With Durga Puja, the biggest and most celebrated festival of the Bengali community, just two-and-a-half months away, Kolkata’s iconic Kumartuli area, a colony meant for idol-makers, is buzzing with activity. And working in tandem are their counterparts, 1500 km away in the Gangetic Plains.
A visit to the Kalibari complex of South Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park will lead you to a giant shaded tent, which at present houses a team of 12 industrious idol makers working day and night with a mission in hand. Ostracizing themselves from their families, these artisans have come here from all over Bengal, an annual act of migration which lasts for around four months.
Govind Nath, the head of the group, sounds pretty nostalgic as he draws the lineaments of the face of the goddess. “This is an ancient art form which was bequeathed upon me by my forefathers”. He was ordained to this diaphanous art of idol making by his father who used to come from Kolkata every year in June.
The making of the idol in itself is a Herculean task, following a division of labour with different groups being assigned to a specific piece of work. At first the platform on which the idol rests is raised using bamboo sticks of different sizes and shapes. Once the basic skeleton is formed, straw with jute strings is used to give the idol a particular shape.
Ramesh Pal, a 41-year-old artisan from Kolkata informs that all the straw is brought from different districts of Uttar Pradesh. “In addition, clay is also procured from the plains of Punjab and Bengal. Clay, in solution with water of appropriate proportion, is then applied to the straw body in several layers by a separate group of artisans, thus forming the flesh over the skeleton. The palms, limbs and the head are made separately.”
The making of the head, however, demands artistry of the highest order and is mainly conducted by the virtuosos of this field. “The head is first formed with clay followed by a spell of drying and subsequent coating with Plaster of Paris.The plaster mould, thus formed, is hollow once it is separated from clay head, a process which is repeated while preparing more such heads,” narrated Govind.
The exercise culminates with the painting of the eyes, termed as “Chokkhudaan” in Bengali on Mahalaya, a day which heralds the onset of Devi-Pakshya, nearly a week before the final celebration begins.
Not just clay or straw, even the jewellery for the idols is brought from Bengal. When faced with the imminent question regarding the reason behind their temporary relocation to Delhi inspite of such shortcomings which the capital possesses, Balai Pal, the youngest among the lot, says, “There is no room for complaints and despair in our life. All that matters is how we can support our families eventually. If Delhi presents before us a better option, we are willing to accept it happily.” Balai, who hails from a village called Chakdah in South Bengal, has a wife back home looking after his 2-year-old son. “Plus the weather gods seem to be kinder here always”, adds Balai, drawing an allusion to the recent Bengal floods.
The team at CR park caters to a demand for idols from different places in Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan, sometimes even receiving orders from abroad. “The idols for US and UK will be dispatched a month before the Pujas. Overall, this year we have 40-50 projects in hand,” said Govind Nath, who also makes idols for Ganesh Chaturthi and Viswakarma Puja.
However, all these fail to eclipse the apprehensions and hardships which have become synonymous with their livelihood. “The art doesn’t bring us good money. Plus DDA and Delhi Police are not allowing parks to host more such Pujas,” complains one of the lot.