As we moved through the bye lanes of Banamali Sarkar Street, the official address of Kumartuli, we marvelled at the artwork being produced before us. It was drizzling and the half made clay idols were covered with tarpaulin. The idols were in different stages of construction and the kumors or artisans were at their work.
Kumartuli or Kumortuli literally means the potter’s quarters. It is said that the first kumor or potter was brought from Krishnnanagar at Nadia district of West Bengal by Raja Naba Krishna Deb of Sovabazar to build the Durga idol. This was done to commemorate the worship of the deity in honour of the victory of the British at the Battle of Plassey against the Muslim power of Siraj-ud-daula. Thus, the tradition of Durga Puja worship started among the rich and influential families of Kolkata. As the demand grew, the potters settled a colony near the banks of Hooghly River at the northern fringes of Kolkata. Thus these potters got a place for themselves where they continued to produce the exquisite work of art year after year and gradually gained a prominent status in the cultural history of Kolkata.
The making of the idols itself is an elaborate process and involves certain rituals. All the idols of the deities are cast using the clay of the river Ganges or ganga mati. This soil is mixed with a handful of soil from the doorstep of a prostitute with her blessings. Durga Puja is thus a festival for all – the ingredient of making the idol of the Goddess comes from the people who are ostracized in the society.
As we moved along the narrow alleys of Kumartuli, we saw the Goddess coming alive in front of us. The smell of the wet clay, the colours being given to the idols seem to announce the arrival of the festive season.
Most of the artisans are old working in their small dimly lit rooms. They have been making the idols for years. But the future seems bleak. Most of the new generations are looking for alternative career options. The older kumors laments the losing of their legacy. They reminisce about the past where the kumors were invited by the rich families to cast Durga idols. Times have changed. There are not many families doing Durga Puja. Now the Puja is more theme oriented. Also the sharp rise in price of the raw materials has hurt the idol makers adversely.
Nowadays Durga Puja celebration is gaining prominence among the Bengalis outside West Bengal as well as from abroad. In this scenario, the demand for the idol of the goddess comes from other states of India as well as from abroad. The Kumors have now become tech-savvy and many of them are having websites of their own.
With the advent of Mahalaya, most of the work is completed. The painting of the eyes of the idol or “Chokkhudan” as called in Bengali is another auspicious tradition among the potters. It is done mainly by the eldest potter of the family. With the idols being made, they are now ready to move to their temporary abode of a week before being immersed in the waters.
Kumartuli is a place of the very gifted and talented artisans. As the muddy and experienced hands of the artisans so beautifully craft every nuances of the Goddess with much care and respect, we can simply watch them awe-struck. Indeed these craftsmen are blessed to bring alive the Goddess with such dexterity.
Kumartuli is situated in Northern part of Kolkata very near to Bagbazar area. You can reach Kumartuli by hiring a cab or any public transport and it takes 25 to 30 minutes from Sealdah railway station.
Alternatively, you can come to Bagbazar Railway station using circular railways and take a walk along the river Hooghly for 10 minutes before reaching Kumartuli.
Nowadays, you have to buy ticket to take photographs of the idols. This is in a way a good practice. You can take pictures without being disturbed and the money can be used for the betterment of the artisans.