You walk through the winding turns and twists of the narrow lanes of North Kolkata. You cross ornate buildings with red-oxide stone floors and green French windows, some persevering while others breathing their last.
And then, as the roads give way to narrow labyrinthine streets covered in sticky mud, your momentary inconvenience dissolves in awe at the sight of numerous lifelike (sometimes larger-than-life) clay sculptures. Rows of heads and arms carved into perfection lie out in the sun to dry, as the artists prepare the skeleton for the rest of the body of what they believe would soon become gods and goddesses.
Amid the buzz of the street hawkers, rickshaw pullers and the incessant camera clicks of enthusiastic tourists, the kumbhars maintain their calm, meditatively working day and night to perfect the form of the human body in pursuit of creating an image of the divine.
Kneading the clay and painstakingly carving intricate details of curves and creases, these are the kumbhars of Kolkata, who, decades ago, found their home on the banks of Hooghly river, in a settlement known as Kumortuli or Coomartolly.
There are more than 450 workshops owned by several families of master sculptors who, for generations, have been creating idols and models for museums and galleries. However, it is the festival of Durga Puja that demands most of the hard work, as orders for idols demand new heights of challenges and creativity every year. It is estimated that each year, the kumbhars create more than 4,000 sets of Durga idols with her entire family members, and many of them are shipped abroad as well.
Origin of Potters’ Abode
Knee-deep in history and traditions, Kumortuli was born when a group of Patuas (potters) from the banks of Ganges migrated to the area which was then a small hamlet. The migration was a result of several socio-political events of the time.
The beginning came with the end of the Battle of Plassey in 1757, after which the British began to build Fort William in the erstwhile village of Govindapur. This decision eventually forced the population to move north to an area called Sutanuti, whereby, the rich decided to set up houses in nearby neighbourhoods of Jorasanko and Sutanuti Hatkhola. While these areas emerged as home to the local rich, including the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in his home, Jorasanko Thakurbari, several surrounding areas developed to give rise to the metropolis of Calcutta (Kolkata).
It was during this time that JZ Holwell, an employee of the East India Company, was ordered to allot separate areas as per the occupation of the communities. The residents of these settlements were to provide their services to the Company, as and when needed.
Thus, among others like Suriparah (settlement of wine sellers), Colootolla (settlement of oil merchants), Chuttarparah (quarters for carpenters), and Ahiritolla (settlement of milkmen), Kumortuli came into existence as the abode of the potters, the patuas.
According to a popular lore, in the early years of idol sculpting, Kumortuli potters did not know how to sculpt a lion (Durga’s pet), as they had never seen one before. All they knew were tigers and horses, and based on this knowledge were inspired to sculpt a horse-like creature with a stout mouth, large teeth and a ferocious look.
That early rendition of a lion is still replicated for one of the oldest Durga pujas of the region performed at the residence of Raja Nabakrishna Deb. The tradition has been in practice for the past 300 years.
Hence, from simple potters who fashioned the river-side clay into earthen pots and utensils, they gradually evolved into master sculptors, creating magnificent idols that often towered over 10 ft in height.
The art of creating gods
A 130-year old colony spread across 5-acres of land is now populated with hundreds of homes with linear rectangular rooms with entrances facing the road. The houses have dark, high-ceilinged, tin-roofed temporary rooms, crammed with rows humongous idols of Durga and her family, on either side, that serves as the workshop of the kumbhars or karigars of Kumortuli.
However, the art involves a number of rituals prior to the actual carving.
It begins in mid-April after a ritualistic worship of Ganesha and Lakshmi on the day of Rathayatra, known as Kathamo puja. This is followed by the worship of the wooden or bamboo frames on which the idols will eventually be cast. These frames that serve as the skeleton of the figures are created based on the style of the idol, for instance ‘ek-chala’ or ‘do-chala’, whereby the idols are set against one or two backdrops, respectively.
The style and frame of the idols vary according to the number of backgrounds, as they are then wrapped with straw and hay to create the muscles and curves similar to a human form. Once the rituals are in place, the tedious job begins.
First, the clay dug out from the riverbed of the Ganges River is kneaded and pounded until the right consistency is achieved. This ‘etel maati’ or sticky clay is then mixed with rice husk and applied all over the straw frame. This procedure is known as the ‘ek mete’, and is followed by thorough sun-drying.
Once dried, the idols begin to show cracks, only to be smoothed by strips of cloth and more layers of soft clay. This step is continued until the artist successfully creates a smooth base.
The next step is known as ‘do mete’, whereby another layer of fine-grained clay, known as ‘bele maati’ is carefully applied to give a smooth and rounded structure to the idol.
More intricate parts like fingers and faces of the idols are cast separately and attached later to the frames using the same sticky mud. The figure then is once again left out to dry.
The completion of the drying procedure then gives way to colouring which begins with a base coat of white water-soluble paint mixed with a thick sticky layer of tamarind seed paste. Several other steps of body colouring using vibrant shades of yellow, pearl, pink, red, etc. follow. The act of drawing the eye is one of the most crucial tasks in the process, and so the most experienced artist usually does that in the workshop.
To make the idols more lifelike, nylon hair, eye-lashes, clothes, ornaments and embellishments are meticulously attached breathing life into the clay sculptures.
Over the years, with the rise in the grandeur of Durga Puja, the art has also evolved. From shabeki idols carved in the image of a traditional Bengali bride to adhunik abstract influences that cater to themed-pujas, the art has come a long way.
Under the flickering light of a bulb, the work of these karigars goes beyond the ambit of artistic expression. While the world stands gaping at the beauty of their creation, for them the art is tradition—a matter of familial pride and survival, which nevertheless is dwindling with time.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)