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The story of Bengal’s Pal community: From potters to idol makers

The shift of the Pal community from the potter’s wheel to the making of clay idols is a story of exploring new caste identities through changing power structures and economic opportunities.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |
Updated: October 16, 2018 10:38:05 am
Durga Puja, Durga puja 2018, idol makers, Kumortuli, idol makers, Pal community, Durga puja history, Durga puja in Delhi, C R Park, India news Indian Express For the Pals, making idols of clay is a hereditary profession, something they have instinctively learned from their fathers and grandfathers. (Express photo by Nishant Shekhar)

The barely spoken about, beaten down premises of Chandralok cinema in South Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park (C R Park) is currently adorned with a spirit of religiosity and celebration. Scattered all around are mounds of clay and mud, bamboo, straw, and bright, shiny colourful fabric. Manik Pal is one among the several others who have made the space their workshop for the last four months as they painstakingly create divinity out of clay. Pal has been giving the finishing touches to the idol of Goddess Durga that will be worshipped soon during the annual festival of the Bengalis. “Eitai amader byapsha, pesha, nesha” (this is our business, profession, and addiction),” says Pal, a resident of Krishnanagar in Nadia district of West Bengal.

Manik is part of the Pal community known to be the idol-makers of Bengal. Historical records show that the majority of them trace their origins to Krishnanagar, from where they branched out to Kumortuli , the traditional potters’ quarter in northern Kolkata. For the Pals, making idols of clay is a hereditary profession, something they have instinctively learned from their fathers and grandfathers. “First my grandfather started making them, then my father and brother. I have learned from seeing them at home,” says Gopal Pal who is also from Nadia district and moves to Delhi each year to make idols for the Durga and Kali festivals.

Gopal who has been involved in the business of clay idol making for the last 20 years explains that his grandfather was in fact a potter. “Now there are steel and aluminum utensils in the market so no one buys them. So we have left that business and only manufacture idols of Gods,” he says. The Pal community is a branch of the kumbhakar (potter) caste spread across Bengal. “The potter’s wheel stands as a marker of their identity,” writes anthropologist Moumita Sen in her article ‘Craft, identity hierarchy: The kumbhakars of Bengal’.

Durga Puja, Durga puja 2018, idol makers, Kumortuli, idol makers, Pal community, Durga puja history, Durga puja in Delhi, C R Park, India news Indian Express One such community is the one that branches out from Krishnanagar to Kumortuli in Kolkata or other parts of India where there is a market for idols of Hindu Gods. (Express photo by Shashi Ghosh)

Over time though, many among the kumbhakars have moved away from the potter’s wheel to newer professions. One such community is the one that branches out from Krishnanagar to Kumortuli in Kolkata or other parts of India where there is a market for idols of Hindu Gods. The shift of the Pal community from the potter’s wheel to the making of clay idols is a story of exploring new caste identities through changing power structures and economic opportunities.

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Origins of the Pals

Sen, in her work, notes that one of the most popular narratives explaining the genesis of the Pal community is that Maharaja Krishnachandra who was the ruler and a zamindar in Nadia and its surrounding areas in the 18th century was one of the biggest patrons of the idol-making community of Krishnanagar. “Not only did they disseminate the worship of different Hindu Gods and Goddesses, but their patronage and aesthetic sensibility was also indispensable to the birth of a form which came to be broadly known as the Krishnanagar style’.

Krishnachandra’s patronage towards idol-making, however, is largely connected to the history of grand Durga puja celebrations that started making their appearance in the second half of the eighteenth century.The royal families of Bengal, the zamindars or landlords to be precise, had a unique function to play in Bengal society. They were not only owners of land who had control over the revenue from their subjects but were also little kings in their own right exercising a huge amount of control over their subjects. However, with the change of political power in Bengal from the hands of Mughals to those of the Nawab and then again with the British taking control, the zamindars found their authority being unsettled. Historian Tithi Bhattacharya writes that in this milieu of shifting fluid political affiliations, zamindars considered it necessary to assert and display political authority and financial stability. The ostentatious celebrations of Goddess Durga and several other Hindu Gods and Goddesses was one such way in which the zamindars were asserting their power.

Durga Puja, Durga puja 2018, idol makers, Kumortuli, idol makers, Pal community, Durga puja history, Durga puja in Delhi, C R Park, India news Indian Express Krishnachandra’s patronage towards idol-making, however, is largely connected to the history of grand Durga puja celebrations that started making their appearance in the second half of the eighteenth century. (Wikimedia Commons)

In his book, “Krishnanagar mrtshlpa o mrtshilpi samaj”, Bengali essayist Sudhir Chakraborty notes that the royal family of Krishnanagar was instrumental in the conception of grand festivals of Hindu deities in Bengal. Sen explains that the zamindars would often get people from the kumbhakar caste to craft the idols for these celebrations. It is worth noting here that the shift in the craft of the kumbhakars, in this case, was also connected with the value of the object being produced. While earthen pots and utensils carried within them utilitarian value, the creation of the images of cultic value carried within them a far more powerful message. The preference for potters by the zamindars also needs to be located within the larger context of how clay art, in general, had been gaining popularity in Bengal under British rule.

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The disinclination towards idol making today

Even today there are several within the Pal community who continue with pottery along with idol-making. Joydeb Pal from Nadia district has been making idols since the age of 18. However, he maintains that this is his seasonal work. For the rest of the year, he is involved in pottery. He strongly believes that idol-making as a profession has a large amount of respect attached to it. However, when asked about the future of his profession, he is confident that he would not want his children to continue with this work. “Now I want to educate my children so that they do not have to come in this field. There is too much hard work in this,” he says.

Durga Puja, Durga puja 2018, idol makers, Kumortuli, idol makers, Pal community, Durga puja history, Durga puja in Delhi, C R Park, India news Indian Express Even today there are several within the Pal community who continue with pottery along with idol-making. (Express Photo by Nishant Shekhar)

Manik Pal, meanwhile, is of the opinion that the uncertainty and risk involved in the business is too high and that he hopes with all his heart that his children are not inclined towards this profession. “My children won’t do this work of idol making. I don’t want them to go through so much work pressure,” he says.

The qualms of the Pals are palpable but so is their dedication. On this sultry October afternoon, as Joydep Pal speaks to indianexpress.com, his eyes remain glued on the eye of Devi Durga that he is painstakingly recreating with all concentration. There is devotion involved and so is a lot of emotion. “We are creating her. I cannot tell you in words how sad we feel when she is immersed in water after the Pujo. But what can be done?”

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First published on: 14-10-2018 at 01:19:19 pm

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