The name ‘Kumortuli’ is associated with the art of idol making and sculpturing, which is deeply connected with the tradition and heritage of Bengali culture. This area in northern Kolkata near the river Ganges could still retain its original essence amidst the world of digitalisation. The Bengali word ‘kumor’ means ‘potter’ who makes clay items. The potters of Kumortuli, transformed the clay from the river Ganges into beautiful sculptures that were sold at Sutanuti Bazar (later Barrabazar) in old Kolkata. Gradually they took the art of making images of gods and goddesses to the city market. Many artisans of Kumortuli are from the Nadia district of West Bengal, India, where making idols or items of clay is a household practice.
The process of clay idol making can be classified into the following stages:
lCreating the basic framework with bamboo and dried straw and then interlacing them to give the shape of the structure.
lMaking of the clay images and then painting the images.
lDecorating the clay images.
This decorating process either involves shola-works or zari-works. According to the artisans of Kumortuli, presently zari-works have larger markets than other decorating items.
Ranjit Sarkar, Joint Secretary, Kumortuli Mritshilpi Sanskriti Samiti, is a shola artisan of Kumortuli. He started to work in the field of crafting from 1990, inspired by his father Gopal Chandra Sarkar, who started their business outlet in 1960. According to Sarkar this art of ‘shola’ had good demand in the market, but after 1996 this craft took a backseat. He said, “The demand for zari works are more than shola art nowadays.” This year, Sarkar is sending six idols of Goddess Durga made of shola art to Dubai, Australia, Sri Lanka, Delhi, Assam, and Bangalore. Most of his idols to be exported are around three feet costing between Rs. 20,000 - Rs. 25,000, keeping the margin of profit at 20%-25%. Sarkar said, “An idol of five feet in shola craft will cost Rs. 80,000, if it is made under one structure (Ekchala) and the cost of same will be Rs. 100000 if it is made under five different structures. We get good orders between July and February.” He added, “I exported idols of Gods and Goddesses to many countries like the US, UK, Italy before, but now the demand for shola art is replaced by fibre made idols decorated with zari works.” Craftsmen like Ranjit Sarkar survive on private customers’ orders. This beautiful craft needs support from the government and authorities to survive as well as to expand.
The artisans of Kumortuli diversified their art works with the needs of the changing times. Mintu Paul is the first exporter of fibre idol from Kumortuli to Cardiff, UK, in 2000. This year, he is exporting fibre idols of different sizes of Goddess Durga and Kali to Cambridge, New York, Singapore, and New Zealand. July to November is the peak season for this particular field of craft. In the off season he gets involved in decorating temples, gardens, places with fibre, inside and outside Kolkata. Around 20 workers are employed under him in this craft. Paul said, “When I started working with fibre in 1994, the cost of raw material was Rs. 40 per kg. But now it is Rs. 140 per kg. The manufacturing cost completely depends on the raw material and labour. The manufacturers of fibre idols like us face problems in both these fields. China is competing with us where raw material and labour are cheaper along with better infrastructure. Last year, I exported around 70 pieces of Ganesh idols of different sizes to Thailand.” He added, “We usually keep profit range within 20%-30%.” He disappointingly said, “We have demand from local market, but do not get structured support from Government for export promotion. We also do not have proper infrastructure.” According to Mintu Paul, every year around 200 fibre idols get exported from Kumortuli.
Faces of iron will
The traditional workshops in Kumortuli did not have place for female artisans earlier. But some females of this heritage area could break the boundaries with will power. Mala Paul, China Paul, and Kakoli Paul, are the examples of such iron will.
Mala Paul could turn her passion into profession. She is an eminent clay artist of Bengal and a teacher of this art. She learned this art from his father. She was told in her childhood that this line of work is very laborious and being a female she would not be able to manage. But when she started idol making after her father’s death, she was hugely appreciated. She was sent to National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum in Delhi to learn more avenues of this art as well as to share her expertise there in Delhi, with government initiative, at the age of 14. Mala Paul received honorary ‘Master Craft Person’ Certificate from Government of India in 2017. Her speciality is in small idols between one foot and two feet, costing Rs. 15,000 - Rs. 20,000. Apart from the demand for her creation in all over India, this year she is exporting her idols to Germany and Chicago. Mala can complete a clay idol in five minutes, starting from the scratch. She said, “My studio is my temple as well as my home. This is the place of peace for me. I feel most comfortable here only.”
Kakoli Paul is a homemaker turned business-woman cum artist. She had to take a hold of her husband’s art and business, when he suddenly died in brain stroke in 2003 during the peak season for this business, to survive with her two young daughters. Since then she is into this line of art. Now she is also an employer of few. She said, “It takes around eight days to complete one idol of five to ten feet, if you count it from the scratch.”
The same way, destiny brought China Paul in this art when her father died in 1994 during the peak season. She was also not allowed to come to the studio though she would fashion some small clay idols/items at home in her young days. She possesses two studios – one in Kumortuli and another is in Bagbazar. She visited China with government support for making one structured (Ekchala) Durga idols. China Paul said, “I am getting huge orders for idols of Ekchala and I am unable to accept some of them.”
This hub of art and artists lacks its deserved basic infrastructure. Any sort of heritage, being the root of the culture and tradition, needs care and nurture. The people of Kumortuli could retain their heritage through their struggle. This area and its artists and workers need more support and care.