Sculpting the Divine in Kumortuli

The artist paints over a finished sculpture of Goddess Durga.

Kumortuli is a traditional potter’s quarter in Kolkata, India where artisans have been living and honing their craft for centuries. But what type of work do these artists create? The answer can be found in the festivals that are often associated with India. When most people think of festivals in India, the popular Diwali and Holi will most likely be the first to come to mind. However, that’s barely scratching the surface of India’s love of celebration. Every state has a particular festival that it celebrates with more pomp and splendor than the rest of the country. For Kolkata, it’s Durga Puja.

Durga Puja is an annual festival that happens in late September or early October. It reveres the Hindu deity Durga, a fierce goddess of war. One of the most popular legends associated with the goddess is of her battle against demon king Mahishasur. As such, a common depiction of the goddess shows her thrusting her Trishul (a trident that many deities of Hinduism wield) into the demon. In Hindu mythology, every god and goddess ride a vahana for travel. In turn, another common depiction of Durga is atop her vahana, a tiger. Various depictions of this goddess can be seen during Kolkata’s Durga Puja, all of which are created by the artists of Kumortuli.

Some of the smallest Durga sculptures, seen here in a workshop.

The Kumortuli quarters have hundreds of artisans working day and night throughout the year to create idols. A typical workshop is nothing more than a small patch of land with minimum necessities and only enough space to house materials and the completed works. Despite the difficult working conditions, the increasing prosperity of the region means that people are spending more and more on recreational activities, which includes the celebration of Durga Puja. As a result, the sculptors of Kumortuli have been given much more creative freedom in their sculptures in recent times.

The bamboo base, on the left, of a typical sculpture made in Kumartuli.

The sculpture creation process in Kumortuli is completely eco-friendly, but the process is tedious. The base of sculptures are made of bamboo sticks, which are ferried in by boat from nearby regions. The bamboo then needs to be dried on river banks. Afterwards, artists will begin creating the foundation. Once the base is done, a coat of clay is applied to shape the idol and recycled paper is used to fill the cracks. Once the clay structure is complete to reveal the perfect likeness of the idol, an artist paints over it with vibrant colors. In the final step, the sculpture is adorned with clothing, accessories, and jewelry. After the celebration ends, devotees submerge their idols into water, which results in the clay being washed away. Artists will then recover the bamboo base to reuse the following year.

Maa Kaali, the black-faced Hindu goddess.
Unfinished sculptures of Lord Ganesha, kept in a workshop.

While the main idols created at Kumortuli are of Durga, sculptors also create idols of other Hindu gods and goddesses for worship at different festivals across the country. These idols include Lord Ganesha, Goddess Saraswati, Goddess Lakshmi, and more. Visitors can even come across sculptures of Jesus Christ in Kumortuli since Christmas is commonly celebrated in Kolkata and other parts of India. Strolling around and taking a look at the workshops of different artisans is surprisingly evealing of the diverse religious fabric of India. Aside from religious figures, sculptors also create statues of important cultural figures like Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore, two respected philosophers and intellectuals who are widely honored on their birthdays.

The sculptures created in Kumortuli are not only sold locally or domestically. There’s often demand for them on an international level. Indians living abroad will even commission work from artists in Kumartuli. Due to this demand, many artists in Kumortuli will end up working tirelessly throughout the year to keep up with the sheer amount of festivals and celebrations. While hordes of photographers frequent this unique place all the time, the sculptors are quite immune to the attention and lead humble lives. Families of artists have passed down their craft from generation to generation — their dedication and hard work contribute to the preservation of tradition and culture in not only Kolkata but India as a whole.

Contributor & Photographer: Garima Garg

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