By Devasis Chattopadhyay
At this time of year, all roads in Kolkata lead to Kumartuli in the northern part of the city’s old quarters. It’s where Bengal’s most beloved goddess, Durga, is taking on her earthly avatar as potters work round the clock to bring her to life. In about four weeks, on October 20, the city will erupt in glittering festivities to celebrate the homecoming of the ten-armed warrior goddess. For four days after that, everything in Kolkata will revolve around Ma Durga, the celebrations getting grander, more imaginative and more extravagant every year.
But in the run-up to Durga Puja, it’s the 150-odd studios in the traditional potters’ quarter that are a hive of frenetic activity. This is hallowed ground, for generations of potters have been fashioning Durga idols here, for sale locally and for export.
While the potters traditionally start making the idols in June-July, on the day of the Rath Yatra or Chariot Festival, many now begin earlier to cope with demand. The process starts with them paying customary obeisance to Lord Ganesha, who is believed to bestow commercial success. But as the potters of Kumartuli pull out all the stops to make their Durga idols increasingly inventive and absolutely radiant, they observe a secret ritual that most people outside Bengal are not aware of. It’s a sacred practice that goes back to centuries.
Situated on the banks of the Hooghly, Kumartuli (‘Kumar’ or ‘potters’; ‘tuli’ or ‘locality’) is steeped in history. Once known as Sutanuti, it was one of the original villages on which the imperial British are said to have founded the city of Kolkata. While the waters of the Hooghly made it an ideal site on which to build a new city, the potters found it the perfect place to source material to make their idols. Clay was available in abundance on the riverbank as were the other materials they needed for their craft, such as bamboo, straw, jute husk and wood.
Bringing Durga to life is a painstaking process executed with love and utter devotion. First, bamboo frames are made for all seven figurines – Durga herself, her lion, and Mahisasura; Saraswathi with her swan; Lakshmi and her owl; Ganesha with his mouse; and Kartik with a peacock.
Next, straw and sticks give shape to the limbs and the torso. Then, silky, sticky alluvial clay mixed with jute husk and fibre is applied to the skeletons. After these raw figures are dried in the sun, they are hand-polished to give them the required anatomical shape. Thereafter, the idols are hand-painted. Finally, an organic varnish known as ghamtel (literally meaning ‘sweat oil’) is applied to create the glaze or lustre of the skin tone.
Interestingly, the heads of the idols are sculpted separately due to the intricate measurements of the physiognomy, to ensure the right proportion. They also require expert handling to create just the right expression. The heads are attached to the idols before the painting begins.
The eyes are painted last, usually on the morning of Mahalaya, which marks the end of Pitri Paksha or Shraddh, the 16-day mourning period observed in honour of one’s ancestors. Devotees believe that Durga starts her journey from Mount Kailash to her father’s earthly home on this day, accompanied by her children. Only a senior potter has the privilege of painting the eyes of the Devi. It’s the final flourish that makes the idol come alive.
Before this solemn ritual, Durga is dressed in dazzling attire made from cotton or silk, and embroidered with zari and brocade. She is decked in jewellery fashioned from paper mâché, thermocol and tin foil. The colours used to paint the idol are prepared by mixing khorimati, a special dye made from sea froth, in addition to chemicals and a glue made from tamarind seeds. Thin iron or aluminium foil is usually used to make the weapons carried by the warrior goddess.
No matter how beautiful the idols or skilled the craftspeople who make them, Durga draws her essence in Kumartuli from a sacred ritual that permeates her very being. This ritualistic practice revolves around four elements used to make the idols – elements considered pure and essential in the age-old craft.
The first one is Ganga Mati, the alluvial soil collected from the banks of the River Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganga, India’s most sacred river. The second one is Gomutra, or cow’s urine; the third is Gobar, or cow dung. The fourth element is the most intriguing of them all – a fistful of soil from the doorstep of a sex worker, referred to as Punni Mati, or ‘sacred earth’. Historically, Kumartuli’s potters have been fetching this ‘sacred soil’ from nearby Sonagachi, said to be the largest red-light district in Asia. Customarily, a senior potter or a priest would formally ask a sex worker for her consent to carry away the soil from her doorstep.
But why would an element that appears to defile rather than purify be used to make Durga idols? This century-old tradition is rooted in the belief that when a man enters a brothel, he leaves all his virtues at the doorstep. The sex worker then absorbs all the evils of society, to keep our society pure and safe. Hence, the soil from a courtesan’s doorstep is believed to be the purest one can find. Isn’t it interesting that long before inclusiveness became socially fashionable, it was practised by the potters of Kolkata’s Kumartuli?
There are few things more powerful than a community festival such as Durga Puja to shape regional identity. For it is seldom about rituals themselves; rather, it is the activities performed together as a community and the philosophy behind them that forge a shared identity. At the time when the world is torn apart because of caste, creed and religion, public festivals like Durga Puja, or Sarbojanin (community) Durga Puja, bring people together. People of all faiths and status of society mingle together in a festival which is more of a cultural resurgence and social togetherness than the expression of religious traits. (IPA Service)