Come Durga Puja, their creations will hold the entire city of Kolkata spellbound for five days. Yet, for the artisans on the banks of the Hooghly, it is just a means of survival. BISHWANATH GHOSH watches as the gods take shape under their skilled hands...

“You are taking pictures,” Bikash Mondal warns from his perch, “you'll have to give us money to buy tea.” Standing atop a wooden platform in a workshop that is crammed with incomplete clay images of the goddess, the elderly artisan, clad only in a soiled lungi, is preparing to install the head on the tallest of the idols.

His warning is only half in jest. This is, after all, a back-breaking time for the artisans of Kumartuli, one of Kolkata's oldest neighbourhoods, nestled on the banks of the Hooghly, which provides the city its greatest source of joy — idols of Durga. There are barely three weeks before the goddess transforms from a crude structure of clay-and-hay to a beautiful, bedecked Bengali bride and reaches the countless pandals of Kolkata. Distractions, therefore, are not welcome.

It is almost five in the evening when I arrive in Kumartuli. But Rabindra Sarani, its biggest road, bears a deserted look. Most shops are shut. The absence of traffic lays bare the pair of glistening tram lines stretched out on the road. Running on them now, however, are not trams but the occasional taxi and autorickshaw and, of course, the human horses — lungi-clad, weather-beaten men pulling rickshaws with the strength of their bones.

Nerve centre

Is it a public holiday? Not that I know of. Or is it that the shops in Kumartuli close in the afternoon for a post-lunch nap? I'm not sure of that either, though that is more likely. But stroll into Banamali Sarkar Street and the languorous air melts into a buzz of activity. This narrow street is the nerve centre of Kumartuli, flanked by cavernous workshops that are packed with large idols of Durga and her four children in various stages of completion. Wiry artisans squat on the street, kneading the clay or working on smaller idols, ignoring the attention of curious passersby and amateur photographers. That their creation is going to leave Kolkata gaping in admiration for five full days is of no consequence to them — for them making gods is only a means of survival.

The workshops of Kumartuli — there are about 450 of them, many of them concentrated around Banamali Sarkar Street — are run by families that have been into idol-making and pottery for generations: Kumartuli means potters' quarter. During the Puja season, they hire extra hands from across Bengal because making the idols of Goddess Durga is a grand affair. The goddess, after all, does not like to be presented alone in a pandal: she must be accompanied by her four children, not to mention the lion she rides and the curly-haired, muscular demon she is shown slaying. And with new settlements coming up around Kolkata and with Bengalis reaching newer shores across the globe, the demand for idols has gone up over the years. Kumartuli is known to create close to 4,000 sets of Durga idols every year, some of which are shipped abroad. All this calls for a lot of work — work that demands intricacy and, very often, creativity.

The flash of my camera may have irritated the elderly, bare-chested artisan who is trying to fix the head on a 12-ft statue of Durga, but his employer, Nanigopal Rudra Pal, is in a meditative state as he works on the goddess' fingers. Strewn on his table are a set of clay fingers, each large enough to befit the 12-ft idol. He is picking them up, one by one, and delicately running his fingers on them to impart them his masterly touch, to make them look as human as possible. The fingers look very real — and a bit spooky.

“I have been in this business for 45 years now,” says Pal, now 68, without even looking up to see who he is talking to. He is too engrossed creating the nail on a thumb of the goddess. So how many idols is his workshop making this year? “Twenty, may be 25?” I decide to leave him alone, and find someone chatty.

Out on the street, in an isolated corner, one artisan is busy applying clay on the protruding belly of Ganesha. He is Gobinda Dey, who has come from Nabadweep. A typical Kumartuli idol, he tells me, is made of bamboo and hay — the bamboo serving as the skeleton and hay the flesh. Once the structure is ready, it gets a skin of entel maati, a sticky variety of clay procured from the bed of the Hooghly. Once it dries up, the finishing touches are given with bele maati, a finer variety of clay which also comes from the river. The idols are always pre-ordered and never sold off-the-shelf.

“I've been making idols ever since I was 18 or 20,” Gobinda, now 40, tells his story without stopping his work. “It takes about four days to create an idol” — he is talking about the goddess' children. “But Durga's idol takes about a week. Each year I make about 20 idols.” I ask Gobinda if he always wanted to be an idol-maker.

“I didn't have a choice. Lekha-pora to sikhtey paareni (I could not get education). This profession may not give me a good life, but it gives me what I need — two square meals a day. I have no one to look after; my parents are dead and I am single. So I am able to manage,” he says.

Take a guess

So how much does he earn during a season? Gobinda does not give a direct answer: uneducated he may be, but he is clearly aware of the never-ask-a-man-his-salary rule. “It all depends on skill and experience. Some of us get Rs. 1,000, some get Rs. 2,000, some others a little more. Food and lodging are provided by the employer.” A pittance, but, as he says, they don't have a choice.

I saunter along the street: never before have I seen so many idols at the same time. One set of idols sit right next to a public urinal: I guess it does not matter. Until they reach the pandals, they are not gods but just images of clay and hay. Three weeks later, a multitude of people will be standing before the same idols, with their hands folded and a silent prayer on their lips.

I am standing by the Hooghly now, its waters darkening in the rapidly fading light. The bell of the riverside temple rings. A group of labourers, wet from the river, has just deposited a boatload of black clay on the banks. From this mound, the clay will be scooped and taken to the various workshops. Two more clay-laden boats are approaching. All this for five days of festivity, after which, the idols will be consigned to the river. The clay will dissolve and return to where it belongs.

In carnival mode

Kolkata has many faces but during Durga Puja there is no space for anything else but celebration ... and a little bit of sadness.

What you think of Kolkata depends a lot on how you come to Kolkata. If you come in a train and alight at the Howrah station, you will drive into a city that is a prisoner of its long-standing image — the iconic bridge, trams, hand-pulled rickshaws, stream of labourers propelled into a half-run by the heavy load on their heads, pavements turned into kitchen by poor migrants, crumbling colonial-era buildings giving off a whiff of heritage and decay.

But if you fly down to Kolkata and take the Rajarhat Road into the city, you could be rubbing your eyes in wonder. You will tear through a global-era landscape: upscale high-rises, state-of-the-art offices of IT giants, snazzy malls. North Kolkata, where the city originated, may continue to be a living museum of the olden times, but the metropolis, on the whole, is no longer what you saw in black-and-white Bengali movies. Unemployment is no longer a burning issue. There was a time when high school students, during their exams, were asked to write essays on the subject of unemployment. Load-shedding is a thing of the past. Traffic jam, once Kolkata’s best friend, has now become the principle foe of other cities. And Kolkata today has a night life like no other city.

Celebration time

But come Durga Puja and it does not matter what route you take to Kolkata. No matter what your mode of travel, you arrive in a city where celebration is the uniform civil code. From whichever corner you look at it, you will find nothing else but puja pandals, food stalls and a multitude of people out on the roads until the wee hours. It’s carnival time. It’s a religious event, cultural occasion, music season, literary fair, food festival, fashion show — all rolled into one. Many of the popular songs of R.D. Burman that you listen to today were originally recorded in Bengali as part of Puja albums. And the story for many a celebrated Bengali film had been originally written for the Puja-special edition of local literary magazines.

Sober side

There is, however, a gloomy side to Durga Puja. Bengalis, even though they wait for it all year, actually become very sad once the Pujas begin. Even while they enjoy the five days of festivity, they are also extremely mournful about how quickly it is all going to end. On panchami, they realise that only four more days are left. On sashti, it strikes them that just three more days are left. By saptami, the heart is heavy. On ashtami, there is a lump in the throat. By the end of navami, there are tears in the eyes. They are left with no choice but to look forward to the next year’s Puja. It is the looking forward that keeps Kolkata going. As they shout while taking the idols for immersion: “Aaschhe bochhor abaar hobey (we are coming back next year)!” It’s Kolkata’s way of assuring itself that the party is not over yet.