Not Allowed to Enter Workshop as Woman, Kumartuli’s Mala Pal Now Sculpts Success

Meet award-winning artisan Mala Pal from Kolkata’s famed Kumartuli locality, who is training several young people in idol making to keep an old art form from dying.

Conventionally when one thinks of school, it usually has to do with academics. But Mala Pal (52) from Kolkata’s famed potter’s quarter Kumartuli has started a rather unique paathshala (school) where she has been teaching the skills required to make idols for the last six years.

The narrow lanes of Kumartuli are the centre of the magic and frenzy of durga puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal. It is from here that the potters begin creating and sending hundreds of Durga idols to different parts of the city and suburbs. 

The locality gets its name from the potters, also known as kumars or kumbhakars, who some say made this area their home back in the 1700s.

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Many traditional potters continue to work from their homes here. 

While this profession, like many others, is skewed when it comes to gender representation. As per the Times of India, until 2016 there were only four women idol-makers in Kumartuli. This number included Mala, who has paved the way for not only herself but also other women to thrive in the profession.

But for a variety of reasons including lack of pay, many of the younger potters are choosing not to continue in this profession today. 

“Even though many of the youngsters are so talented when it comes to taking this art form forward, they are choosing not to continue with it. The thought of letting this beautiful legacy and art form die pushed me to start this paathshala,” Mala tells The Better India.

When opportunity knocks

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At her paathshala, Mala trains 34 students in the art of idol-making in three batches. She herself started sculpting from the age of 14 after the death of her father, also a sculptor in Kumartuli.

Ironically, while he was alive, Mala was not allowed to enter the workshop. Despite having a natural flair for working with clay, she entered the workshop only in 1985, after his death.

She began by making small idols and assisting her brother Gobindo Pal.

“It was by sheer chance that I got to complete an idol and deliver it to the client one day. My brother, who was to work on it, got caught up elsewhere due to bad weather. With a deadline looming large, I took on the work as a challenge and completed it. Everyone was happy with the outcome and that was when I started getting noticed,” she says.

As the recipient of several awards and accolades including district and state level recognitions, Mala was also invited to work with the National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum, popularly known as the Craft Museum in Delhi. She specialises in miniature, foldable Durga idols that are exported to Europe, Australia and Canada. These idols are then installed in the pujo pandal.

It was after this stint in Delhi that she was recognised as a Shilpi (master artisan) within her own community of potters.

A school with a difference

With more and more youngsters moving away from this profession, Mala says the need to teach this art to people from outside the community has become extremely important. 

“In my class, I even have students as young as seven and eight years of age. They come because they are keen on learning. Even if a few of these students decide to take this up professionally, I will feel accomplished,” she says.

Currently, Mala holds classes in three batches, and each session lasts for an hour. With a one-time admission fee of Rs 2,000 and monthly fee of Rs 1,500, learning under Mala is a three-year commitment. What’s amazing is that students from different academic streams have chosen to learn this art form. From a geography student to an undergraduate student of agriculture, everyone is welcome at the paathshala.

While some of her students wish to pursue idol making as a career, a few others are learning just for the sheer joy that it brings to them. 

Speaking about the classes, student Shubham Chatterjee says, “Being a part of this class is very significant for me. I want to be able to learn the art and preserve our rich culture. I see that it is now a dying art form and that makes me sad. I have been learning for a few months and can see the improvement in my skills.”

The students are not only taught the intricacies of making the idol, but also work on making accessories and jewellery pieces that adorn Durga maa. “There is a market for accessories as well. There are many who live abroad who purchase these accessories and jewellery pieces. This way the students are also able to earn from this,” adds Mala.

There is pride in Mala’s voice when she talks about how diligently her students work to create their masterpieces, sometimes working through the night. She knows all her students by name and has also identified their strengths and weaknesses. 

“If they succeed after learning from me, that will make me happy,” she says.

(Edited by Divya Sethu)

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