For around five years in the early 2000s, 58-year-old Kolkata resident Saikat Bhadra frequently visited Kumartuli, with his camera and lens in tow. Kumartuli, meaning where the “kumors” or potters reside, is the place where Maa Durga comes to life. In August 2020, he revisited the place 15 years later. “I see new shops, new artisans and new studios, but the spirit of Kumartuli is the same,” he said.
Tucked away in a corner of North Kolkata, with cramped studios on both sides of narrow lanes, the artisans breathe life into lifeless clay structures. For Bhadra, a photographer by hobby, this was always the ultimate place to click pictures. Merging the animate with the inanimate and exploring the artisans’ family lives alongside the family of gods helped him create good frames.
In Kumortuli, the artisan doesn’t have a fancy air conditioned studio, or the luxury of space. Their studios are tiny, with over 30-40 idols being made next to each other in very limited space. The artists don’t even have the option of stepping back to measure proportions, as arms and legs overlap each other and the studios are too narrow. “In spite of this, unaffected by passersby, photographers and traffic, they continue to create magic,” said Bhadra.
Kumartuli, for Bhadra, who is an atheist, was never much about God, but more about “God-makers”. “They live their entire lives in Kumortuli, and the craft is passed on from one generation to the next. There are no books, courses, or training, but a craft one has to master hands-on,” he said.
The pandemic however, has not spared the artisans. Orders have gone down. Those placing orders want smaller idols. “Our business has been hurt badly. Foreign orders have completely stopped. I used to make 12 ft, 13ft idols and now the maximum people want is 7ft,” said Nilam Pal, an artisan. He adds, that even photographers coming to Kumortuli has lessened in number.
For photography enthusiasts, Bhadra has a tip. “Use the natural ambient light, and avoid using flash guns. Those not only disturb artists but also ruin images,” he says. He adds that all photographers must seek permission before clicking.
“There can be no Durga Puja in Kolkata, without Kumortuli. It’s too integral a part,” says Bhadra.