Living with the Idols

— Behind the Scenes with The Durga Makers —
Photos & text: Sonali Ghosh

As Durga puja draws to a close, the lives of those who make the ‘protimas’ or clay idols are dictated 24/7 by their work-in-progress, observes photographer and filmmaker Sonali Ghosh. In Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, a short walk from the Shiv Mandir-Kalibari complex, Sonali finds an artistic idyll, home, hearth and workplace to both the ‘protimas’ and their makers.

IT IS HALF PAST 10 in the morning as I enter the Shiv Mandir complex in Chittaranjan Park, a place abuzz with preparations for the impending Durga puja. Stacks of bamboo poles, sea-like swathes of canvas, piles of folded tarpaulin, life-size thermocol pieces blanket the ground as men move, push and arrange them.

I walk past the chaos towards the other side of Shiv Mandir into a narrow lane where the purohit’s living quarters are. The aroma of sandalwood wafts in, perhaps from the half-made statues on both sides of the lane, which doubles up as the workshop for these idol-makers who live and work here.

These men are highly skilled, in-demand artisans doing the intense, laborious work of creating the protima or Durga clay idols, a prized and precious activity from a slow spring to frenzied autumn.

Their skills are learnt and sacred — creating the chala (the canvass in the background of the idol) is a unique family-run trade in West Bengal. Once these idols are dressed, they are bejewelled in the costliest silks, and gold and precious stones weighing up to 50 kg. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the idol-makers are idolised for the protimas they bring to life. In this workshop alone, protimas are being made for 35 pandals in and around Delhi, including Mela Ground and K-Block in Chittaranjan Park.

As I step inside the tarpaulin-covered workshop, I see one of the artisans preparing the day’s meal at the back where a small corner has been appropriated as their kitchen. The aroma of frying fish mixed with cumin seeds rises as the cooling autumn rain comes down on the thick sheets. The aroma of sandalwood rises in the air again and I look around wondering if the clay has a mix of sandalwood in it.

Before heading to their cooking space, I head over to talk to Sujit Das, who is preparing the base for the idols. He is wearing a bright yellow football jersey and running shorts, so I ask him if he likes the sport and he lights up. Turning around to look at me for the first time, he confirms his love for the game with one look.

But when I ask him which team is his favourite, his face falls. “In my line of work, I don’t get to see much of football, I’m afraid. Only a few matches when the World Cup is on…” I nod and commiserate in agreement. We fall silent as I try to capture with my camera his fast-moving hands stroking the clay to a smooth sheen at the base of the protima. As I talk to Sujit, there’s that wave of sandalwood scent again.

In the silence that ensues between us, I can hear one of the artisans in another part of the shack pleading with his wife on the phone. He wants her to wait for him to return so they can go shopping together. As the men around him tease the couple, the artisan relents and let’s his wife go without him provided she talk to him for another half an hour before lunch. A purohit rustles past, dressed in a stiff raw silk dhoti–kurta, a folded shawl resting on his shoulders. The aroma of sandalwood is stronger now. Sujit nods towards the purohit and tells me the scent is worn by the purohits who walk past on their way to the temple for the morning puja.

The chief architect and designer in the workshop is an artist named Gobindo. He resides in the temple complex now but is originally from Krishnanagar, a mofussil town in West Bengal famous for artisans like him, who have, over the years, migrated en masse for commercial pujas in and around Kolkata. At the beginning of the year, many other idol makers also travel to Kumartuli — the biggest idol making destination in Bengal — shuttling between Delhi and Kolkata through the year before finally settling in the national capital for three to four months before the pujas. Delhi is big on their map because the biggest puja pandals outside of Kolkata are set up here between Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi and Kalibari in west Delhi. Numerous other residential apartments in Delhi have a separate pandal each.

This time period is when the lives of these artisans and that of the idols they are creating become deeply intertwined. The artisans live, work and perform their daily chores around their clay idols-in-waiting in the same workshop. They live, cook, eat and inhabit the same space as their creations. Their hands are perpetually covered in clay. It is not unusual to see everyday items they use kept casually, or carefully, around their work in progress… a gamchha left to dry or to protect the clay, a cup of tea perched at the feet of an idol, or a table fan to cool the clay and the artisan.

Following Gobindo around gives me an idea of how challenging his work gets as the pujas draw near. He is to be found here at all hours of the day and night often consulting his smartphone for a design detail or a sharing a printout with one of his men who are busy trying to match what they are creating with the paper version he shows them. Gobindo tells me that the work can continue all night long, stopping only for an hour’s break in the morning for tea and breakfast. The raw material — sticky soil or Atha mati — is brought in trucks from West Bengal or Punjab during monsoon. Sticky in nature, it allows itself to be moulded in the shape of the iron wirework which forms the exoskeleton of the idol.

Making the Durga idol takes four to five months. The work is staggered on account of other festivals when idols of other deities are in demand like during Janmasthami and Ganesh Chaturthi. Usually, the work to create a clay rendition of Goddess Durga’s mythological narrative from the Vedas begins right at the start of the year. It continues with changes and modifications —new design element in wardrobe and clothing, a new expression, shape, twist to the facial features — all thanks to the current trends and patterns in popular media.

An idol unit or chala consists of three goddesses — Durga riding her lion or tiger, Saraswati seated on a swan and Lakshmi with her owl, flanked by Ganesha with the mouse and Kartik on a peacock. The vilified Mahishasura is stamped underfoot Durga, who also holds up her 10 hands with a weapon in each. Interestingly, the very meaning of Durga is `fort’ in architectural terms, not unlike the massive construction undertaken by these idol makers who embark on a journey to make these sculpted versions of the pantheon come alive.

I find myself gravitating towards Gobindo again. Wandering through the workshop, in between running errands in the market outside, I can almost hear him think aloud as he passes on feedback to his men in stage whispers and loud hand movements. The chief artisan is a man of five feet, always in deep thought, humming a Bhatiali or riverside tune to himself, and busy working on an idol thrice his size. Gently shaping its bust or arm and stroking the clay into its smooth finish… lost in his work, his long cooled cup of tea perched at Durga’s delicate, yet larger than life, feet, a cigarette between the fingers of his one free hand, Gobindo appears like an extension of the idols he is making.

So many hands: one to mould, one to shape, and to tend to his own needs of tea and smoke. As Gobindo hums, I ask him which area the song is from. I get no answer. Later, one of his men tells me that Gobindo would leave the following day for Kolkata to shop for saris and jewels for all the Durgas here. The artisan plays the role of stylist and designer too.

A drove of photographers wander in and start taking pictures. As flashes go off in multiple directions, Gobindo and his men remain lost in deep work. It is a state where contact with the real world is lost. Like a horse wearing blinkers, the artisan only sees and feels what is at the end of his finger tips and his touch – his protima. I give up asking questions after a few minutes and find the silence conducive to my own work, trying to make sense of the tangle of arms and legs and torsos and personal effects - human and otherwise - that I am trying to frame in my own images.

I continue in this fashion through the workshop, stopping at corners where ready idols stand unclothed, waiting for whatever sartorial definitions and accessories the times would impose on them this year, their look, expression, gaze.

Over the decades, contemporary elements have crept into the craft, allowed for by the artisans themselves or articulated by the committees and pandals who commission the idols.

In that sense, the idol-maker reigns by sleight of hand. It is he who designs and decides the final look of the goddess and her gang of vanquished demons and supernatural protectors.

As I wander into another corner of the workshop, I introduce myself to Mahavir, also from Krishnagar, who is perched atop a ladder and perfecting the torso of another Durga idol for a different pandal.

Behind him is the kitchen area I had been eyeing when I walked in. Here, another artisan, Chinmaya, is sitting on his haunches, tucked out of sight behind an array of half-ready protimas, cooking rui maacher jhol, deemer dalna and bhaat for all of them. The fish fried, he now adds chopped cauliflower and potatoes to the curry. Around him, arranged in a semi-circle are bowls of varying sizes with cut vegetables, spices, seeds, chopped onion and chillies.

Above Chinmaya is a makeshift changing room with clothes hanging from more half-made clay arms and torsos. Personal effects like mirror, combs and wallets are casually strewn about. I see them placed on the half-ready idols too. An egg crate is propped up at an idol’s drying clay leg, a packet of Glucon-D is at Ganesha’s feet, showing the casual intimacy of the space.

In my line of vision, I can see a half-clothed idol-in-waiting standing by as its maker gets ready right before its eyes while also attending to it, absently sipping his tea, lost in thought. Proof that the act of creating and the act of being is one for these artisans, one fuelling and fulfilling the other.