Clay that binds
Kolkatta (previously known as Calcutta) is a traveler’s delight. It is the last stop of India’s most sacred river Ganges as it blends into the Bay of Bengal through the mangroves of Sunderbans. Sunderbans is a natural habitat for the royal Bengal Tiger, the vehicle of the ferocious Goddess Durga. The story of the Goddess’ triumph over evil is celebrated in a week-long festival known as Durga Pooja. The Goddess is believed to be visiting her parents’ home in the plains during this time. Celebrated with much pomp and grandeur, it brings life regular life in the city to a complete halt. During the festival, people visit the Pandals along with their friends and family. The women are dressed in traditional finery and exchange vermillion with each other. They pray for the well-being of their husbands. Initially celebrated only by rich families across Bengal, the festival turned into a community event during the Independence movement.
Situated in the northern part of city, Kumortoli, the potters’ quarters is the seat of activity for days leading up to the festival. Their artistry is so well known that they export as many idols as they supply locally. The potters, both men and women work on sculpting these figures. The base is made of straw which is then covered with clay. Upon drying, the idols are painted in bright colours. Adding the third eye is a crucial process. It is a work done by the senior artistes and some of them are known to meditate for long hours before drawing it. The third eye is believed to be the one that breathes life into the idol.
The tiny settlement is home to some illustrious artists whose work is sought after by Bengalis across the world. Most of the famous artists’ works are booked a year in advance, with some of the lesser known ones selling idols off the shelf. It was estimated that Kumortuli sold more than 12, 300 clay idols in 2006. This settlement was allotted to the potters during the British colonization of India in the eighteenth century. Calcutta was the power centre for the British East India Company. The British wanted to allocate quarters for each working group and thus this colony housing the potters came up. Over time, this place became home to various artists with some major roads in this neighbourhood named after them.
Today the entire city is home to multiple community Pandals, which are temporary structures erected to showcase the Goddess on a stage. Most of the Pandals are elaborate structures (that require more than a year of planning) with magnificent architectural features pertaining to a theme. These themes range from mythology to period based architecture and sometimes even current issues that plague the nation at large. During the Cricket World Cup series that India won, there were Pandals that showcased idols of famous players. Each neighbourhood vies with the other in showcasing the festival, with some having idols as tall as 20 feet. In the midst of all this ostentatiousness, the central figure in every Pandal is still the idol of the Goddess. She is depicted with her ten hands holding different weapons and standing on a lion mount.
Post the festivities, the idols are taken out in a procession with the entire city coming out on to the streets. The idols are then immersed in the river. Earlier the materials for idol making were purely eco-friendly causing no damage to the river. However, with the advent of bright coloured paints, these have replaced the older options causing heavy ecological damage to the river. The government is taking measures to stop the usage of such toxic material.
The week long reverie comes to an end as the Goddess departs from her parents’ home to her marital abode in the Himalayas. Kumortoli gears up for another busy year of planning and idol making. For more pictures of Kolkata, please click here.