The fragrance of the blooming Shiuli flower pervading the air is the harbinger of autumn in our city of joy. During this time, in the heart of city, a mesmerizing world comes to life each year. Amidst the bustling labyrinthine streets and vibrant markets of North Kolkata, there lies a hidden treasure known as Kumartuli — a place where skilled artisans weave their magic to bring the resplendent Goddess Durga and her children to life. This unassuming neighbourhood, nestled between Sovabazar and Ahiritola, is the birthplace of Kolkata's most revered deity. It is a hub of creativity and devotion that captures the essence of the city's rich cultural legacy.
For centuries, the festival of Durga Puja has enamored the hearts and minds of Bengalis, becoming a fervent celebration of the divine feminine power. While the streets buzz with excitement over puja pandal themes and holiday plans, the artisans of Kumartuli embark on a mission of their own. In these maze-like narrow lanes, you will find idols lined in various stages of completion as the idol makers transform humble materials into breathtaking artworks that will not only adorn the city's mainland but also every nook and corner.
The journey of crafting a Durga idol begins with the framework — bamboo scaffolds and heaps of straw, patiently assembled to shape the forms of the divine mother and her offsprings. Skilled artisans toil tirelessly, often working in eight-hour shifts until the crescendo of the puja nears. Then, driven by fervor and commitment, they labor through the night to ensure the timely delivery of the exquisite idols to their destinations across the globe.
At the heart of Kumartuli's legacy lies a lineage of craftsmanship passed down through generations. While some artisans hail from traditional potter families, others are Muslims who have mastered the art of ornamentation. Some of these artists also hail from remote villages in West Bengal and converge on Kumartuli, blending their skills to create the awe-inspiring imagery that captivates the hearts of millions.
Established on the banks of the Hooghly River, the transformation of Kumartuli itself is a testament to evolution. The name 'Kumartuli' is derived from the original Bengali word ‘kumore’ meaning ‘potter’ in English. 'Tuli' is a Bengali word that roughly translates as ‘a small space’, where the potters reside. Once a settlement of traditional clay artisans from Krishnanagar in Nadia district, it has grown alongside the city of Kolkata. Western literature referring only to the Pal family as ‘Kumars’ is inaccurate. Kumartuli became the abode of potters from all over, embracing settlers from East Bengal, now Bangladesh, following Partition. The artisans' surnames often betray their origins, like the Nadia artisans being identified by their Pal surname or the Rudrapal from erstwhile East Bengal.
A sacred connection exists between Kumartuli and Kolkata's historic icons. Some say that Bengal's favorite nationalist hero, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose once presided over the local Durga Puja committee. Another intriguing narrative involves the evolution of the ekchala style, where all the idols stand on a single platform. This can be traced back to a significant incident in Kumartuli years ago. During the final days before the puja, a fire broke out, prompting the renowned sculptor Gopeswar Pal to reconfigure the arrangement, spacing the idols apart on an individual basis. This innovative approach quickly captured the imagination of the public. Nevertheless, recent times have witnessed a renewed emphasis on tradition, leading to a discernible resurgence in the preference for the ekchala style.
Durga Puja embodies the spirit of community and collaboration and is not an individual affair. Community puja, rooted in the concept of baroari puja initiated by 12 friends in 1790, has been a boon in this artisans' colony. Locales compete to create the most captivating idols —their motivating force being the several awards bestowed by corporate houses for innovation and experimentation in the designs. May of the second or third generation artisans are students of Kolkata's art colleges and are responsible for the more experimental or 'artistic' creations. Sometimes they are so beautiful and intricate that these sculptures find homes in museums or collectors' troves, defying the custom of immersing the idols on Dashami (the final day of Durga Puja).
In this male-dominated craft, a few pioneering women have also made their mark. China Pal, Namita Pal, Shibani Pal, and Shipra Ghodui have shattered gender barriers, leaving their indelible imprint on the art form. Their presence, though small in number, represents a progressive stride in the traditional realm of idol-making.
Despite all of this, Kumartuli's journey has not been without challenges. The spectre of commercialization and dwindling patronage from traditional quarters threatens their art. The rising cost of raw materials and changing dynamics of puja celebrations have forced these artisans to diversify their offerings, crafting clay toys and decorative items to sustain themselves in lean times. The government's plans to improve their living conditions have often remained unfulfilled promises, leaving the artisans to preserve their heritage within makeshift studios.
This is the best time to visit Kumartuli if you want to capture the artisans in action. Early morning is the ideal time to visit. If you visit the locality too late into this month, it will be densely populated with visitors. Visiting offers a sensory overload of sights, sounds, and textures. The aroma of wet clay mingles with the crackling of straw underfoot, while bamboo frames crisscross the narrow spaces of workshops, echoing with the concentration of artisans. The studios, often little more than fenced-off enclosures, bear the patina of tradition, where generations of skilled hands meticulously continue to craft a legacy of devotion.