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Kolkata's netas nudge out Durga from Kumartuli

In Kumartuli, Kolkata's clay modelling hub, artisans take a break from Durga statues to carve out life-sized clay figurines which they hope will attract the crowds during political rallies

kolkata: New gods have emerged in Kumartuli, home to Asia's biggest clay-modelling neighborhood, in north Kolkata. These demands have been spurred by the needs of a high-voltage state poll scheduled for this year this year.

Artisans in Kumartuli, Asia’s biggest clay modelling neighbourhood in north Kolkata, have been creating idols of Hindu gods, Sai Baba (for Trinamool Congress) and even Roman models for various political parties
Artisans in Kumartuli, Asia’s biggest clay modelling neighbourhood in north Kolkata, have been creating idols of Hindu gods, Sai Baba (for Trinamool Congress) and even Roman models for various political parties

Artisans, both young and old, are mentally readying to create idols of Hindu gods, Muslim fakirs, even Roman models that they claim will be procured by Bengal's political parties, gearing up for the crucial state elections. Dates will be announced by the end of this year. And, all parties need clay models to suit their needs, mostly when campaigning is underway in the rural belt, not cities or towns.

The artisans have been putting in as much as 14-hour work days to complete the orders before the Election Commission announces poll dates
The artisans have been putting in as much as 14-hour work days to complete the orders before the Election Commission announces poll dates

“They place the models next to their stages. It is just a gimmick, and works very well in the countryside because hundreds come to see the idols and stay back for the speech,” says Samar Pal, 34, an artisan. He is putting finishing touches to a huge fiber glass model of Sai Baba of Shirdi. “It will get almost anyone and everyone out of their homes,” laughs Pal, standing on a wooden platform close to his workshop crammed with incomplete clay images of goddess Saraswati, whose puja falls in mid-February. The idol of the Sufi saint is the tallest he has created till date, with work having starting late last November.

Artisan Sankar Halui, whose workshop is at Lalbazar market in Central Kolkata, has an order of more than 500 plaques praising state CM Mamata Banerjee. This one says that a “badminton association in the Southern fringes of Bengal encouraged by Mamata Banerjee”. Ever since she came to power, Banerjee has been constantly funding various clubs to grow her vote bank
Artisan Sankar Halui, whose workshop is at Lalbazar market in Central Kolkata, has an order of more than 500 plaques praising state CM Mamata Banerjee. This one says that a “badminton association in the Southern fringes of Bengal encouraged by Mamata Banerjee”. Ever since she came to power, Banerjee has been constantly funding various clubs to grow her vote bank

Who ordered him to make this one? Pal says he was approached by a local Trinamool Congress leader for an undisclosed price. “I am only concerned with the product, and its final delivery by February end.” The Election Commission could announce poll dates for West Bengal by the end of January, leading to a flurry of activities ranging from production of party flags, posters, leaflets, banners, festoons, caps and anga vastrams for campaigners and leaders.

Clay and fiber glass models from Kumartuli, which lies close to the expansive Hooghly river, is the latest addition to the election market.

Sankha Ghosh
Sankha Ghosh

Next door, Udayan Bhowmick says he has a back-breaking schedule because he has to create as many as six Roman idols and a mini amphitheatre by February end. “I was told initially it was for a movie in Kolkata, but eventually I realised that I was doing it for a political party. I do not know which one, but I have a feeling they will use it for some kind of an exhibition next to the podium.” There are other pressures as well. Demands for idols of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, are on a high because the day-long festival — celebrated mostly by students — falls in the second week of February.

More than 2,500 Saraswati idols will travel from Kumartuli to various destinations in Kolkata. If it was the famous Durga Puja the sculptures were catering to, numbers would have swelled to over 12,000.

“We are in a double demand period,” says Bhowmick. For him, even conversations with bystanders are distractions, not relief from his back-breaking schedule that stretches a little over 12 hours every day.

He has other orders as well, clay-models of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. That is also an important assignment which will start in the third week of January. “Clay models are easy to make as compared to fiber glass. We have already done the basic bamboo-straw structure,” says Bhowmick, adding his work demands both intricacy and creativity. There are an estimated 400 cavernous workshops in Kumartuli, home to an estimated 3,000 artisans and their family members, bulk of them in the same trade. The neighborhood lies close to Sonagachi, Asia's biggest hub for commercial sex workers.

“This is Bengal's answer to the paperboard cutout politics of the South, which is now copied all over India. Soon, you will see such experiments in other parts of India. The idea is to create an event next door and hold a political rally. And then blend the two for sure shot crowd presence,” says Sankha Ghosh, Kolkata's celebrated poet.

Uttam Debnath, a student who lives in Kumartuli, says the trend of models to bolster the image of a political party is not just happening near his home but also elsewhere.

Close to the Lalbazar market place in Central Kolkata, home to the headquarters of the city's police, artisans work overtime to create plaques bearing the name of the state's CM, Mamata Banerjee, who — after a five-year rule — is acquiring a Jayalalitha-type image of Wonder Goddess among millions of her supporters.

Sankar Halui, an artisan, says he has more than 500 plaques to make, orders coming from all across the state. “I etch approximately 10 plaques a day, and I work for almost 14 hours,” says Halui.

Interestingly, all orders must be finished by the third week of January. That would — actually — be end of the waiting period, and the Election Commission in Delhi would announce dates for the polls and impose multiple restrictions. Under EC rules, religious tones cannot be used in elections. And as we all know, Gods and plaques must reach their homes on time.

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