Recently I visited Kolkata, and as advised by my blogger friends visited Kumartuli in the city. We spent half a day walking around the streets of Kumartuli, and discovered that it is not only about Idol making, but much more than that. Localities close to Kumartuli can educated one about Kolkata and its cultural inclinations. This Photo Journey shares some of the photograph's clicked by TravellingCamera in Kumartuli.
Kumartuli is derived from Coomar-toli, and now every Indian can guess the meaning. This place is the residence of almost all artists who make Durga puja idols, which are used in different pandals in Kolkata, outside Kolkata and even abroad.
If you plan to visit Kumartuli and do photography, please ensure that you buy the ticket from the committee office. A ticket costs Rs. 50/- and then you can freely roam around. I found it a good practice. This way, the committee also makes some money and as a photographer you are not scared that people would say weird things to you. I have had bad experiences shooting in old delhi and remember feeling scared clicking photographs in the streets. Kumartuli photography is becoming popular and many great photographers have captured future masterpieces in these busy streets.
All streets of Kumartuli are full of workshops where Durga Puja idols are made. Different families own these workshops and almost all of them have different styles of making these idols. At a basic level, all these idols look similar except sizes. But when they start making minor changes for the final finishing, the differences start emerging.
There are different stages to the whole process of making Durga Puja Idols. On Akshaya Tritiya, clay for the sculptures is collected from the banks of Ganges. A handful of soil (punya mati) is collected from the nishiddho pallis of Calcutta, where sex workers live, and added to the clay mixture which goes into the making of the Durga sculpture.
First a basic structure is made with Bamboo and jute strings are tied around it to give a basic shape. Then clay is applied and the shape is refined further. An important event is 'Chakkhu Daan', literally donation of the eyes. Starting with Devi Durga, the eyes of the sculptures are painted on Mahalaya or the first day of the pujas. Before painting on the eyes, the artisans fast for a day and eat only vegetarian food.
Kumartuli history is very interesting. When East India Company decided to build new settlement called Fort William at the site of the Gobindapur village, much of the existing population shifted to Sutanuti. Neighbourhoods like Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata became the centres of the local rich. Separate districts were allotted to the Company’s workmen - Suriparah for wine sellers, Collotollah for folks dealing in oil, Chuttarparah became carpenters hub, Aheeritollah - cowherd’s quarters and Coomartolly for potters. Now potters of Kumortuli make gods and goddesses that are worshipped in large numbers in the mansions all around and later at community durga pujas in Kolkata and outside the country.
Streets of Kumartuli are most busy from the month of August till October, although artists start getting orders in April. Most of the artists of Kumartuli are busy throughout the year and they get orders from different parts of the worlds.
When I talked to one of the artists of Kumartuli, he told us some interesting facts about Durga Puja and it's preparations. It seems that different streets of Kolkata have different pandal for Durga puja and a contest is run in the whole city. Best Durga-Puja Pandals are awarded prizes and the local media remains focused on these activities.
I am not very sure, but it doesn't seem that the artists of Kumartuli earn much. Like many other businesses in India, middle men earn the most.
One of the artist mentioned that some of the customers visit them during different stages of idol making and ensure that idols are made as per their choice. Such clients understand this form of art well and have valid comments most of the times. We could see some such clients who were there to ensure that things are working fine or to suggest changes.
It was a brilliant experience to walk through the streets of Kumartuli. After every 5 steps, you see a new workshop working on different kinds of Durga idols. And these streets tell you much more about Kolkata, besides just the idol making process.
While walking thought the streets of Kumartuli, we were wondering about the state of these Artists. It seemed that most of these artists dwell in poor living conditions. There are some popular families in Kumartuli who have been doing this for many years. Popular among them are Mohan Banshi Rudra Pal, his sons Sanatan Rudra Pal and Pradip Rudra Pal, Rakhal Pal, Ganesh Pal, Aloke Sen, Kartik Pal, Kena Pal, who are still reigning figures of Kumortuli. Most of the major clients come to these families who are familiar with the art of idol creation.
Women are not lagging behind. Kumortuli boasts of the presence of some 30+ women artisans, like Minati Pal, Soma Pal, Kanchi Pal, and Chapa Rani Pal. They have been in the business of idol making for a long time. For more, check out this link.
Some of the workshops were working on few project but these projects were huge in scale. Their style and details were also unique. Check out the photograph above and the one shared below. Look at the the details in these photographs.
Have a closer look at this photograph and especially at the garland. This garland is made up of hundreds of art-pieces you see in the photograph below.
Most of these artists have to work late-night during August-Oct. Some of these artists get a lot of orders and they need to work extra to accomplish them with good quality.
Some friends from Kumartuli :) . One of them was following us as we clicked photographs. She used to stop and act indifferent whenever we looked back.
When main structures are in shape, heads, fingers and other detailed pieces are added.
Some of the workshops had already started the coloring process, which is one of the final steps of idol making process.
We also found ourselves wondering whether all the photographers who were roaming down the streets of Kumartuli were distracting to the artists. But we also saw how focused each one of them was. But we do advise that if you plan to visit Kumartuli, make sure you maintain your distance and be careful of accidentally bumping into the idols because they are everywhere. And each idol takes months to make so it is advisable to be very careful while photographing them. At times hands, heads, and garlands are left on the ground to dry and if you are not careful, you may end up breaking something.
Basically it is a cool place to hang out as long as you purchase a pass and generally stay out of the way. So if you are interested, go ahead and explore the place, but remember to respect their boundaries.