Tucked inside north Kolkata, was a place that frequented almost all ‘Things to do in Kolkata’ list and visiting a month before Durga Puja made it an essential visit on our list.
Straw lined roads, criss crossed bamboos and enthusiastic students with cameras, announced the approach to Kumortuli, the potters colony of Kolkata where Goddess Durga takes ‘birth’. The smell of wet clay guided us into a maze of lanes and by-lanes where deft hands moulded clay into divine forms inside narrow confines. Rows of idols in various stages of completion stood inside the dark workshops. A few were kneading clay. Numerous hands were busy shaping the various body parts. Some had moved on to detailing in thin brushes. Somewhere, frames were being hammered. In between the earthy straw and clay filled workshops were small burst of brightly coloured shops selling trinkets, ornaments and weapons shaped out of beads and thermocol. While Durga with her four children, their vahanas, her lion and Asura filled the workspace, newly painted Ganesha’s
occupied the foreground, supplying to the Ganesh Chaturthi demand. A lone spiderman statue lied tucked away on a rooftop. The artists work on the idols of gods and goddesses in the month of April to November and survive with making statues of famous personalities, decorative pieces, etc. for the rest of the year
Unsure if the artisans spoke Hindi or English, we soaked up the available plentiful on our hour long drive to the Place. Bamboo soaked in water, straw bundles and bags of rice husk amidst these work-in progress idols corroborated the basics of the process. Bamboo/Wooden frames form the primary skeleton that are wrapped with straw for the desired form. The Clay brought through the adjoining Hoogly river is kneaded to right consistency and mixed with rice husk. This sticky mix is applied over straw form. This clay and rice husk mix is called ‘etel maati’ and the first clay application - ‘ek mete’. The idol is left to dry. Cracks that appear are smoothened using water and finely grained clay, ‘bele maati’. This second layer of application, called ‘do mete’ is the most time consuming one where idols are cloaked with details and left to dry. The faces of the idols are separately cast and attached to the frames. These finished idols are coated with white base paint and then the majority, usually skin color, followed by the patches for colourful clothing.
The painting in of the eyes of the Mother Goddess has ritualistic connotations, a delicate task, which is often left to the master craftsmen. “We must bathe and wear fresh clothes before we begin to paint in the eyes” quipped a craftsman noticing a close up shot of the Goddess’s eyes on our camera. The painted idols are varnished to retain color. Clothes, embellishments and ornaments finally are added along with nylon hair.
We left contemplating why a place culturing all tourist platforms had very little to pick the tourist pockets.