The Magical Charm Of Kumartuli

Anindita Chowdhury

From a modest beginning as the city’s potter- quarters, Kumartuli has come a long way to emerge as a hub of art. Though it is difficult to pinpoint the precise date from which the potters made Kumartuli their home, the locality is certainly as old as Fort William which was rebuilt after being razed to the ground by the Nawab’s forces. Since the past several decades, Kumartuli has become synonymous with Calcutta and its autumn festival. In this edition, we trace its history while exploring its narrow, dingy lanes which has produced such fine artistry over centuries and generations

One of the earliest references of Kumartuli is found in the book of HEA Cotton’s Calcutta Old & New. According to Cotton, the newly rebuilt Fort William was situated beside the river and at the centre of the “populous flourishing village” of Govindpore and a portion of the “restitution money” was spent in compensating the inhabitants to settle in other parts of the town notably, Toltollah, Kumartooly and Sobhabazar.

It is also mentioned that Holwell, the company’s agent, under the direction of the directors allotted separate districts to the company’s workmen including Suriparah (place of wine-sellers), Maidaputty (flour market), Colootollah (oil-sellers), Chuttarparah (for carpenters), Chunam  Gully (lime lane), Molunga  (place of salt works), Aheeritollah (cowherd’s quarters) and Coomartolly (potter’s quarters).

As I gingerly made my way past the scores of headless figures of Viswakarma and the moulded heads of Maa Durga kept in the open to be dried, my thoughts turn to the past and the kumors who, abandoning all else took up idol-making as a full time occupation with the passage of time.

Turning the pages of the city’s history one finds that Durga Puja was first celebrated in the city by Laxmikanta Ray Mazumder, the forefather of Sabarna Roy Chowdhurys’ of Barisha, but the pomp and gaiety that Durga Puja later came to be associated with begun with Nabakissen Deb of Sovabazar. His palace or Rajbari is quite adjacent to Kumartuli. Nabakissen Munshi began celebrating Durga Puja after the fall of Plassey in 1757 and invited Lord Clive to participate in the festivity. By the turn of the century a number of zamindars or the nouveau rich in their eagerness to display their wealth begun celebrating Durga Puja in the city on a lavish scale.

The first kumors or potters certainly hailed from Krishnanagar, Nadia. Initially, they visited the home of their patron’s and made the idols at the thakurdalans, a few months before the Durga Puja. The wealthy and the neo rich who had congregated at Calcutta — the trade centre of the British East India, became the first patrons of the kumors who made clay images of Durga and various other idols; but round the year they also made other things of clay.

It is said that as the demands for their work grew, the kumors and their apprentices wanted a piece of land to settle and were granted one;  while some say they settled on the land of Govind Ram Mitra, the black deputy who had amassed great wealth, others attribute it to Gokul Mitra. But it certainly belonged to a zamindar, for the said plot now enjoys the status of thikha tenant land, another feature unique to Calcutta. In thikha tenancy, the land which once belonged to zamindar prior to independence now rests with the state government following the abolition of zamindari system. The original tenants of the zamindars made structures, pucca or temporary which they again rented out to the bharatiyas; at present, the bharatiyas were in an agitating mood, demanding more compensation from the state government.

The idol for the first Durga Puja held in Belur Math in 1901 by Swami Vivekananda also came from Kumartuli. Only a few days before the Pujas, Swamiji decided to celebrate Durga Puja at the Math and a Brahmachari was sent to Kumartuli to procure a suitable idol. All the idols had been sold save one; someone had ordered it but did not turn up at the last minute and the idol was brought to Belur Math and worshipped. Maa Sarada was also present on the occasion.

By the turn of century, Kumartuli prospered under a new form of patronage. The sarbojonin or community puja began to gain popularity and over the years they became the new patrons of Kumartuli. As Maa Durga shifted out of the cramped thakurdalans to the wide pandals on the roads her family too became disjointed. From traditional ekchalas where Maa Durga was in the same frame with her children, each god and goddess was now placed on separate pedestals.

By 1960s a lot many of the Calcuttans had flown the nest, settling abroad and started celebrating pujas on foreign soil. Kumartuli responded to the needs of time sending idols made of paper pulp or fibre glasses to far off places in US and Europe.

Although the very first inhabitants of Kumortuli may have been potters and hence most of them bear the surname “Pal” but over generations their social standing changed and now the inhabitants of Kumartuli are no longer potters but artists or shilpis on their own right. A case in point is Sunil Paul, a renowned sculptor. He does not make clay idols but moulds models of famous personages out of clay or stone. A number of his clay models are on display at our Town Hall and at the Parliament. He has his own studio at Kumatuli and will readily regale you with tales of the potter’s town.

“I do not make clay idols. I cannot bear to see my creations destroyed during immersion,” Sunil Paul said while adding that his family has been at Kumartuli for nearly six generations.

In the late nineties, Kumartuli faced competition from the pass-outs of the art colleges as “theme pujas” gained popularity among the organisers; the artists were required not only to innovate on pandals but the idols were also custom made to match the “theme”. However, as the hype died down Kumartuli managed to hold on to its tradition and survive.

Kumartuli, at present, is a maze of cramped and decrepit structures, mostly, made of bamboo, wooden planks and polythene sheets. There is a flurry of activity ahead of the Pujas; I stood and watched an artisan moulding the clay with his fingers, finely shaping a canine for the ferocious looking but still toothless lion, oblivious to any appreciative gaze. Even as the camera wielding went hysterical for a good angle, the artisans apparently used to such prying, seldom looked up in curiosity. With less than two more months to go, none of the images are complete, even the most advanced ones have only a coat of yellow paint.

“This is a unique place. You should come in the evening when the boys are at work. They work till the 11pm or even midnight. The whole place looks magical. A lot of people who come from outside spend days among us, researching about Kumartuli or capture the magic on camera”, said Sunil Pal.

“If you visit Kumartuli just before the Pujas you need not go pandal hopping because you have seen it all over here,” said his apprentice; he was wrong; for Kumartuli idols are not restricted to the city or suburbs, they are to be found everywhere from Shillong to San Fransisco. The Durga idol before which I stood would make a long journey to Ghatshila, undaunted by any Maoist threat.

The magical charm of the ramshackle, dimly lit studios from where Maa Durga emerges every Panchami to be transported to the brightly illuminated pandal, still lingers on.