FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Sitting Idol in Locked-Down Kumartuli

Photo:  Ritayan Mukherjee.

“I have not received any order for a Durga idol until now because of corona. But I have made a few on my own. I hope they sell,” said Tapas Pal of Krishna Studio in Kumartuli, the historic neighbourhood of potters and idol makers in north Kolkata. “You know me for more than eight years,” he added. “Have you ever seen my studio without idols in the middle of June?”

By that time, the roughly 450 studios in Kumartuli (registered with the local artisan’s association) should have been crammed with bamboo-and-straw frames, on which clay is applied and the image crafted. The idols are decorated with paint and ornaments just a few weeks before the Durga Puja celebrations commence in October. (See Journey through Kumartuli.)

These preparations begin by March/April every year. But the Covid-19 pandemic has held up the schedule in Kumartuli this year. “It’s a horrible year for us. Our losses started mounting from April onwards. First, idols of household deities like Goddess Annapurna remained unsold during the Bengali new year [Poila Baisakh, on April 15 this year]. The entire colony produced about 100 idols, but only 8-10 sold. All the investment is lost. Now I haven’t yet received any order for Durga idols,” said Mrityunjay Mitra, who has been making idols for the last 20 years.

Like him, potters have been crafting clay idols of Goddess Durga in Kumartuli since the 18th century, when rich landlords and merchants of Kolkata started commissioning them for the annual Durga Puja celebrations in their households. Most of the craftspeople were originally from Krishnanagar town in Nadia district; they migrated and settled in Kumartuli, on the banks of the Hooghly River in north Kolkata, when demand for their craft began to grow in the city.

When I reached this landmark potters’ quarter on June 18, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation was clearing a tree that had fallen on May 20, when Cyclone Amphan had stormed the city. The otherwise bustling locality was silent and most of the artisans’ studios were shut. The few that were open didn’t have any idol in the works. Broken and unfinished statues of deities were lying about on the streets. It was unlike any June of the past years. Shops selling ornaments for the idols were open, but there were no customers.

The artisans I met in Kumartuli told me that their collective business was worth Rs. 40 crores in 2019. A major chunk of it came from selling the Durga idols. They make statues of other deities too, and are sometimes commissioned to make clay figures for films. Some of them also make clay pots and utensils. They were hoping for a growth in sales this year – but that was before the Covid-19 pandemic brought things to a standstill.

Half-finished clay statues of Goddess Durga and other deities are strewn on the streets in Kumartuli. Potters say that it is not business as usual this year. Photo:  Ritayan Mukherjee.

Puffing a bidi, Mrityunjay told me that many of them had expected to receive orders on the day of the Jagannnath Rath Yatra – celebrated on June 23 this year – which is considered auspicious for commissioning Goddess Durga’s idols. “But I am doubtful,” he said. “Even banks don’t think we are a profitable business anymore. No one is offering us [short-term] loans. We have to invest around Rs. 7 lakh [every year] from our pocket, which is locked in for eight months [March-October]. So, we have about four months to earn and the whole year to survive on that. How will it be possible this year?”

The Durga idols made by the potters vary in size and price. A simple, 6-feet statue for a household sells for about Rs. 30,000. Taller and more elaborately decorated idols are commissioned by pandals for community worship in neighbourhoods across the city. About 10 feet tall on average, these are priced between Rs. 1 to Rs. 2 lakhs.

Kartik Pal, a veteran idol maker, received a few orders for the Rath Yatra. “They are for household pujas. But the big ones [pandals] are keeping quiet,” he said. “I’m hopeful that things will change from today. But it won’t be like previous years, for sure.”

Pal may be right. Nimai Chandra Paul, who heads the committee that hosts a big pandal in Kumartuli every year, believes that the potters will incur losses this season. “We used to have a budget of Rs. 30-40 lakhs. The funds came from mostly corporate sponsors. None of them has shown interest this year. We had advanced some money to an artisan, but then cancelled the order,” he said. Paul’s committee has decided to celebrate with a much lower budget this year. “I am sure that other big budget-committees will also do that.”

The artisans have other problems besides a lack of orders. “The daily-wage earners [who assist the idol makers] can’t come to work because trains are not running. They come from faraway districts. Plus, prices of raw material have gone up drastically, by almost 30-40 per cent, because of the lockdown and Amphan. Where is the chance for us to recover losses?” wondered Kartik. Seated next to him, Mintu Pal said that they were thankful that puja committees had supported the Kumartuli artisans with rations during the Covid-19 lockdown and after Amphan.

“The beautiful ornaments you see on the deities are made in the villages of Nadia and Hooghly districts,” said Maheen Pal. “Their makers are jobless too. About 60-70 families are involved in manufacturing the artificial hair for the idols. They have taken a hit too. The mud for the clay is sourced from the South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas and Maldah districts. It arrives by boat. The wage-workers who transport it have no income now.”

This article first ran on the People’s Archive of Rural India.

More articles by:
August 12, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s War On Arms Control and Disarmament
P. Sainath
“We Didn’t Bleed Him Enough”: When Normal is the Problem
Riva Enteen
Kamala Harris? Really? Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Kenneth Surin
The Decrepit UK Political System
Robert Hunziker
Freakish Arctic Fires Alarmingly Intensify
Ramzy Baroud
The Likud Conspiracy: Israel in the Throes of a Major Political Crisis
Sam Pizzigati
Within Health Care USA, Risk and Reward Have Never Been More Out of Kilter
John Perry
The US Contracts Out Its Regime Change Operation in Nicaragua
Binoy Kampmark
Selective Maritime Rules: The United States, Diego Garcia and International Law
Manuel García, Jr.
The Improbability of CO2 Removal From the Atmosphere
Khury Petersen-Smith
The Road to Portland: The Two Decades of ‘Homeland Security’
Raouf Halaby
Teaching Palestinian Children to Love Beethoven, Bizet, and Mozart is a Threat to a Depraved Israeli Society
Jeff Mackler
Which Way for Today’s Mass Radicalization? Capitalism’s Impending Catastrophe…or a Socialist Future
Tom Engelhardt
It Could Have Been Different
Stephen Cooper
Santa Davis and the “Stalag 17” Riddim
August 11, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
Why Capitalism is in Constant Conflict With Democracy
Paul Street
Defund Fascism, Blue and Orange
Richard C. Gross
Americans Scorned
Andrew Levine
Trump and Biden, Two Ignoble Minds Here O’erthrown
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Nationalism Has Led to the Increased Repression of Minorities
Sonali Kolhatkar
Trump’s Presidency is a Death Cult
Colin Todhunter
Pushing GMO Crops into India: Experts Debunk High-Level Claims of Bt Cotton Success
Valerie Croft
How Indigenous Peoples are Using Ancestral Organizing Practices to Fight Mining Corporations and Covid-19
David Rovics
Tear Gas Ted Has a Tantrum in Portland
Dean Baker
There is No Evidence That Generous Unemployment Benefits are Making It Difficult to Find Workers
Robert Fantina
War on Truth: How Kashmir Struggles for Freedom of Press
Dave Lindorff
Trump Launches Attack on Social Security and Medicare
Elizabeth Schmidt
COVID-19 Poses a Huge Threat to Stability in Africa
Parth M.N.
Coping With a Deadly Virus, a Social One, Too
Thomas Knapp
The “Election Interference” Fearmongers Think You’re Stupid
Binoy Kampmark
Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom and the Pavlou Problem Down Under
Mike Garrity
Emperor Trump Loses Again in the Northern Rockies in Big Win for Bull Trout, Rivers and the ESA
Alex Lawson
34 Attorneys General Call to Bust Gilead’s Pharma Monopoly on COVID Treatment Remdesivir
August 10, 2020
Gerald Sussman
Biden’s Ukrainegate Problem
Vijay Prashad – Érika Ortega Sanoja
How the U.S. Failed at Its Foreign Policy Toward Venezuela
Daniel Warner
Geneva: The Home of Lost Causes
Mike Hastie
The Police Force Stampede in Portland on August 8, 2020 
Jack Rasmus
Trump’s Executive Orders: EOs as PR and FUs
Rev. William Alberts
Cognitive Without Conscience
David Altheide
Politicizing Fear Through the News Media
F. Douglas Stephenson
Is Big Pharma More Interested in Profiteering Than Protecting Us From Coronavirus?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Money Plague
Howard Lisnoff
Revolutionaries Living in a System of Growing Fascism
Ralph Nader
Donald Trump is Defeating Himself
Lynnette Grey Bull
The Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Human Rights Emergency is Not a Photo-Op for Ivanka Trump
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail