This is place where gods are made. And their makers? Mere mortals.
Kumortuli para (area) in Bengal is famous for being the birthplace for many of Kolkata’s iconic gods and goddesses. The artists of this talent-rich hub along the banks of the Hooghly river have been mesmerising the world with their art form. The bustling crowd of artists that work tirelessly in the area’s narrow lanes day and night may not be equipped with modern techniques, but the hard work, persistence and originality witnessed here is unparalleled.
Every year, hundreds of artists produce masterpieces that not only enthral spectators of the city, but also the world. Though there is a regular din of work all through the year, and artists hardly get any time off owing to the numerous Hindu festivals, the intensity increases manifold during just ahead of that one festival that forms the highlight of the year for every Bengali worth his salt – the Durga Puja.
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Durga Puja, the biggest bonanza of the Bengali community, is celebrated with unparalleled fanfare for five days in September/October across the world, but it’s a whole different plane in Kolkata. The city’s transforms during the puja days, 24×7 — from fantastically and sarcastically unique themes to the charged energy pulsating across the Bengal capital, everything is actually centred around these clay idols that are mostly all crafted at Kumortuli. Each year, artists weave their magic to create something new, different and spectacular. But it’s a tough and taxing job, especially when there are more than a million pujas happening around the state.
What is ironical though, with the central female figure of Durga, it’s the women who are mostly missing amid her creators. Of the hundreds of artist that exist in Kumortuli, only two women artists have an independent label of their own that contribute to this art. It is not that they do not work in this industry, but as with many other professions, there is a lack of recognition for the hard work they put in.
But here are the game changers. These two women — China Pal and Mala Pal — of the Kumortuli’s potter hub not only have broken traditions and the barriers of patriarchy but also earned a special place in this man’s world. Today, they have not only established their individual identity but also set trends by doing the unthinkable.
Being a class apart is not new for the two. Last year, the world was shocked when Kolkata for the first time witnessed a transgender or ardh-narishwar idol of Shiva and Durga. The idol immediately gained recognition for its unique, path-breaking concept and the social statement it made. It had been commissioned by the city’s transgender community – who, tired of the discrimination, decided to have a puja of their own. Its creator? China Pal.
The quinquagenarian had been approached by Manabi Bandyopadhyay (India’s first transgender to be a college principal). And though China had done such a project before, this was the first time she was attempting it in the ‘sacred’ area of Kumortuli. The process was cumbersome and wrought with challenges. Every step of idol making known to them seemed unfamiliar and challenging. “The head of the idol, was the most difficult part, and had to be assembled separately but in a way that would appease the eye.” China recalls how the ‘jata’ or hair of Shiva was specially brought in all the way from Krishnanagar.
Clad in a modest, orange sari, China says it was sheer coincidence and “hard luck” that brought her into this profession. Hard luck because it was initiated by her father’s demise. Of six siblings — four sisters and two brothers — China alone has kept his art alive. That’s despite his disapproval, when he was around. She recalls her father – Hemanta Pal, a renowned artist – was against her going to the studio and learning the work. “Baba (father) did not like it when I used to go there, he used to say there is no place for a girl in this trade.” However, the pull of the art was too great, even if it meant going against her father’s wishes. Every day she would visit the studio, pestering his staff to teach her.
“It was 1994, when Baba fell ill and passed away just about a month before the Durga Puja. With ample work and impending deliveries, we were lost. The staff literally withdrew saying without Baba, they couldn’t complete the tasks at hand.” Realising the gravity of the situation, an inexperienced China took charge. “My father’s staff were disapproving and did not want me to join the business. They refused to help me, teach me. I almost could not believe I would be able to pull off the job.”
Just as she started to lose confidence, one of their clients – central Kolkata’s Entally Sangha – who knew about the situation, their difficulties and her inexperience decided to put their faith in her and let her lead the project any way. “And ever since then they have been my regular client,” China says.
Smiling shyly about her success she says it has been a long road. Her father had left behind loans that she vowed to repay. “The first thing I did was to repay all the loans Baba had. I started my new business with just Rs3000,” she says, adding that she also overhauled the staff to get a more supportive team and start afresh. Today, China runs two studios – one in Kumortuli and other in Bagbazar, where 10-15 men work for her.
Over the years, she has mastered the art of mixing colours and ornamentation, but the basics still elude her. Sitting at her humble abode in Kumortuli, where she lives with her mother, she accepts, “I don’t know perfectly how to do the first few steps of idol making. I tell them (the staff) about the idols’ dimensions but do not tie the hay rolls to the bamboo structures. I start the work from dabbling the clay till the last finishing touches.” With puja just days away, she bustles between customers, porters and staff, all while talking to us.
As others adopt modern styles of idol-making that seem more gimmicky, China has stuck to her father’s style of ‘ek chala protima’ (where all the five idols are set against a common backdrop). “I don’t do theme pujo, art pujo; I have kept alive my father’s style of idols, with ‘dhaker saaj’, ‘sholar saaj’ and ‘tana chokh’”.
Her work is famous in not only Kolkata, Bengal but neighbouring states too. But with last year’s transgender idol, she made international headlines — a fair place to be for someone, whose entrance into the art studio, irked so many.
In another section of Kumortuli, another woman artist sits painting tiny idols – her story is a tad bit different, but its significance is similar. Mala Pal is a household name in Dubai, Germany and the US. Her signature miniature idols are exported every year. A tiny set of intricate idols is hand-crafted by her from start to finish. Keeping in mind the distance her art travels, the five-idols are detachable from their shared base and packed separately for shipping. The idols delivered to foreign lands usually fetch her some Rs12,000-13,000 per piece.
“The smaller idols are more difficult to create. It requires more effort, and precision. Usually the bigger idols can be ready in few days time, but building and painting these small ones require patience of more than a month,” says Mala, whose teachers – unlike China – include her father Dulal Chandra Pal and brother Govinda Pal.
She began learning idol-making between the tender age of 8 and 10 years. As a teenager, back in 1993, she had already made her first idol. Now, in her early 40s, the artist says, “No women or girls used to do this work back then. Even my father had initially objected but finally gave up to my cajoling and taught me.” No longer around, looking at her success, her father would have been glad.
Mala has been creating idols for the past 20 years, along with her mother, Maya Rani Pal, who passed away last year. Her work is mostly appreciated abroad, where practicality wins over size and people prefer smaller idols. Not only that, her exquisite art works have secured a place in many museums around the world. In fact, when we met her, Mala was busy finishing the work for her deliveries to Chennai and Dubai.
A colour enthusiast, she received special training in colour mixing. “With the help of the National Crafts Museum in Delhi, I studied for a year about the various method and technologies. I can create over 100 colours.” She recalls that when people at the Crafts Museum appreciated her work after one of her idols secured a position there; she expressed her desire to learn more about colours. That’s how her association with the museum began. Ever since then she has been called upon several times either for some renovation works to preserve the artefacts there or conduct training camps for children. “Whenever I receive a telegram from them, I have to go. I have conducted over 10 such camps in the last couple of years. It’s a matter of duty. For this many times I have missed family functions, but I have never turned them down.”
The artist, a doting mother of 15-year-old Beauty Pal, wants her daughter to keep the tradition alive. But studies first! With secondary boards next year, she says, “After this pujo, I will just focus on her studies. After it is done, I want to take her to Delhi to show what her mother has achieved.”
During the off-season, Mala concentrates on making clay jewellery that’s also famous worldwide. Gleaming with joy, she shows her collection, ready to be shipped to Dubai along with an idol.
With her husband Bhanu Rudra Pal’s support, who is a specialist in making ornaments for the idols and fibre-glass models, she has been progressing side by side hoping to rise and shine.
Both China and Mala have scripted their own success stories amid many challenges. They are the real durgas of Kumortuli, who battle censure, stereotyping, discrimination and a whole host of other demons, and yet, persevere and rise.