that may have gone a little mad. Alongside a steady business in straw and clay idols of Durga and her family, artisans are now making the most of a growing demand for a range of other deities and demons. Gargoyles and King Kong, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Commandos crowd the studios and workshops, which now remain in business 365 days a year.

Competitive religiosity and hyper-nationalism have played havoc with the already crowded festival calendar in Bengal. Of late, Ganesh Chaturthi has acquired a cult-like status, with politicians currying favour with local clubs that are flush with festival funds.

“Ganesh Puja is big. And it is bound to get bigger,” Tapan Rudra Pal, son of the legendary idol-maker Mohan Banshi Rudra Pal, stresses. The Rudra Pal family moved to Kolkata before Independence from what is today Bangladesh, and has been working in the colony since then. Even today, their idols, known for deep, well-defined eyes and a calm demeanour, are keenly sought by festival committees. Business is good, he tells us, adding that he has already made and sold 40 sets of idols. “It is bound to gain momentum now that there is a slew of festivals coming up, till Saraswati Puja next year,” he adds.

In fact, between August and January, Kolkata now celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi, Vishwakarma Puja, Durga Puja (which started on Friday this year), Lakshmi Puja, Jagaddhatri Puja, Kali Puja and Saraswati Puja — seven major events over six months. Add to it the yearlong demand for Amba or Sherawali, an eight-armed avatar of Durga astride on a tiger, worshipped mostly in North India, especially during Navratri. While none of the other pujas can match the scale and grandeur of Durga Puja, which has attained carnivalesque stature, there has been a significant rise in the decibel levels of the other celebrations, he adds.

 

Tiger-borne: Demand for Sherawali, a Durga avatar worshipped mostly in North India, picks up during Navratri

 

 

The business model

Not everyone at Kumortuli is making religious idols. There are those who are busy with cultural icons as well. Even while some artists are giving the final touches to the eyes of the goddess, draping the saris, or adding tufts of hair to her lion, there are others who are brushing, chipping and sawing away at busts of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, educationist and social reformer, who has been at the heart of a pitched turf war between the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ever since his bust was vandalised during BJP president Amit Shah’s rally in Kolkata in May.

In fact, Kumortuli is giving form to the TMC’s zeal for filling up every inch of public space, including landscaped medians and overflowing footpaths, with fibreglass figures and giant statues of freedom fighters, spiritual leaders, wild animals, cartoon figures, jawans, tribal women and more. This is now a bonafide business model that is bringing in a steady income, the karigars say, while declining to mention who is commissioning these pieces or how much they are earning.

In a dimly lit workshop, covered by thick tarpaulin sheets, a massive sphere with the ‘Biswa Bangla’ logo is being spray painted. Biswa Bangla is chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s pet project, an exercise in rebranding Bengal — bringing together artisans, self-help groups and small farmers under one label — that she had undertaken when she assumed office. Now, in this season of reclaiming her political ground, and to reassure her majority voters, Banerjee has been practising her own version of BJP’s statue culture. And Kumortuli is not complaining.

But not everyone is rejoicing either.

Ganesh Dinda, who runs a small shop selling religious showpieces made of shola (the creamy white cortex of a spongy plant) and clay, is unhappy with the business. “Every year I get bulk orders from pandal decorators and brands that put up stalls around the pandals. This year there is nothing,” he says.

Lacklustre: Ganesh Dinda, who runs a small shop selling religious showpieces made of shola, is unhappy with the business this year

 

While the demand for traditional shola decorations may have dwindled, thematic pujas have created a market for other forms of handicraft made of leaves, recycled junk, terracotta, mirror work and so on.

Dinda blames his losses on the “fear stalking” the puja organisers, most of whom have deep political ties. “The major committees were all about black money. Now with the (Central) agencies hot on everyone’s heels, no one is willing to spend,” he says. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the income tax (I-T) department have in recent times launched a massive crackdown in Bengal, probing the finances of several ruling party leaders and their friends. A few prominent puja committees had also received letters from the I-T department, asking for details about Tax Deducted at Source (TDS) for payments made or received, leading to panic and massive cuts in puja budgets. “How do you show TDS when 99 per cent of your transactions are in cash,” asks a workshop owner.

Sensing the anxiety, the CM had in August met organisers and assured them that they would not have to pay income tax, and announced yet another dole of around ₹25,000 for each committee, besides discounts on electricity bills and firefighting systems.

But the fear is palpable, as the BJP has been pushing hard for an inroad into what is possibly the last TMC stronghold in the social and cultural realm, amid its steadily weakening hold over colleges, universities, the film and television industries.

Caught in the political crossfire, and battling an economic slowdown, many organisers are playing safe. Some of the artisans say they are seeing a dip in the demand for ‘thematic’ pujas, especially among those who have lost political patronage and corporate sponsorship. Theme pujas had, of late, become a status symbol, with rival committees resorting to elaborate, artistic, futuristic and surreal pandals and lighting to command money and surging crowds. Celebrations, even the most in-demand artists concur, are decidedly muted this year.

“When other people start counting your money, you know you are in for trouble,” Dinda says.

But it is hard to believe in doomsday talk when the air is electric with anticipation. We meet a little girl who’s in Kumortuli with her parents to look for a “small and sweet Durga Thakur” to carry back home. A bunch of foreigners gapes at the sheer artistry on display. Photo-walkers and Instagrammers look for the perfect light.

At arts college graduate Soumen Pal’s workshop, his team paints a stunning blue-and-red Durga inspired by Tibetan aesthetics. Cries of “side side side” go up every now and then, as labourers hoist a rotund Ganesh in the air or haul a towering vintage-style Durga idol onto a waiting truck. We look at the maze of wires hanging dangerously low, the skinny alleys flanked by crumbling residences and chaotic workshops, the compact fibreglass Durga idols waiting to be shipped overseas and realise we are in the heart of a unique ecosystem that has been both resistant to change and given it shape.

Chandrima Pal is a freelance writer based in Kolkata

The account book
  • There are more than 4,000 Durga Pujas in Kolkata and over 28,000 in Bengal, across clubs, condominiums, residential colonies and private residences.

 

  • The cost of a small, traditional, ready-to-instal Durga idol (3x8 ft) is around ₹30,000. Customised or thematic Durga idols and the taller ones are priced around ₹1 lakh or more.

 

  • The cost of pandals ranges from a few thousand rupees to a couple of crores, depending on the size, theme, and lighting and other decorations.

 

  • A 2013 ASSOCHAM report pegged the value of Durga Puja celebrations at ₹25,000 crore, and projected a compound annual growth rate of about 35 per cent.

 

  • A puja committee in the heart of the city’s gold jewellery district, Santosh Mitra Square, is using 50 kg of gold sheets to adorn a 13-ft Durga idol, her lion and Mahishasura. The idol, valued at about ₹18 crore, will be installed in a replica of the Sheesh Mahal, built over three months at a cost of ₹1 crore. The gold is being provided by a jewellery brand from Bengal, and will be on display only during the four days of worship before the immersion.

Published on October 04, 2019
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