They lend shape to the devotion of the millions of Hindus of Bengal. They are not mere artisans but are the ones who bring to life the supreme being in myriad forms, as worshipped in Hindu households, with clay and hay, not only through their sheer creative genius but also through their dedication and bhakti. Bengal’s Pujas/festivals are incomplete without the murtis made by them, their name being synonymous with Bengal’s pujas, primarily Durga Puja. They are the renowned artisans of Kumartuli- the well-known Potters’ hub of Bengal situated in North Kolkata.
Even when the ruling dispensations of Bengal – the current and the previous one, have declared themselves as the keepers of Bengal’s culture, traditions and heritage, the sorry state of Bengal’s world famous artisans and their habitat as well as work-station, which forms the core of Bengal’s cultural ethos, tells a totally different story about the commitment of the former towards Bengal’s traditional art forms and their makers. The dilapidated narrow, dingy shades, the broken tin roofs providing scant protection from rain water, the stench and the filth surrounding the small, cramped studios and the helpless expressions in the faces of the artisans bear evidence to the sheer apathy and neglect by the powers that be in Bengal. Puja is incomplete without the murtis of the gods but the murti makers are the ones who are most neglected.
Kumartuli’s woes are five fold, as pointed out by journalist, Bithin Sarkar, who had done a few features on the artisans there :
There is lack of space to make and store the clay idols. They were promised with a spacious art gallery to make and store the idols sometime in the early 2010s but that art gallery has remained an elusive dream, what with the change of regime here then, soon after.
Rising cost of transportation of clay, procured from South 24 parganas, which has gone up further due to the ensuing pandemic scenario.
High cost of pith (Shola) used for adorning the deities, leading to their replacement with thermocol, which is extremely fragile and not as attractive as the traditional pith adornments. Similar difficulties are faced in procurement of other raw materials like lace and beads.
Prevalence of theme-based pujas for drawing crowds and funds, in place of the traditional ones have caused the traditional idol makers of Kumartuli to take a severe beating due to lack of demand for their sanatani idols, made in line with the description of the deities in our puranas. The theme-based idols, made by the art school graduates are on display at the theme-based pujas, which are used primarily to showcase the leftist or pseudo-secularist narrative, using the Puja as a platform.
The artisans are finding it difficult to export their idols to foreign shores, specifically in the current Covid scenario, which used to be their major fund contributor. Here too, their place has been taken by the art school graduates.
Eminent idol maker from Kumartuli, Mintu Pal shared his agony with us. Speaking to Rakhi Mitra di, he stated that no help at hand was available from the State Government, despite several appeals made by them to the local MLA from Kumartuli, who also is a minister in the West Bengal Cabinet. The facility to obtain bank loans is no longer available with them as they failed to repay the previous loans due to non availability of funds. This year, they suffered further due to the Covid pandemic and ensuing lockdown when their orders for Annapurna Puja and Lakshmi & Ganesh Murtis during Poila Baisakh, the Bengali New Year were cancelled. Whatever meagre help they got was from NGOs, some based in Kumartuli, from well established and renowned Puja committees like Ahiritola Sarbojanin, Kumartuli Park and some university students. Arranging for food meant for the artisans, who stayed back at Kumartuli during the lockdown was a tough call, which he managed with the help of these NGOs and some essential food items from the local councilor.
Even when there was no dearth of Central funds to help the state combat with the pandemic as well as the devastating ‘Amphan’ cyclone in May, the Kumartuli artisans received absolutely nothing out of this. With broken roof sheds making way for rain water to flood their work-stations, all that they received were plastics instead of the sanctioned tarpaulins which would have helped them combat the inclement weather conditions. Sri Mintu Pal lamented that even some Puja organizers told him that instead of sanctioning funds worth Rs.50,000/- for the Puja Committees, the state govt would have done better to sanction funds for the idol makers, who are the mainstay for the Pujas.
One of the artisans working as the associate of Mintu Pal, informed us that the idols made by them other than those of the deities are bought by the state govt and municipal corporations through middle men, for adorning parks, streets and other public places. However, payments for the same are hard to come by because their contacts are only these middlemen as they do not have direct access to the concerned govt. authority. Another artisan pointed out that this year they had to sell the idols at almost 30% less price compared to the normal rates of the idols due to the slack demand on account of Covid, thus enhancing their financial stress. The fear and pain were apparent on their faces.
A visit to Kumartuli is sure to bring tears to the eyes of any individual at the sorry state of stay and work of those who lend life to the Hindu festivities. They are an integral part of Bengal’s religious-cultural ethos, yet they are impoverished and without necessary support from the powers that be combined with shifting preferences towards ‘pseudo secularist’ themes, this once booming profession face the threat of extinction, which would serve a severe blow to the Hindu identity of Bengal.
Most have shown a lot of concern for the migrant labourers suffering during the lockdown and rightfully so, yet no one seems to even notice that the world famous idol makers of Bengal are fighting and long and tough battle for their very existence. Not only do they need the support of the powers that be, it would also be of immense help if some noble individual/groups stood by them to help them survive.
By Ranita Indic
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