Pandemic is passé as master iconographers of Kumartuli have suddenly discovered thriving business knocking at their doors barely a couple of weeks before Durga Puja
Kumartuli, the famous colony of master iconographers of Kolkata, is suddenly abuzz with traditional aura, dignity and emanation the devouts seek in the deity.
For, the Durga Pujas, Bengal’s biggest four-day festival of fun and frolic, are less than a week away.
Ma would soon be on the pedestal ; and the gods will take to the wings from the colony of clay artisans.
The horde of iconographers who had, till the other day, hung their heads in utter despair, have now been working almost round-the-clock to make deliveries in time.
“ You can say we’re sort of getting plenty of runs in the slog over and poised for victory,” says Pradip Paul, a member of the Kumartuli Potters’ Welfare Association (KPWA).
Victory over whom ? “Obviously, Corona or rather Coronasura,” giggles Paul, confidence writ large in his face.
He is obliquely referring to this year’s trend of projecting Mahisasura as Coronasura, with artisans giving the demon macabre of shape of a magnified corona virus.
Ramshackle sheds and congested studios are presently emitting a mixed smell of paint, clay and assorted chemicals as the battery of the idol-makers is ready to exert their best to stick to the schedule of delivery before Tritiya, the third auspicious day of the Pujas.
The prolonged spell of the pandemic and the attendant gloom had cast a shadow over the colony as the idol-makers had lapsed into a phase of an interregnum of breath-gathering and stock-taking.
Hope of doing business nosedived and orders for idols were scanty enough to pull the shutters down as the members of the puja committees themselves were unsure if they could organize pujas this year.
Large number of workers and labourers who used to gather at this famous colony of clay every year to assist the master artists, failed to turn up following the threat of the pandemic and a near absence of orders.
The classy iconographers who had kept their fingers crossed for the last four months or so in the aftermath of the pandemic , began to see light at the end of the tunnel from middle of last month.
“Initially, orders for idols in the colony were far from our expectation as the committees, like us, were in the throes of dilemma,” explains Babu Paul, the Kumartuli cultural committee secretary .
However, orders have started picking up shortly after the state authorities issued a green signal to the organizers to go ahead with the celebration with some riders.
Around 90 per cent of the images are made against advance and only a few are made for sale off-the-shelf, explains Pradip Paul, a key member of KPWA.
“Those who make extra images, always run a risk, because if unsold, loss will be enough to damage one’s prospects next year.”
“But this year is an exception as the pandemic has completely changed the definition of business,” rues Paul.
The members of the Association that binds the traditional potters under one banner, have been waiting with baited breath when the ferocity of the corona virus and the peak of the infection will start waning.
Although nationalized banks have come forward to help them by extending loans, escalating cost of the raw material and teething shortage of labour have compelled the clay modelers to curtail the overall size of the images.
The traditional iconography of Durga which is both majestic and artistic, projects the goddess having ten hands, riding a lion and spearing the half-buffalo-half demon.
Secondary images – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik – are arranged around her in a compact and intimate display.
Babu Paul who participated in the `Cultural Festival of India’ held in London in 2012 and 2014, argues that beauty of an image comes out in clay models alone.
And images made of Shola(pith) can hardly match the grandeur and effervescence of clay images, maintains Paul.
This view has been countered by Amarnath Ghosh who used to always bag international orders for crafting shoal images.
“Craftsmanship is no less important than evoking religious fervour. The argument that shola images fail to capture the festive mood and life of the goddess, is hardly tenable,” Ghosh shoots back.
But the pandemic this year has taken a heavy toll on shola artists like Ghosh who is yet to secure any order from known international destinations.
First, the ban on international flights to and from Kolkata airport persists.
Secondly, Indians settled abroad who make it a point every year to order Shola images, have stayed cool this year following an embargo on select imports, prevailing in several countries due to pandemic.
“ If the situation mellows down a bit, I may get some orders from abroad for fashioning the image of Kali during the Kali Puja slated in November ,” Ghosh points out.
But that all depends on how things shape up after the Pujas as apprehension of a tsunami of infections post the festivities persists among the doctors and health experts.
Photographs by Anirban Banerjee
What's Your Reaction?
The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world