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A Story of Resurrection : Kalighat Temple

A Story of Resurrection : Kalighat Temple

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Tamal Bhattacharya working on the renovation of Kalighat mandir

This narrative delves into the journey of Tamal Bhattacharya, a professional painter, who finds himself unexpectedly involved in the renovation and recreation project of the historic Kalighat temple. Through his passion for ceramics and dedication to craftsmanship, Tamal leads the effort to recreate intricate terracotta and ceramic tiles, restoring the temple’s architectural heritage.

The unexpected phone call from senior artist Anupam Chakraborty on that sultry July evening took Tamal Bhattacharya, a professional painter and a pass-out of Visva-Bharati Kala Bhavana,  by surprise. In few weeks from then, the sheer excitement reached its crescendo when he stepped into the precinct of the Kalighat temple, which, going by the widely accepted historical records, was built in the late eighteenth century under the aegis of Sabarna zamindar of Barisha  Santosh Roy and his nephew Rajiblochon Roy and undergone a major renovation in the year 1809.  

He was here to be part of the renovation and recreation project being carried out under the patronage of Reliance Foundation, a nonprofit social aid consortium of Reliance Industries Ltd.   

Tamal’s entry into the world of Ceramics, Terracotta was perchance. After graduation he got himself admitted into the course of Murals in the School of Fine Arts under MS University Of Baroda where he met the renowned ceramist P R Daroz. He nibbled with the clay to give his artistic flair in ceramics a vent and “Daroz Sir” had appreciated & offered him to work with him on his multiple projects after seeing his practice with clay. It opened up a new vista. With time Tamal arduously worked up and honed his skill in ceramics which earned him many laurels. And today standing in front of that 200-plus-year-old Kalighat temple’s edifice, Tamal resolved to put that artistic skill to the test.

Renovation work going on in Kalighat Mandir
Renovation work going on in Kalighat Mandir

Kalighat is one of the holy Shakti Peeths, which has got immense following amongst the Hindu worshippers. Not only Bengal, but across the country devotees visit this temple around the year. Legend has it that Borgis, the Maratha mercenaries who came to plunder the western borders of Bengal between 1741 and 1751 did know about the temple’s existence, and in reverence, their descendants still visit the sanctum sanctorum on auspicious days to offer puja.

“As a Bengalee, I have been a resident of this city for four generations and naturally have an emotional connection with the Kalighat Mandir. Therefore, in addition to the excitement of recreating a heritage, left behind by the artisans of those times, I wanted to put an honest effort into bringing back the old look of the edifice, which perhaps most of us never had the chance of seeing, said Tamal, “and I am fortunate that I have been entrusted with this job with the concurrence of all the stakeholders viz the temple executive committee, the panda committee, various government representatives, the sponsoring corporate and last but not the least, conservation architect  Sri Kalyan Chakraborty, who supported me a lot in this project !”

An old photograph of Kalighat Temple
An old photograph of Kalighat Temple Sushanto Chatterjee

This kind of colossal assignment calls for an in-depth survey, to be followed by drawing up the contours of the work at hand. Within seven days Tamal found himself perched on the makeshift ladder and ledges of the temple with camera and his drawing book. The close scrutiny of the roof, which is an aatchala architecture — a temple architecture found in 17th and 18th century Bengal, revealed a long story. The temple shows a type of aatchala style known as the ‘arch and vault’, meaning it has the archetypal arched or chala roofs ( having the shape of an inverse boat) with square bases or vaults. Around the roof, there exist intricate patterns, curved in terracotta tiles. However,  these were barely visible from the ground level, and also, unmindful slipshod repairs in the past made them mostly obscure as a swathe of chemical paints have been applied on them. The ceramic tiles of Nouveau style were affixed later, in order to prevent the dampening of the walls of the temple. However, the downside was the lack of uniformity. “The entire temple complex has 27 different types of tiles,  which were likely chosen as per their availability”, quipped Tamal. The Nouveau style is characterized by ornamental curvilinear design and the use of sinuous lines and vibrant colour. It also contains patterns like roses, tulips, vines & grapes which are created by tube relief work in contrasting colour of dark and shade. These ceramic tiles were also found to be damaged or missing at places, which called for recreation.

At the end of his survey, Tamal took a plunge and that is recreating the tiles, both terracotta and ceramics. For terracotta tiles,  making the mould was a big challenge as that would mean freeing up the existing tiles from slimes of paint and cleaning them to get the exact impression of the design engraved. “ You have to see the architectural finesse and wonder at the craftsmanship up above the temple edifice”, exclaimed Tamal. Once the rubber mould was made few of the terracotta tiles were manufactured and fired at Tamal’s own facility at Studio Calyx and others at Bankura, a town about 170 km northwest of Kolkata and home to terracotta handicrafts. “I have to ensure that these bricklike plates are fired at more than 950 degrees centigrade which actually offers toughness and longevity to the material’’. 

For ceramic tiles, five to six patterns were chosen by Tamal out of 27 varieties. Being a ceramist he convinced the project architect to desist from digital printing, which was the easiest way out. Tamal painstakingly casted the moulds and wherever the relief was low, made an exact drawing. It was decided that mostly the plates would be casted and only a part, digitally imprinted. Khurja in UP and Thangadh in Gujarat, centers of the ceramic industry, were Tamal’s natural choice for casting and digital printing respectively. “I was familiar with the craftsmanship available in these places,” said Tamal.

Time was a crucial denominator of the temple project which, at times, was overtly demanding. Tamal, a teacher in a Kolkata private school had to manage time after the day’s work and spent long hours up and down the scaffolding in the dead of night or sitting in front of the burning furnace to complete his part of the job, which he never repented or complained about. Because as an artist he was aroused by his passion for creation.

Kalighat Temple Murals
Kalighat Temple Murals

By the end of February 2024, tile-making was over and the fitting work progressed. The sanctum sanctorum was gradually getting back its original look. The silver paint on the turret was scrubbed off and a gold wrapping was placedThe pond (punnipukur) inside the temple precinct was cleaned and a fountain was made operational.   

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What about the documentation of the project?

“I have tried to document every little bit through photography, videography, sketch, etc to the extent possible, which I want to be archived as a referral point for the posterity”!

Layouts of the Kalighat Mandir
Layout of the Kalighat Mandir
More drawing related to the renovation work
More drawings related to the renovation work

the mandir's layout drawing

With the successful completion of the Kalighat project, Tamal is now a happy man. In retrospect, he feels extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to work on this prestigious project. “ And this surely wouldn’t have been possible if such an enthusiastic team of people like Madhu, Jayanta, Lalit, Gopal, Sanjay Samanta, Avijit Pal, Shubho, Vikash, Ankush stood beside and behind me in various capacities, they `have equal share in this success!” said Tamal with a babyish grin on his face, before signing off!

Photo courtesy: All photos are taken by and are the property of Tamal Bhattacharya. An old photograph of Kalighat:  Sushanto Chatterjee.

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