“I have not received any order for a Durga idol until now because of corona. But I have made a few on my own. I hope they sell,” said Tapas Pal of Krishna Studio in Kumartuli, the historic neighbourhood of potters and idol makers in north Kolkata. “You know me for more than eight years,” he added. “Have you ever seen my studio without idols in the middle of June?”
By that time, the roughly 450 studios in Kumartuli (registered with the local artisan's association) should have been crammed with bamboo-and-straw frames, on which clay is applied and the image crafted. The idols are decorated with paint and ornaments just a few weeks before the Durga Puja celebrations commence in October. (See Journey through Kumartuli.)
These preparations begin by March/April every year. But the Covid-19 pandemic has held up the schedule in Kumartuli this year. “It’s a horrible year for us. Our losses started mounting from April onwards. First, idols of household deities like Goddess Annapurna remained unsold during the Bengali new year [Poila Baisakh, on April 15 this year]. The entire colony produced about 100 idols, but only 8-10 sold. All the investment is lost. Now I haven’t yet received any order for Durga idols,” said Mrityunjay Mitra, who has been making idols for the last 20 years.
Like him, potters have been crafting clay idols of Goddess Durga in Kumartuli since the 18th century, when rich landlords and merchants of Kolkata started commissioning them for the annual Durga Puja celebrations in their households. Most of the craftspeople were originally from Krishnanagar town in Nadia district; they migrated and settled in Kumartuli, on the banks of the Hooghly River in north Kolkata, when demand for their craft began to grow in the city.
When I reached this landmark potters’ quarter on June 18, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation was clearing a tree that had fallen on May 20, when Cyclone Amphan had stormed the city. The otherwise bustling locality was silent and most of the artisans’ studios were shut. The few that were open didn’t have any idol in the works. Broken and unfinished statues of deities were lying about on the streets. It was unlike any June of the past years. Shops selling ornaments for the idols were open, but there were no customers.
The artisans I met in Kumartuli told me that their collective business was worth Rs. 40 crores in 2019. A major chunk of it came from selling the Durga idols. They make statues of other deities too, and are sometimes commissioned to make clay figures for films. Some of them also make clay pots and utensils. They were hoping for a growth in sales this year – but that was before the Covid-19 pandemic brought things to a standstill.
Puffing a bidi, Mrityunjay told me that many of them had expected to receive orders on the day of the Jagannnath Rath Yatra – celebrated on June 23 this year – which is considered auspicious for commissioning Goddess Durga’s idols. “But I am doubtful,” he said. “Even banks don’t think we are a profitable business anymore. No one is offering us [short-term] loans. We have to invest around Rs. 7 lakh [every year] from our pocket, which is locked in for eight months [March-October]. So, we have about four months to earn and the whole year to survive on that. How will it be possible this year?”
The Durga idols made by the potters vary in size and price. A simple, 6-feet statue for a household sells for about Rs. 30,000. Taller and more elaborately decorated idols are commissioned by pandals for community worship in neighbourhoods across the city. About 10 feet tall on average, these are priced between Rs. 1 to Rs. 2 lakhs.
Kartik Pal, a veteran idol maker, received a few orders for the Rath Yatra. “They are for household pujas. But the big ones [pandals] are keeping quiet,” he said. “I’m hopeful that things will change from today. But it won't be like previous years, for sure.”
Pal may be right. Nimai Chandra Paul, who heads the committee that hosts a big pandal in Kumartuli every year, believes that the potters will incur losses this season. “We used to have a budget of Rs. 30-40 lakhs. The funds came from mostly corporate sponsors. None of them has shown interest this year. We had advanced some money to an artisan, but then cancelled the order,” he said. Paul’s committee has decided to celebrate with a much lower budget this year. “I am sure that other big budget-committees will also do that.”
The artisans have other problems besides a lack of orders. “The daily-wage earners [who assist the idol makers] can’t come to work because trains are not running. They come from faraway districts. Plus, prices of raw material have gone up drastically, by almost 30-40 per cent, because of the lockdown and Amphan. Where is the chance for us to recover losses?" wondered Kartik. Seated next to him, Mintu Pal said that they were thankful that puja committees had supported the Kumartuli artisans with rations during the Covid-19 lockdown and after Amphan.
“The beautiful ornaments you see on the deities are made in the villages of Nadia and Hooghly districts,” said Maheen Pal. “Their makers are jobless too. About 60-70 families are involved in manufacturing the artificial hair for the idols. They have taken a hit too. The mud for the clay is sourced from the South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas and Maldah districts. It arrives by boat. The wage-workers who transport it have no income now.”