Tucked away in the labyrinthine maze of alleys in North Kolkata, West Bengal, is a 300-year-old quarter of traditional potters. As the year progresses towards the auspicious month of Ashwin, the colony springs into activity, creating clay images that are completed on the day of Mahalaya, a week before the annual celebration of the ‘homecoming’ of the ten-armed war goddess of the Hindu pantheon, ‘Durga’ or Mahishasuramardini, the ‘slayer of the demon Mahishasur’.
The establishment of Kumartuli (or potters’ locality) can be traced to the Battle of Plassey and the advent of the East India Company, which allotted separate districts to workmen. These districts were gradually identified by the predominant activity, example, Suriparah (the place of wine sellers), Aheeritollah (cowherd’s quarters) and Coomartolly (potters’ quarters) and so on.
The ancestors of the Kumartuli idol-makers came to the area in search of better livelihood. Working in congested, rudimentary studios, the rich clay of the Hooghly basin is transformed skillfully into splendid idols using raw materials like hay, rice husk, coconut fibre and jute twine. The goddess is moulded in the tradition of either an ‘Ek Chala’ (single-frame) tableau or in modern representative styles. The traditional decorative aspect is created using either sholapith (white spongy plant matter) or silver or gold foils in ‘daker shaaj’. In the run-up to the festival of Durga puja, hundreds of artisans toil in workshops without proper ventilation or lighting to complete the idols of Durga and her children.
Idol-making is dependent on various local ingredients such as hay from the Sundarbans region, the supply of which has dwindled. Clay is the main ingredient; entel mati is an expensive variety while bele mati is cheaper. Dresses, ornaments and sholapith artifacts are made by craftspersons from various parts of Bengal. Golden and metallic foils are procured from Surat. (The Crisis of Kumartuli, Debashish Das)
In recent years, the annual Durga Puja has created space for the ‘theme artist’ and pandal-making is a creative art dwelling on many eclectic themes. Décor, artwork and illumination are important components of a community puja and a source of livelihood for traditional electrical artists from the former French colony of Chandernagore and for associated craftspersons from various districts.
The clay idol-making small cottage industry has thus created a large ecosystem of supporting crafts, which are mostly environment-friendly. Idols are also artistically created using jute, paper, matchsticks etc., though not necessarily by the Kumartuli artisans. Clay idol-making processes involve entire families. Dependence of this industry on small businesses helps support other livelihoods. The demand for Kumartuli idols within India and in the overseas markets has an intrinsic growth potential due to the environment-friendly dimension of the craft. Most artisans belong to disadvantaged communities which need support and encouragement as part of the overall effort towards inclusive growth.
How will a Geographical Indication (GI) status under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, help?
The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, November 2001, reaffirmed that “culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”. It further noted that, “culture is at the heart of contemporary debates about identity, social cohesion…”
‘The primary raison d’etre of GIs is founded on a quasi-intellectual property/consumer protection platform. Their initial justification is the prevention of fraud… preventing the dilution of a geographical production area’s reputation by low quality — or simply different-quality — produce from another region’. (Taking “Trade and Culture” Seriously: Geographical Indications and Cultural Protection In WTO Law, Tomer Broude)
Unlike other Intellectual Property Rights, the Geographical Indication (GI) is a community right. Traditional communities often rely on GIs to safeguard rights associated with their products whose quality, reputation or other characteristics are linked to the geographical area in which they are produced. Significantly, a Geographical Indication tag bestows universal recognition on an entire community and can attract supporting policy interventions. Consequently, GI recognition has been attached to many crafts and textiles traditions in India unique to particular communities.
The Kumartuli potters have resided in the Kumartuli colony for hundreds of years. The unique cultural value of clay idol-making here is derived from age-old knowledge and skills of the idol makers, the art work in the iconography, the laborious processes involved and the religio-cultural significance of Durga puja in Bengal. Uniqueness lies in the application of technique with skilled hands. The raw materials are locally available products and the skills required for moulding clay, painting, decoration etc., are in the realm of intangible knowledge which has been passed down from earlier generations and adapted to the needs of the market in innovative ways. Kumartuli is thus a unique repository of traditional cultural knowledge.
What benefits would a GI registration confer?
Sadly, this unique traditional craft in Bengal has not been suitably recognised or supported. While Bankura Panchmura Terracotta Craft, Purulia Chau Mask, Bengal Dokra and Bengal Patachitra, etc., have been granted the GI tag, the Kumartuli clay idols, surprisingly, are yet to figure on the GI Registry. The clay artisans work in miserable conditions and suffer from financial crises, particularly during the lean season. Prices of idols do not cover costs, which have increased over the years. Large numbers of artisans trained in this craft perforce look for odd jobs. In the years to come, this can have adverse implications for the Sharod Utsav. The calamitous situation of the pandemic and the aftermath of the Amphan cyclone have affected the livelihood of these clay artists as their idols have either suffered damage or remained largely unsold. Interventions for supporting the community are required now, more than ever before.
The acknowledgement of their craftsmanship through a Geographical Registration (GI) tag would be a big step forward in formally recognising the community and its unique craft. The registration of a geographical indication shall give to the authorized user or users, the right to obtain relief in respect of infringement of the geographical indication under the GI Act. The authorized user shall have the exclusive right to the use of the geographical indication in relation to the goods for which the GI is registered. GI products generally command a premium, example, Darjeeling tea. In the case of clay idols, given the demand, a GI tag may even enable the artisans to reap financial benefits. Only time will tell.
However, for realising the full benefits of such a registration, other targeted interventions will be necessary, especially in production, crafts preservation, marketing and welfare of artisans to sustain their creativity. (Indian Handicrafts Directions for State Intervention, MV Narayana Rao). Kumartuli can be developed as a sustainable socio-cultural heritage area through a robust multi-pronged strategy in mission mode with concerned stakeholders. A comprehensive database on number of potter families, master idol makers, junior clay artists, outsourced artisans, number of work sheds, etc., if properly researched, can aid overall policy planning.
The formal creation of a ‘Kumartuli Crafts Village’ like perhaps Raghurajpur near Puri in Odisha, with a boundary wall and up-gradation of basic infrastructure can be a next step. Raw material depots within the village can ensure easy availability of basic inputs. Other critical infrastructural support systems must include improvements in work-shed amenities (lighting, ventilation) and dwelling quarters, creation of a large common facility for storage of finished images and a waste disposal facility, besides improvement in roads, drainage systems, street lighting, etc., within the colony. Schemes under the Ministry of Textiles can support some of these interventions.
For crafts preservation, awareness about the craft can be disseminated through a dedicated portal with information on individual artisans and their unique skills, besides the history, artwork and religio-cultural beliefs associated with the festival it supports. A ‘Clay Idol Crafts Museum’ in the Crafts Village can display innovative creations and the contribution of the ‘theme artist’.
Linking the Crafts Village with tourist circuits and with e-marketing platforms can fetch better price realizations for the idol-makers. To develop export markets, the association of potters can be registered as a ‘Producers Society’ and suitably assisted to acquire membership with the Handicrafts Export Promotion Council.
Older idol-makers need recognition and support under credit schemes and old-age pensions. Schemes for life insurance and credit access implemented for the handicrafts sector by the Ministry of Textiles can be leveraged. Education and skilling of children of these families must be prioritised and supported through special schemes which can encourage them to carry on with this great tradition.
A GI tag can be a first step towards recognising the distinctive artistic talent of this remarkable social group of potters and prevent their unique craft from disappearing into oblivion.
The writer is Joint Secretary, Ministry of Culture
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