By Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/newsin.asia
The last spell of the monsoon rain lashes the narrow and muddy lanes of Kumartuli in crowded and cluttered North Kolkata in India. As water gushes through the lanes weaving exciting patterns, deft hands of artisans race with equal tenacity and grace in the tenements alongside the lanes. These are the dwellings of the Kumbhar or clay artists who make the stunning idols of Goddess Durga for the annual Puja festival in the month of Ashwin (September-October).
For generations and centuries these artists have molded clay idols that are a must in the rites and rituals in Bengal. One of the most important parts of their craft is making clay idols of Devi Durga for the Durga Puja.
Kumbhar is the Sanskrit word for potters which is used in several Indian languages, including Bengali. According to popular lore- the first Kumbhar was brought to Kumartuli from Krisnanagar (in West Bengal’s Nadia district) by Raja Nabakrisna Deb to make a Durga idol and also celebrate the victory of the British at the Battle of Plassey (June 23, 1757) against the local Muslim ruler Siraj-ud-Daullah (the last Nawab of Bengal).
After the defeat of Siraj-ud-Daullah, in the month of Ashwin, Durga puja began to be observed in Kolkata with aplomb. Nabakrisna Deb inspired several other rich families of the area to conduct the Duga Puja with pomp and style. With an increase in the number of Durga pujas, Kumbhars prospered.
As demand increased with time, the Kumbhars of Krishnanagar found it difficult to travel across the river Ganges to Kolkata to make the idols in situ. On their request, the community was given some land to settle and work. This was the beginning of Kumartuli.
There are stories which describe the contribution of different rich families to help Kumartuli find its feet. The rich families of the day were those of Jagatseth, Omichand, Banamali Sarkar and Govinda Mitra.
Of course, Bengal had the Durga puja before the Battle of Plassey. Evidence of this can be found in the Maharashtra Purana of the Marathi poet Gangaram. The Maratha raiders (Bargi) from Western India had swept through Bengal and Odisha in the beginning of 18 th.Century. The popularity of Durga puja continued, and by the 19 th. Century, many British officials were attending pujas in the houses of rich locals.
The Puja soon started coming out of family circles and becoming a community event (Boroyari puja). The first Baroyari puja was performed by twelve Brahmin friends of Guptipara in the Hooghly district of West Bengal in 1790. Community puja was bought to Kolkata in 1832 by Raja Harinath of Cossimbazar (Murshidabad district).
Making the idols
The process of the making of the clay idols has traditionally followed the following steps: The first step is to make the framework out of bamboo and dried straw entwining them to render the basic shape of the structure. The second is coating with well-kneaded and manually-prepared soft clay.The third step is drying them in the sun. This is followed by application of the primary and secondary layers of paint. Finally, the idol is decorated with various kinds of embellishments.
The fine clay is prepared by various layers of straining (for refining the texture) and mixing with water and hand-made glue which is made from the seeds of the local Siris tree (Albizzia lebbeck) mixed with water and boiled to get a certain consistency. This hand-made glue is also mixed with the colours used before they are applied to the idols. The glue is also used to attach the many embellishments onto the idol.
The cloth/sari and dhoti are adorned in tune with changing times and tastes. Among the popular decorations are the “Daaker saaj”, ‘Rangta saaj’ and ‘Sholar saaj’.
Daaker Saaj or postal decorations came from the beaten and thin sheets of silver which were traditionally imported from Germany through the post or daak. Hence the name Daaker Saaj.
Rangta saaj traditionally came from beaten and thin sheets of gold. At present though, neither gold nor silver is used, but the name has remained. Sholar saaj (decoration made from shola) remains a popular decoration because it is pristine white. Shola is obtained from the fleshy, white interiors of the bark of the pith plants which is found in marshy areas of West Bengal and Bangladesh.
Traditionally, the deity is worshiped in the month of Chaitra (March-April), which is the last month in the agricultural calendar of the sub-continent. However, as mentioned earlier, the puja is performed during the month of Ashwin (September-October) due to the influence of Raja Nabakrishna Deb.
The period was chosen also because it is associated with an major aspect of the famous epic, The Ramayana.According to The Ramayana, Rama performed the puja of Devi Durga to seek her blessings to slay the Asura king Ravana.
However,it is noteworthy that the representation of the warrior deity in Bengal shows her as being complacent rather than angry. Goddess Durga is worshiped along with Kartikeya, Ganesha, Saraswati and Lakshmi.
Today, artists from Kumartuli travel far and wide to deliver their ethereal creations- moving away many miles from the narrow lanes of Kumartuli and into the global market.
(The pictures are by the author Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai)