Read it on my TOI Blog, Freeze Frame.
Have you ever wondered where God is created? Is there a factory that makes them as per order? There is such a factory, where men toil through the year to create deities out of straw and clay, in the heart of an aging metropolis.
Let me take you there, to the graying city, standing by the mighty Hooghly River. The five day festival of the Durga Puja has just drawn to a close. The lights are yet to be taken down; streets still look festive with themandaps standing tall; some of the popular Barowarior community pujas are yet to immerse the idols; the schools are still in the middle of their Puja vacation and the newspapers have just started their post-puja circulation. The city is stretching its arms as it emerges from the throes of week-long festivity, too tired and almost reluctant to return to the proverbial ‘grind’, still hung over from the culinary excesses, late nights, pandal hopping and all the madness that surrounds the 5-days of Durga Puja. But the God factory, which was abuzz a fortnight ago with moulds, straw, clay, paints, glitters, laces, colourful fabric, roles of fibre hair – adding last minute touches to the Dashabhuja Devi Durga and her children, is still busy. The wheels keep turning, men keep toiling, preparing the clay, mixing colours, dying fibres, painting hands, feet, faces – the factory is busy rolling out more Gods for the ‘baro mase tero parbon’(the proverbial thirteen festivals round the twelve months in a year) in Bengal.
Lets step into one of those small rooms, that line the narrow, ancient alley. A big pedestal fan whirs away in the darkening room. A naked bulb lends light to a section of the room, where a man is hunched over a roll of tightly wound fabric. His deft fingers have already given shape to the beautiful face, now he is bent over giving final touches to the lotus like eyes. His apprentices have already left for the day. Neatly tied stacks of hay, feminine structures crafted out of bamboo and straw line an adjacent wall, the day’s task been accomplished. Standing a little further away are clay figures of various incarnations of the Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and other gods and goddesses, in various stages of making and repair.
Tomorrow his apprentices would be back to plaster a few more of the straw and bamboo structures with the silty, gray clay that comes from the neighbouring ghats of the mighty Hooghly. Of late with the late retreat of the monsoon, the struggle to dry the idols has only become harder. The pedestal fan whirs in agreement. And suddenly the eye having accustomed to the darkness follows an ember glow in the darkest corner of the room, and a closer look reveals the contours of a few finished heads of idols being dried over the dying ember of a coal oven. In a few days time, when the idols would be suitably dried, the Potua or the artisan would start painting the figures. The most important part of this creative process is however the painting of the eyes of the deity. Only the most senior and the most skillfulpotua is responsible for painting the eyes of the deity, thereby breathing life into the clay idol.
The workshop we stand in now, is one of the workshops of the god making industry, nestled in a narrow, dingy alley of a network of many such serpentine lanes, which criss-cross each other, in the heart of the aging metropolis, Calcutta. History pegs the age of this neighbourhood of potters or Kumortuli, as over 400 years, a hundred years older than the erstwhile capital of the British Empire. During the days of Bengal Presidency, when the British administrators were planning the layout of their new capital, they built the Fort William by the bank of the river Hooghly, which displaced a lot of the inhabitants of the local village. The displaced people were rehabilitated to other parts of the then presidency town that consisted of Sutanuti, Gobindopur and Kolikata. The ‘Indian quarters’ of the presidency town were largely concentrated in the two villages of Sutanuti and Kolikata. While richer section started to settle in areas like Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata, the worker sections were allotted areas according to their vocation closer to the ghats of the mighty Hooghly river. Eventually these areas came to be named according to the profession of the people who lived there. So Ahiritola was the neighbourhood of milkmen, Kolutolla ofKolus or oil producers, Suriparah of wine sellers, Muchipara for the shoe smiths and cobblers and Kumortuli, a neighbourhood of potters.
The potters who earned a meager livelihood out of making clay pots, slowly started to sculpt images of deities for the various Hindu religious festivals that were becoming popular during the British Raj. The most prominent of the festivals of Bengal, of course, was and still is the Durga Puja. Potters from the neighbourhood were hired by the rich Babus, in those days, to live in their houses and sculpt the deity in the thakurdalan or the courtyard attached to the ancestral temple, of the Babus.
The recently departed writer, Shree Sunil Gangopadhyay once wrote “In those days, instead of buying the idols from the market at Kumortuli, families invited the kumor or artisan home to stay as a house guest weeks before the Puja, during which time he sculpted the idol. The idol at our Puja was known for its magnificent size. It used to be over 10 feet tall. Every morning as the kumor started his work, we children gathered around him and gaped in awe as he gradually turned a fistful of straw and a huge mass of clay into a perfectly formed, larger-than-life figure.”
Around the 1930’s, with the freedom struggle stoking patriotic fire in native hearts, in Bengal Durga puja started to gain prominence as a community festival. And the potters slowly found themselves orders to sculpt the Dashabhuja out of straw and clay, for the autumnal festival.
Ever since, this nighbourhood of potters has become the workshop of the God-makers. They say that God rested on the seventh day, after Creation was complete. But the God-makers of Calcutta know no rest. The festival season is on. Come Monday, lorries would make a beeline outside their alleys for idols of the Goddess Laxmi. Meanwhile, the apprentices have started to create the basic straw and bamboo structure of the other incarnation of Durga, Ma Kali, for Kali puja is round the corner. The wheels at the God Factory have to keep turning as there will be no seventh day when the God makers would get a day of rest after creating God.
Picture courtesy :
Saraswati – filmapia.com
Soil – calcuttawalks.com