According to Ramayana, Ayodhya was lit up with diyas (earthen lamps) on the day Lord Ram returned from his exile, and ever since, the country has been celebrating the occasion as the festival of lights. The tradition of lighting up one’s home continues till date, but with the advent of Chinese lights, the lives of those who make diyas in West Bengal are slowly sinking into darkness.
Although Diwali and Kali Puja are around the corner, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and rising fuel prices have made things worse.
While the diya makers are spread across the state, a majority of them hail from the 60-odd families of Chaltaberia in Dattapukur, situated a few kilometres from Kolkata.
Also known as ‘Maatir Gram’ (the earthen village), the handiwork of people hailing from this locality has left its mark even on the international markets. Besides earthen lamps, small idols of Lakshmi and Ganesh are also made for Diwali. Apart from Kolkata, the products are in great demand in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Gujarat, Assam, Patna and Rajasthan. Among several earthen items, Chaltaberia is also known for its ‘ekannya prodip’, or the 51 diyas, a single unit on which 51 diyas are mounted.
With Covid lockdowns, however, no product could be sent outside West Bengal. Speaking with indianexpress.com, 60-year-old Joydeb Pal, who has spent almost all his life in this trade, said, “The tough competition against Chinese lights is not new. But tackling one hurdle after the other is becoming tough now. While Covid-19 made our lives miserable, rising fuel prices have increased our input cost. Earlier, a truck of soil would cost between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000, which now costs Rs 30,000 to Rs 35,000. Another trouble is transporting our products to the cities and towns, as freight charges have risen, too.”
Earlier, production at the workshops, situated on both sides of Jessore Road, used to be round-the-clock and during Diwali, the makers would hardly find time to breathe. But all that is a thing of the past now, lamented another artisan of the area, Ranjit Pal.
Ranjit said, “I have already received a court notice as I could not repay a bank loan. Amid dipping demands, some of our kids have come back from wherever they were after the pandemic struck and joined hands in making things from clay but where is that amount of work?”
With restrictions in place and a fear among people over the possible third wave, several wholesalers, who are otherwise regular buyers at Chaltaberia, are not able to make it to the village, in turn affecting the business. Malati Pal, a woman pottery maker, said, “It is becoming difficult for us to keep going. The wholesalers are not coming to Chaltaberia and the rising transportation costs are pushing up prices. It is a very difficult situation for families that earn only by selling clay items all year round.”
Nowsin Bibi, who makes lamps with her husband, said, “I have been doing this for 10 years. Many people like me are feeding their families by making these lamps. However, Covid-19 has caused us more losses this year than it did last year.”
Owner of a workshop, Kamal Islam said, “Our business had picked up pace over the years. Customers were coming and the volume of the business was increasing until a terrible lull ushered in by Covid and rising fuel prices.”
With Diwali around the corner, the artisans are hoping to have some business, even if it isn’t like the pre-pandemic times.