Men giving birth to Goddesses in Kumortuli

Durga Puja transforms Kolkata into one of the most energetic and colourfully festive hot-spots every year. But take a peek behind the pandals, and you may see idolmakers gasping for breath after months of frenetic effort.

September 23, 2017 08:39 pm | Updated 09:02 pm IST

Kumortuli's 200-sq.ft studio-home shacks are chock-a-block with a host of clay sculptures, some ferocious, some benign, all sublime. | Sreedeep Bhattacharya

Kumortuli's 200-sq.ft studio-home shacks are chock-a-block with a host of clay sculptures, some ferocious, some benign, all sublime. | Sreedeep Bhattacharya

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Since the mid-eighteenth Century, Gods have cohabited with humans in the alleys of Kumortuli (land of potters). Corporealising the divine in this artisans' nook of northern Kolkata is a tradition that is as old as the history of the city. Come Durga Puja, the preparations are at their peak. 'The Mother', in her melodramatic demon-killing-moment, is moulded into a pratima (image/idol) that can be worshipped.

Way before the festivities commence and cast their weeklong spell over Bengal, craftsmen work hard to get the idols ready on time. Monsoon showers typically delay the process of drying in the dark and narrow alleyways of Kumortuli around this time of the year. But tender touches, painstaking effort, and fine strokes convert the shapeless clay into an icon of empowerment, if only for the body to crumble and dissolve into the riverbed upon immersion, before the cycle is repeated next year.

The raw smell of clay and dampness engulf you as you get close to the colony. A five-minute stroll from the Shobhabazar metro station in the Northern part of the city opens into rows and rows of lanes strategically abutting the Hooghly — the river is the source of the clay, and also a route to fetch bamboo and husk, which form the skeleton of the idols — where you see hundreds of artisans tirelessly at work.

Bamboo sticks are wrapped with tight layers of husk and then covered with layers of clay. Etel maati (the sticky soil) from the Hooghly is essential for the structure to hold together. During the process of initiation, clay from the river is mixed with a bagful of soil collected from the thresholds of houses inhabited by sex-workers . This is believed to be an age-old societal gesture towards those marginalised due to their profession, to make the ostracised feel included. That soil ( beshyadwara mrittika ) is also considered to be very pure, as the clients visiting them are believed to leave their virtues there before entering the house of vices.


Masterful finesse perfected over generations endows these idols with an enchanting realism. Mixing, shaping, patting, trimming, chipping, painting — it is a fairly lengthy and complicated process. As intrusive photographers peer over their shoulders and gaze at the work, artisans click their tongues in annoyance at the distracting hindrances of the digital boom.

The organic cycle of creation continues throughout the year although it reaches a frenzy two or three months before the Durga Puja. One of the artisans, while taking a break to supervise the drying sculptures, remarks, “We get orders from several countries. July, August, September are crazy months. 400 workshops end up making more than 5,000 idols in this time span.”

Moulds are used to make the heads that are later affixed to the body. Delicate works are done manually with brushstrokes and hand pressure. Painting starts much later after the clay dries up. Clothes and jewellery are often added just before the dispatch.

The hundreds of shacks in Kumortuli double up as studios and homes. The spaces are cramped — mostly between 150 and 200 square feet each with temporary roofs and plastic sheds. No more than ten idols-in-the-making can fit in a studio. It is quite a surreal feeling to be surrounded by larger-than-life impressions of the human and animal form, often ferocious-looking.

Much in sync with the contemporary popular imaginations of masculinity, the Mohishashur (the demon) has acquired six to eight packs over the last ten years or so. Also matching up to the notions of ideal-body-types, the female clay figures have slimmed down.

The popular icon, in general, has gone through tremendous transformations in response to the consumerist urges of the nation in the post-liberalisation era. From the advent of big budgets to the involvement of corporate endorsements, to the omnipresence of the devi in commercial ads, the mother remains the most popular ad-icon this season, casting her spells beyond the simulated decorations and lighting experiences around the pandal façade.

Chokkhu daan ’ — the painting of the third eye — is executed by the senior-most expert in a swift single brushstroke. Eyes and fingers require special care and flawless touches. Once finished, the clay structure transforms into a most empowering divine force that is nevertheless subject to evaluation, judgments, competitions and prizes to be won in public.

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