Amidst the maze of lanes and by-lanes, it’s an obscure alley in North Calcutta, close to the famous Sobhabazar and Sutanuti, with its incredible, inherited kaleidoscope of architecture with unique aesthetically crafted doors, balconies and windows, across the river Ganga. Ships and boats still float on the river that descends from Gaumukh and Gangotri in the Himalayas all the way to meet the Bay of Bengal at Gangasagar, where all sins of the living and the dead are washed off every year.
Here, for decades, artists, potters and artisans have carved sublime features on the faces of gods and goddesses, many more goddesses than gods, the female ‘shakti’ being the dominant icon in the Bengali consciousness. To enter Kumartuli, the humble potters’ colony, is like entering a by-lane of divine magic, with sculptures of goddesses and gods in every nook and corner, and the genius artists, as humble as ever, living in small make-shift quarters, immersed in deep concentration on their precious art. There are also statues of Rabindranath Tagore, Chaitanya and Vivekananda, among other icons of Bengal.
This is entrenched Trinamool Congress territory with its flags all over. The local MLA, Dr Shashi Panja, a doctor, has yet again won due to her exemplary record and solid work on the ground. She is admired and respected in the area, with her humble office located in one of the lanes. Between her and the local councilor, Malati Saha, they organized food, medicine and other resources when everything was shut during the Covid lockdown and no vehicle moved on the streets. If a person required a hospital bed, she would work, as if in an emergency.
“In distress and great difficulty, she has stood with us, the artists and artisans, all the unorganized workers, and the modest owners of the small-scale industries sprawled in the area adjacent to Kumartuli. Here work will always be remembered,” said a small businessman who makes undergarments in a hole-in-the-wall workshop . His annual earnings have been less than Rs 1 lakh, but he would somehow survive with dignity in the past. But, due to Covid, he suffered huge losses. He says it was the food organized so systematically by the local MLA that helped them overcome the crisis. And the daily reassurance that they were not left to their fate.
The entire area voted overwhelmingly against the BJP. The artists and small factory owners are unanimous in their opinion that the BJP has no clue about the inheritance, art and culture of Bengal, and that they have little respect for women. A shop-keeper selling dresses and ornaments meant to adorn the goddesses, said: “Look at the way the prime minister spoke about Didi in a rally – Didi O Didi! Have you ever heard a prime minister speak about any other woman leader in this crude and vulgar manner? No, this will not do in Bengal. They are selling off the country to the Ambanis and Adanis, but, in Bengal, we will fight till the last, pandemic or no pandemic. They cannot buy or scare us off with their money and muscle power. And we have proved it – look at the drubbing they got in the assembly polls?”
Covid or no Covid, festival or no festival, joy or despair, lonely evenings, or hot sales in the festive season, their craft is ceaseless, like the river, across the two shores of this beautiful, bubbling, pulsating, City of Joy.
Across Kumartuli is a cremation spot – the famous Nimtala ghat – where last rites are performed each day, and these rituals continued even during the peak of Covid, though not necessarily because of the pandemic. And, yet, at Kumartuli, the end is eternally the beginning, life becomes art and art becomes life, and there is no sign of death anywhere, even as the heat and humidity moves like a snake across the scorching summer afternoon.
“Life has been tough since the pandemic and the lockdown. No money, no festival, no pandals, no Durga, Saraswati, Kali, Lakshmi, no Shiva or Ganesh, no work. And, yet, with the blessings of the goddess, we have moved on. Things will change. Things are already changing. This time, Durga and Kali puja, for instance, were different. Festivity came back into our life,” said a young artist, whose father and grandfather too were sculpting these religious icons over the years.
Since the lockdown in the summer of 2020, and until the Bengal assembly elections in early 2021, the artists in Kumartuli had to go through terribly tough times. “Only small idols were being sought. The big idols and the big pujas had all disappeared. Covid had killed our livelihood. Even the big orders from abroad and other dried up. It was indeed tough,” said a seasoned artist who has seen decades of Durga pujas in Kolkata.
The traditional narrative of Kumartuli’s aesthetic relationship with Goddess Durga is unique and original. In the first instance, the painstaking process begins with the collection of mud and sand from the shores of the Ganga. Mixed with cow dung, the clay for the sculptures are made. Then starts the beautiful narrative, not known in any ritual for any god or goddess in any part of the world, including in India. Indeed, not even in other parts of the country is Durga created with such a symbolic and meaningful social message.
It is a must that for the creation of the iconic sculpture, the earth outside the homes of sex workers have to be collected and only its synthesis will herald the arrival of the idol, and the goddess, as art, spirituality and reality. According to annual rituals related to making the Durga idols, the soil from outside the residence of sex workers or Nishiddho Pallis (forbidden terrorities) is loaded with a certain divinity and beauty. This is Punya Maati. Without this earth, Durga’s idol is incomplete.
This is as much a tribute to the life and times of the sex workers over the decades, as it is a social commentary and message to tell the world and the society that they have been given a very raw deal, that grave injustice has been done them, that they need dignity, love and respect, like all women in an inclusive society. In earlier instances, priests would go to their homes to collect the earth, chanting vedic mantras, the mud outside their home as a sign of virtue and purity.
This year, with the pandemic becoming endemic, the festive season will herald glory, grand celebrations and a lot of work. The by-lanes in North Kolkata will reverberate with the brilliance and luminescence of the artists and their sublime craft. Goddess Durga will once again arrive with the first dawn of winter, with the magical rendition of Mahalaya on All India Radio, Kolkata. It shall be a new beginning.
Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata