Updated: Aug 28, 2019
Kumartuli , North Kolkata
One July morning, I caught a break from work and headed to one of the most photographed areas of Kolkata . Is there a movie, a documentary or a book that cites this city of joy but doesn't talk about Kumartuli? Yes , Kumartuli - where God's come alive!
In many ways Kumartulli is integral part of Kolkata or lets just say that Kolkata cannot have its complete identity without this place.
Kumartuli is known for its internationally renowned artisans who craft the most beautiful idols from straw and clay. Late July uptill Durga puja this place buzzes with tourists and photographers, so if you really want to beat the crowd and watch some of these artists in action head out in the non traffic hours and months.
This little place is located in North Kolkata, between Sovabazaar and the Hooghly River. The main location is Banamali Sarkar Street and takes about 30-35 minutes from central Kolkata.
I reach this potters village at 2 pm. The silence of the streets, greets me. Everyone around is napping. A culture pertinent to this side of the country- an unapologetic afternoon siesta- and yes nothing stirs this deep rooted tradition.
I walk around the streets. Old bylanes of this 300 year old settlement - the silence of this hour is what has engulfed every nooks and cranny. Unfinished work, Deserted workshops, clay and moulds, half formed shapes, scattered tools. The smell of clay hangs heavy.
But then again, its the time to be creative , a pensive time for a photographer with a canvas of some empty streets , the possibilities around moulded clay and the history and relevance of Kumartuli; cutting out the noise, the banter and the hum drum.
I roam around Kumartuli, where approximately 600 workshops create the divine statues over many months for the run up to Durga Puja.
One artist, a lone soul was smoking bidi. I stopped by to chit -chat. He tells me ' Babu nothing before 4pm' and continues to shoot circles of smoke in the air.
While I pass my time, photographing the making of the idols, the scattered clay moulds that will come together for people to pray, worship and base their faith on!
Its almost magical how this place comes alive at 4PM. Sharp at 4, tea sellers, the staple Jhal muri ( rice snacks), tobacco sellers run up and down this street serving goodies to their usual customer. The soul of Kumartuli comes alive and I move ahead on my exploration.
Now, with artisans back to work , It feels like I am transported to another era , a movie in the making, a chapter from a novel where I am merely a mention.
Walking through the by lanes, I interact with some of these master craftsmen. Most of the artisans are Bengali origin or work in a cluster of workshops owned by Bengali craftsmen. About 150-200 families of artisans live in this area. This has been their traditional occupation.
The workshops are dimly lit. The artist is making the statue of laxmi in preparation of Durga Puja. The artists carve various body parts of the idol and and assemble it later.
Traditionally clay and straw has been used to mould and give shape to the goddess, her spear, the lioness she rides, her 4 children and a string of other idols. These days besides clay, fiberglass is also used in certain cases. and the demand for a well made statue comes from all corners of the world. I speak to the artisan, sitting in this tiny room carving an idol to perfection.
The history of how Durga Puja became a tradition of this stature is well known , and as demand of idols has grown over a long period of time , the potters have found a permanent place for themselves along the Hooghly river. The making of idols is an elaborate and intricate process and involves deep rooted traditions. All of the idols are cast using clay of the river Ganges. The soil is then mixed with a handful of soil from the doorstep of a prostitute with her blessings. Durga Puja is thus a festival for all. The making process itself begins with people who are ostracized from the society.
The artisans today , live meagerly. However they are aware of the popularity of Puja, the invasion of instagram and what it means for a photographer to get a magical photograph against the backdrop of these by-lanes. They are self aware and conscious, not to let anyone take up too much of their precious time. Since this work is seasonal. time is of great essence.
As I enter the workshop of Ashok Paul, he is giving shape to a statue of Satyajit Ray. I am spell bound at the precision, the sharpness of the final product. He is making this for a client outside the country. The crest and troughs of his final product, the expressions, and the sharpness is life like- stellar!
Durga Puja will be celebrated soon with the decoration of these idols on a podium attended by thousands of people. Who has seen God? Not me, not you. But what we know of God, and what she looks like, is through the imagination of these craftsmen, their toil and their dextrous fingers and hands.
Visit #Kumartulli ; when the creator herself is the creation
Some Easy pointers for your next photo tour to Kolkata
1. Getting to Kumartulli : 30 mins by Uber from central Kolkata. Else take the Metro to Sovabazaar and walk. You can chose to take the tram if you arent in a hurry
2. There could be many popular artisans , but I urge you to explore this area beyond the big names. Many outstanding artisans are hired during the months running upto October.
3. If you want to avoid traffic and the buzz of other photographers, pick late June or Early July. Be prepared to sweat, but your frames will be crowd free.
4. Avoid using flash , it will kill the picture in the kind of setting the craftsmen sit.
5. Carry your own water bottle.
6. Avoid getting there during the Nap time (2pm-4pm)
7. Wear comfortable cotton clothes and sandals. You might be required to remove sandals/ shoes in certain workshops
8. Avoid weekends. Avoid taking photographers when strictly told not to. The docile artisans have the capacity to be aggressive and arrogant as well
9. This little place buzzes with photographers and everyone gets a similar frame ; mine isn't very different either. Stay away from famous workshops and names and explore , invent a different frame.
10. Many of the idols are covered with plastic, making the entire scene not as romantic! what you make out of the live workshops, is upto you.