Kolkata, erstwhile Calcutta, has been in a constant state of economic stagnation for a long time now. The new government, which enjoyed a massive victory over the 35-year-old (as old as the hills themselves) previous government, has done little to help the city break out of the stalemate it is currently stuck with. Make no mistake, the city is still a behemoth, albeit, one on the decline for a very long time. Industries are past their prime, new start ups are virtually nonexistent, jobs are few, earnings are stagnated, the best minds tend to leave the city as soon as they get the opportunity, even the cultural environment is not what it used to be a decade back or so; in short, the city is suffering from the winter blues of Westeros for a really long time now.
There is one time of the year, however, when the city roars back to life. For five days or so, in the months of September or October, the ordinary Calcuttan is in a constant state of euphoria. The streets are alive with thrumming sound of pulsating life at 4 am in the morning, the eateries struggle overtime to feed the massive throngs of people who hop from one location to another to marvel at the creativity of the temporary structures (called pandals) which house the goddess herself, in their best new attire, operating on barely 3 hours of sleep each night (early morning rather), but with an enthusiasm that is so infectious that it makes you giddy with sheer joy.
Welcome to the Durga Pujo week, where the city of joy, forgets it sorrows and revels in its own, unbridled, chaotically poetic self and lives up to its name.
The preparation for the festival takes months. The whole structure has to be conceived keeping fire safety and other norms in place, advertisers have to be visited and re visited to bank roll the entire event, permission of the plan has to be obtained from Kolkata Police and so on and so forth.
And of course, the most important thing- the presence of Ma Durga herself.
The idol makers and artisans of a small dingy block in chaotic North Calcutta called Kumratuli are the ones that make sure that the goddess graces all with her presence. These artists have been engaged in their craft for several decades, some studios spawning over the turn of centuries!
In a photowalk with friend and photographer Kashyap Mitra, we tried to capture the essence of these artisans and their creations.
One of the first sights that greeted us as we entered the small dingy lane that lead up to the artisans studios, were half completed protimas of Ma Durga, Mahishasur and Ganesh and a very camera shy artisan in the background.
Meet Bhavesh Pal. He’s the guardian standing at the gate to Kumortuli Ticketghar. The ticketghar is the place where a photographer can purchase a photo permit ticket or card to take snaps of the idols and artisans at work. He’s been helming this duty for the better part of a decade now along with being an artist of his own studio which was set up by his father.
On being quizzed at the number of tickets being sold, without taking his eyes of his newspaper he says, “We usually have 40-50 photographers purchasing a daily photo permit ticket on weekdays. The number goes up to 200 on Sundays and other holidays.” Folding up his paper and staring into the distance he remarks sagely, “the closer you get to the Pujo, the more is the footfall.”
Here’s what a season’s photo permit card looks like. A daily photo permit slip costs Rs.10, a weekly card costs Rs. 25 whereas a season’s permit costs Rs. 50. All proceedings from these sales are collected and used for the betterment of the artisans.
Ranjeet Sarkar (not in picture), the person in charge of the fund says, “Kumartuli Mritsilpa Sanskrity Samity has been established to help out artisans with the primary objective of healthcare. With the money that we collect, we set up medical camps, where visiting doctors perform the regular medical checkups for free for the artisans. We take special care to set up eye testing centres, because while the limbs create, they have to be guided by the eyes.”
The fund is also used to loan artisans money in time of their need at nominal or no interest.
At the ticketghar, we are greeted by the Tapash Pal (in picture) who promptly agrees to answer the tiresome questions. On the walk to the studio, he wastes no time in filling us with his life story. He is a second generation artist, who has been plying this trade for 23 years at Krishna Studio set up by his father Ishwar Haripada Pal. His studio has contracts with 16 Pujos, few of which come from places as far as Kharagpur (120 odd kilometres away from the city)
When quizzed about his financial affairs, the affable man’s face does fall a little.
“Arthik shomosha to achey e. Ota to eikhane motamoti sobar e achey. Kintu etai pari to etai kori.”
(Financial difficulties are always present. More or less, every artist here is in some kind of financial problem. But this is the only craft we know, so we put our energies in this.)
On being quizzed about his work, he refused to give his name but gave out one of his trade secrets.
Ganga mati aar Uluberia’r Aankle maati diye thakur er much ta toiri kori,’ he whispers softly before turning his attention back to his work.
(I use the mixture of soil of the Ganga (Hooghly) and soil from Uluberia to make the face of the idol)
The wonder briefly tells us that unending rains for the past 7 days have considerably slowed down work and everyone is struggling to finish their idols on time, before rushing off to touch up the moulding.
One of the biggest workshops in Kumartuli, Gora Chand Paul and Sons produces undoubtedly one of the best works here.
Gora Chand Paul and Sons boast of having customer bases stretching to as far as Richmond, Virginia and Dallas, Texas in the U.S. where NRI associations preserve some of their Bangaliana by ordering idols from Kumartuli.
When quizzed about his life, this artist says he has been working over three decades at this studio, has no family and works from 8 in the morning till well past 9 at night. When asked about his dwelling, he shrugs and points at a dusty loft above and goes back to his work.
Another artist (not in the picture) speaks in a tired drawl and wrinkled smile,” Taka poisha to beshi nei, kintu maa er kripa ta shodai achey.”
(Money may not be there, but Maa’s benevolence and kindness gets us going always.)
While the demon has been vanquished eons ago by the mother goddess, the demons of hunger and poverty still linger and prey on most of the artisans at Kumartuli.
It is not difficult to find her workshop, even though the board of her studio is half hidden behind unfinished idols. Everyone knows who China Pal is. Probably the first woman artisan in the whole Kumartuli, she holds her own in a profession completely dominated by men. Over steaming cups of tea, she narrates to us her life story.
She took over the studio following the sudden demise of her father in 1994, just one month before the start of Pujo. She confessed she knew very little about the craft when she started so that served as a hindrance. To top it all, the artists working under her father, Hemant Kumar Pal, had all but given up at a time where work on two major orders was pending. Miraculously, or as ‘Maa er kripa’ as China Pal puts it, she pulled off the job and took over the studio full time. Since then, there has been no looking back for her.
On being asked about her struggle she gets expansive. “The artists did not respect me, the customers were sceptical, some of my father’s artisans left because they couldn’t stand the thought of working under a woman. My own eldest brother objected my taking over the family business as he didn’t want a woman of the family to work as an artisan. But I had no choice; I had to carry on the legacy of my father.”
On being asked on the accolades she has received she beams with pride. “I received the Rajyapal Puroshkar from the Governor of West Bengal in 2011. That has been the crowning glory of my journey so far. I have also been humbled by invitations to be present at the inauguration of some pujos. It feels good to be recognized for your work.”
She, however, stresses, that idol making is still very much a male bastion.
“I still face trouble in keeping my idols outside for lack of space. Everyone does it, but the committee issues warnings to just one person- me. I still don’t understand why me being a woman artisan bothers other people. I work as hard as they do. I have the same skill set; why shouldn’t I make a living like the others?”
She also attributes her success to Maa Durge.
“It is all because of the supreme mother that I have achieved what I have today. I’m very satisfied with the way things have gone and I couldn’t ask Maa for more.”
The hand that lovingly crafts the goddess does not often get enough to eat. But it seldom complains. It is satisfied from working from the month of March right up till the Pujo, steadfast, unwavering in its commitment, seemingly oblivious to the hardships surrounding it.
One slogan, however, always seems to cheer it up.
“Asthey bochor abar hobe.”
(Till the next year, when it happens again…)
Photos copyright: Kashyap Mitra/Youth Ki Awaaz