With time, the art of idol making has come to be perceived as more of an aesthetic procedure than a religious one. It is a folk art that Kolkata and its surroundings have come to practise most earnestly
The sun beats down heavily on him, yet he doesn’t move from his place – a corner of the pavement by a crowded thoroughfare of Kolkata – what he thinks as the strategic location for his business. Here he spends half of the day to sell earthen lamps and cotton-wicks. The bedraggled man, bent by the load of time has two options: either sell the entire stock of lamps or die starved. As one customer haggles over the price of a dozen lamps, he lifts his head, “Babu (Sir), if you knew how we make them burning midnight oil, spending hours together without any meal, you would not perhaps bargain.”
Those who bring heaps of the glutinous earth (sticky-mud) from the riverbed near Uluberia in Howrah district and stack of hay and bundle of bamboos from Sundarban to Bagbazar Ghat, Kolkata, they know how danger awaits them at every turn of the meandering course of the river in the form of nature’s tantrums.
You might have seen boatmen singing Bhatiali while at oar in cinema, but in reality it is just the opposite. With our hearts in mouth, we chant the name of mother Goddess until we drop anchor near the Bagbazar Ghat in Kolkata.’ Mantu Basak, who has been in the business of supplying structural materials for clay idols for last 50 years, describes the risk involved in their voyages from Sundarban to Kolkata.
THE DARK SIDE
One who is involved in processing and kneading lumps of soil stands a high chance of sustaining septicemia and life-claiming skin diseases.
Nowadays, earth is mostly contaminated with impurities like broken pieces of glass, scraps of metals, pieces of bones of animals and discharge of body-wastes.
Despite health hazards, inclement weather and dearth of infrastructural facilities, they enjoy being idol makers, which becomes evident when the clay-idol makers, irrespective of their age – old or young – work round the clock to breathe life into lifeless soil.
One more concern of the sculptors is the trend of plagiarism that has set in among some dishonest clay-model makers. Sometimes moulds of faces and other physical features and many decoration pieces are found lost from the bags of artists. These moulds help sculptors create the elegance of expression of deities, as envisaged by them. Pattern and style of each mould reflect the artistic brilliance of an idol maker.
THE MAKING OF DEITY
Artists prefer using sticks or blocks of aquatic plants, collected from the marshy water bodies in villages, and carve different ornamental pieces out of them. When the sky pours torrentially and rain water drops through weather-beaten tarpaulins or sheets of polythene, a half-amile long narrow stretch in north Kolkata is abuzz with activities of a group of more than 2000 men and women. Banamali Sarkar Street, Kumurtuli, the hub of clayidol makers in West Bengal has about 500 cavernous studios crammed with complete and incomplete idols of Durga and her children. These artisans squat on the pavement along the street to knead clay or fix different attachments on models of clay images, with deep concentration, ignoring curious gaze of passerby.
As a woman artist paints the eyes of the Goddess, standing on a tall scaffolding with paints of different shades – dark black, deep blue, vermillion red, golden yellow – on her left hand used as pallet, while her right hand, holding the paintbrush with amazing dexterity, it reminds bystanders of the mother Goddess herself with ten hands, equally active. As she draws the pair of eyebrows with nimble strokes of the brush, the dark and measured curvature of black lines over eyes add a divine splendour to the countenances of the Goddess. To breathe life in the eyes of the deities, she draws eyeballs in three eyes of the idol. A tiny vertical line below the third eye adds a divine grace to the eye. A little touch of white and yellow to the eyeballs turn each eye adorned with a majestic glare. A little touch of reddish tint at the corner of eyes of Goddess heightens the image of the Goddess as the slayer of evil power. This proves that for artisans in Kumurtuli, idol making is not just a creative pursuit to them, it is embarking on a pilgrimage.
Once the form attains the human shape, for those at Kumurtuli, the Devi becomes a daughter whom they must bedeck with the best of adornments, as she celebrates her victory over the evil. Every detail of her ornaments is taken care of to ensure that imperfection doesn’t creep in to malign the divine grandeur. Not just the idol makers, even people from other professions take part in the festival of creativity. And when we see the idol, it’s not religious sentiments but the profoundness of perfection that leaves us mesmerised.
Text: Partha Mukherjee & Priyanka Mukherjee