Having been in the company of a lot of Bengalis, I have long been curious about Durga puja.
Typically the conversation between two Bengalis one is bound to overhear would be : Baadi kobe jaatcho? (when are you going home?)
Most commonly heard Answer: Pujo.
During my college days, I often attended the festival celebrations in Bangalore and always heard my Bengali friends talk about how different the Kolkata version was, especially when it came to the idols, mandaps and the food. As part of the tradition, idols of Godddess Durga are made, in all shapes and sizes. Preparations start months before the actual festival which takes place in September – October each year (the exact dates are determined by the Hindu calendar). Kumartuli (“potter’s town”) is an area within Kolkata particularly known for its craftsmanship. The ‘kumar’ in kumartuli comes from ‘kumhar’ or ‘kumbhar’ which means a potter, and was in fact a sub caste or caste of people who have been potters since generations. I am not entirely sure about what ‘tuli’ means – it could be community or town, but i need to check what it means in the Bengali language. I will check that out and share an update here. While earlier, a lot of households would hire the services of the sculptor and invite him at the house where he would stay and make the idol, these days, the market (Kumartuli) is where the idols are readied and then sold. It looks like it is a year round thing now, since even in February, although at relaxed pace, work was still going on.
Clay from a water body is taken (I guess clay from the Ganga would be the most sought after, given how she is worshipped in India) and mixed with grass or straw to make it fibrous alongwith modern day glue and plaster of paris etc. The artisans then carve out some really impressive statues. We saw them working hard, yet in a relaxed, un-frenzied manner: I think one needs to be in a very peaceful, and pious frame of mind when one is making a statue of God.
With a framework in place, the artisans use basic tools and mould the clay into beautiful statues – of the Goddess herself, of her Tiger and so on. The dark grey statue, wet while being sculpted, is worked on in the outdoors – is it to air-dry them slowly so that no cracks develop or was it just because their shops were small?
It is a job which requires a lot of time, and a lot of patience. We were impressed at the amount of time one of the artisans was spending on the big statue. At the other end of the spectrum though, a smaller statue did not seem to need that much time – a quick brush stroke to remove finger prints and smoothen the surface, a quick swipe of the thumb’s nail to give creases in the neck, and it seemed done. Beautiful!
We had seen similar craft in Gujarat, where locally available clay is mixed with dried grass (which provides fibrous strength). This mud-work is then applied to a lot of things – from utensils to artifacts in the house to entire walls. More on this in a separate entry. In Kumartuli, we could also see a mesh like structure (of fiber glass) below the clay in the idols, but we dared not disturb them while they were at work. We want to go again and spend some time with them in the evenings, or during lunch, when they are free to talk a bit.
Post the Puja, the idols are taken to a water body and immersed there – there are several reasons why this is done, about which I will write separately. This of course, leads to concerns about environmental issues – especially about fiberglass and chemical based paints being used. There are changes happening and lots of artisans have been using more organic paints and only clay.
It is sad that in the modern age, older and more natural techniques like extracting colors and pigments from flowers and vegetables have been replaced by quicker solutions – solutions which are not necessarily better. I pray that we all switch back to realizing that nature is priceless and is very delicately balanced and intertwined within life. It can only take a certain amount of crap from us. Beyond a certain amount, it will just reset and we will be the sufferers.
The switch back to more natural ways of doing the Puja, involves a lot of people – the consumer, the supplier, the idol makers, the government, and so on. We all need to change and realize our priorities. One can only pray that with more awareness and more people working and spreading news about such causes, this issue will gradually disappear. It needs to be done. It can be done. Let us all take the name of God and start!!