Behind the archetypal image of Durga during Navarathri on the street corners of Kolkata or Mumbai is months of hard work by devoted artisans, men and women who give shape to divinity... KANKANA BASU in Mumbai and ANANYA DUTTA in Kolkata.
In a ramshackle old shed situated in a narrow lane of suburban Mumbai, 46-year-old Vishwanath Pal is having a close brush with divinity. His muddy fingers are deft as they pat into shape a limb of the 10-armed goddess Durga and the sureness of his touch arises from an expertise borne out of long years of practice. With less than two weeks to go before the Durga Puja celebrations, there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the city and a hundred odd half-finished idols wait for the idol maker’s expert touch. This is one place where even the gods have to stand in queue, waiting for human hands to deliver them to a state of completion.
Pal, who heads a team of 25 artisans, has been making idols for the last 17 years. His father, one of the early migrants from West Bengal, made idols for Mumbai Bengalis for 40 years before passing on the family profession to his son. “I started assisting my father when I was barely 10. Idol making, as I discovered very early, is a lot of hard work. It requires finely honed skills, a strong sense of aesthetics, concentration and a deep commitment to the craft,” says Vishwanath.
In Kolkata too, it is a scene of frenetic activity. Workers scurry about the studio at Kumartuli in north Kolkata, a colony for artisans. One has to weave, almost squeeze, one’s way through the imposing idols of Durga, Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati that are lined up in various stages of completion. There are more than 50 sets in all, cramped within the confines of a 10 by five feet room.
There are those still wrapping fistfuls of straw with taut strings around a bamboo frame to give the basic form to the idol. Among them are a few adding thick layers of wet clay in smooth long strokes, giving shape to a human form. Others wield their brushes defining painstakingly the finer lines of the brow, cheeks and lips. And there are the ones perched precariously on stepladders applying the first coat of paint on the idol.
“The crowds are waiting in anticipation to know what will be in style this year,” says Shashi Pal, who hails from a family of idol makers and can trace the trends in the craft from as far back as the early 1940s.
For this year, Shashi Pal predicts that the traditional ek chal chitri (bringing the idols of Durga and all her children within the same frame) will be the rage. Earlier all the statues would be united within the same frame, a style used by the traditional household pujas even to this day to illustrate strong familial ties.
For the idol maker operating outside West Bengal, there is also the added labour of transporting sacks of clay from the banks of the Ganga (a must for idol making) and procuring special ornaments and embellishments from the artisans of Kolkata, all of which involves a good deal of effort and co-ordination. “But for us, it’s a labour of love. I can never fully express the joy and satisfaction I feel when I see the deity in all her/ his glory being prayed to by hundreds of devotees. The metamorphosis of a dull lump of clay to a vibrant throbbing god is an incredible process and it’s an honour to be a catalyst in this transformation,” says an emotional Vishwanath.
A day in the life of an idol maker is marked by strict self-discipline, both physical and mental. “We bathe at dawn, get into fresh clothes and say a small prayer before embarking on idol making as often our work require us to stand/ stamp/ climb the idols. We also try and abstain from all worldly addictions in this period,” says Biswajeet Pal, one of Vishwanath’s chief helpers.
Stretched over many months, the procedure of making idols is an elaborate one. It involves creating a basic structure with straw or jute and slapping wet clay onto this. Fleshing out the body comes next followed by paring and patting the limbs into shape. The entire body surface is then smoothed. A coat of flesh-coloured paint is applied and the lips and nails painted a bright red. “The mythological texts describe the goddess as having ‘a complexion like unbeaten gold or morning sunshine and long eyes that stretch till the ears.’ We religiously follow these specifications,” says Vishwanath explaining the distinctive features of the mother goddess. Many intriguing superstitions lurk beneath the surface and one of them is that the expression of the mother goddess is an omen indicating the nature of the year to come. “We try to give a maternal look and a slight upward tilt to the lips of Ma Durga but strangely, sometimes, in spite of all our efforts to make her appear benevolent, she emerges looking angry. An angry expression predicts a bad year,” says a perplexed Biswajeet. The morning of Mahalaya, (the night of the new moon when the goddess is supposed to awaken) is reserved for the auspicious task of painting the eyes.
The ornaments and decoration of the gods is a much debated issue. While some organisers in Mumbai opt for a glitzy look done with multi-coloured tinsel, others prefer the snowy white filigree work done in shola (the pith of river rushes) which, besides exquisite craftsmanship, possesses an ethereal kind of beauty.
In Kolkata, earlier the idols used to be painted yellow and clothed entirely in ivory white pith, but Ramesh Pal painted the idols in pink and clothed them in silks, bringing the image of the deity closer to the human form. “Since then the quest has always been to achieve perfection in depicting the goddess in the human form,” Shashi Pal adds.
A smaller forehead, fuller cheeks, a dimpled chin and narrow eyes are in vogue these days, says Babu Pal. “What is fashionable for the youth gets reflected in the idols as well.”
While one sect of artisans is making the image progressively more human, another group, described by the traditionalists as “those lads from the Art colleges,” are attempting to depict this Puranic myth in abstract styles.
Nabokumar Pal has infused the styles of Patachitra painters, Madhubani artists and the tribals from Basta in creating his idols in the past. This year one of his works is inspired by the paintings of Jamini Roy.
With budgets running into lakhs of rupees and organisers vying with each other for the awards announced by local sponsors, artisans have gone to extraordinary lengths to get noticed. Pandals made exclusively from earthen pots, molasses, playing cards and bamboo were a great hit with the crowds, but for Shashi Pal there are other things that are more important. “When a devotee looks up at the image, unless he is filled with a sense of awe and wonder about the tremendous power of the divine, I have failed as an artist,” he says.
In Mumbai, the film fraternity continues to dominate the Durga puja celebrations. The star-studded Lokhandwala Durga puja organised by Bollywood singer Abhijeet has attained the status of a tourist destination with devotees flocking in thousands from all over Maharashtra. Besides the presence of film stars and a yearly dance recital by actor-danseuse Hema Malini, a chunk of the attraction lies in the dazzling display of decorations and backdrops. “I pay a lot of attention to colour schemes while doing up the mandap. Also, since the gods are not supposed to be removed from our daily problems, I like to bring in a touch of imagination — sometimes I create a political tableau and often, I fall back on the traditional red and gold combination which indicate peace and plenty,” says ace Bollywood set-designer Bijon Dasgupta, who masterminds the Lokhandwala puja decorations every year.
The Santa Cruz puja started by Sasadhar Mukherjee decades back is now ably managed by the younger generation and on any one of the four days, it is quite common to see actors Kajol and Rani Mukherjee distributing prasad to devotees. In the year 1961, the famous film-maker Bimal Roy, tired of travelling all the way to Shivaji Park for the Durga puja celebrations, casually remarked that it was about time the suburbs got its own puja. His loyal band of film-maker friends (Nabendu Ghosh, Subendu Ghosh and others) immediately swung into action and thus was born Pragati in Andheri (the first suburban puja). While South Mumbai residents flock to the old aristocratic pujas at Tejpal, Kalbadevi and Gowalia Tank, the purists in the city continue to retain loyalty towards the Ramakrishna Mission at Khar. “I can’t wait to go puja hopping!” says actor Riya Sen while her sister Raima agrees enthusiastically. Both actors put aside all shooting schedules at this time of the year and are known to plan their puja attire well in advance, down to the last piece of jewellery.
An essential part
While the idol-makers in the city chisel and pare frenziedly, a troupe of dhaakis (traditional drummers) are getting ready to make that long trip from Sonarpur (in West Bengal) to Mumbai. While their personal belongings may be meagre, they will be carrying with them huge drums whose beats comprise an essential part of the rituals. “We make our own drums using treated leather from the local tannery,” says drummer Ganesh Das. Like the idol-makers, the drummers believe in enhancing their profession with prayers and deep emotional involvement. “The money we make in a week’s stay in Mumbai is enough to sustain us through the rest of the year,” says Ganesh. While the highlight of the day is the evening’s aarti for the drummers, they are required to be present all the time as drumbeats are essential every time the priest commences with a ritual. The annual Durga puja is a strange time for the Probasi Bengalis who find themselves oscillating between contradictory emotions. While some of them yearn for the puja fervour of hometown Kolkata, others revel in the uniqueness of a cosmopolitan celebration. “I lived Kolkata for 30 years and Durga Puja was about plugging out everything else and getting together with friends. Living in another city now, things are different,” says writer and award-winning translator Arunava Sinha. Like many others, Arunava sinks into nostalgia at this time of the year and dreams of the day he will go back to Kolkata.
Durga Puja over and the dhaakis can’t wait to board the first train back home. For the idol-makers, however, things are different. There is barely time for a quick obeisance before heading back to work on the next set of idols. Their dark dinghy sheds beckon and the gods stand waiting.