In the narrow lanes of Kumartuli in north Kolkata, barely wide enough for a hand-pulled rickshaw to pass though, the only people you will usually meet are the Kumars – the idol-makers of the city. It is from here that idols of Goddess Durga and other deities make their way into Kolkata every year.
Karthik Paul has a workshop here, a shed really of bamboo and plastic sheets, called 'Brajeshwar and Sons' (named after his father). He tells us about the long and layered process of making an idol. Various mixes of soil like Gangamati (mud from the banks of the river) and path mati (a mixture of jute particles and Ganga mati ) are used during the different stages of making an idol.
As we talk, Paul is moulding the face of Lord Kartik with wet clay and detailing it with his expert hands. He uses a paint brush and chiyari, a hand-polished sculpting tool made from bamboo.
At another workshop nearby, Gopal Paul has prepared a glue to stick a fine towel-like material onto the clay structure, to give it a skin-textured finish. Gopal is from Krishnanagar of Nadia district, around 120 kilometres north of Kolkata. Many of the workers here – all men – are from the same district; most of them stay in quarters in the same area provided by the workshop owners . The workers are hired months before the peak season. They work in eight-hour shifts, but just before the autumn festival these artisans work through the night and get paid for the overtime.
The first potters in Kumartuli migrated from Krishnanagar some 300 years ago. They stayed in the then newly-forming Kumartuli for a few months, close to Bagbazar ghat , so that clay from the river could be procured easily. And they worked in the homes of zamindars, making the idols at the thakurdalans (demarcated areas for religious festivals inside the zamindars ’ residential premises) for weeks before the Durga Puja festival.
Before and during the partition of Bengal in 1905, highly skilled artisans from Bangladesh – from Dhaka, Birkampur, Faridpur – made their way to Kumartuli. With the decline of the zamindari system after India’s Independence, thesarbojonin or community puja became popular. This is when Maa Durga shifted out of the cramped thakurdalans to the wide pandals on the roads, with elaborate and separate backdrops for the goddess and other idols.
Durga Puja is the biggest festival in West Bengal. It starts with Mahalaya, usually in late September- early October. On this day, thousands offer prayers to their ancestors at the banks of the Ganga (locally, the Hooghly) in a ritual called tarpan . The inauguration of the idol takes place on the days of Choturthi, Panchami or Shasthi. The main puja goes on for three days – Maha-saptami, Maha-astami, Maha-nabami. The puja rituals are long and detailed. After the three days, on Dashami (the last day), many in Kolkata offer an emotional farewell to the goddess by immersing the idols at Babughat and other spots on the Hooghly.
At his workshop in Kumartuli, still giving the finishing touches to an idol, Karthik tells us that he and his workers make the colours themselves. They mix khori mati (a special clay prepared from sea froth) with colouring chemicals and a glue prepared from khai-bichi or tamarind seeds. Tamarind seed powder helps to keep the colour on clay models for a longer period of time.
After a while, the idols are ready, all decked up to start their outward journeys into the city. The dimly-lit studios of Kumartuli will soon say goodbye to their works of art, which will find newer homes in the brightly-illuminatedpandals in Kolkata.
View: 'Journey through Kumartuli' Photo album
This video and story were done as part of Sinchita Maji's 2015-16 PARI fellowship.