Kumortuli, located in Kolkata, is a place of immense cultural and artistic significance. This ancient neighbourhood upholds the legacy of traditional Bengali craftsmanship, where skilled artisans meticulously craft intricate idols of the goddess Durga and other deities. With a history dating back centuries, Kumortuli stands as a hub of creativity and devotion. The artisans here possess exceptional sculpting skills, breathing life into clay and straw, and crafting awe-inspiring idols that become the centrepiece of the grand Durga Puja festival. These meticulously shaped and adorned idols not only showcase artistic excellence but also reflect the profound spiritual and religious values ingrained in Bengali culture. Despite the passage of time and changing social dynamics, Kumortuli continues to bear witness to the rich artistic heritage of Bengal, preserving artistry that transcends generations.
Kumortuli, a traditional potters' colony in northern Kolkata (where "kumor" means potter and "tuli" refers to easily walkable localities within a quarter or half a mile), is both a place of residence and a workspace for potters. The history of this neighbourhood traces back about 300 years to Krishnanagar, a small city in the Nadia district of West Bengal, renowned for its clay-modelling industry. The clay modellers of Krishnanagar are said to be descendants of immigrants from Dhaka, Bangladesh. During the rule of Maharaja Krishnachandra in Nadia, the practice of idol worship grew, leading to the influx of potters and craftsmen from Dhaka. These clay modellers settled around an area known as Ghurni, located near the Jalangi River (also called Khoray), providing easy access to the necessary clay. Over time, Ghurni evolved into the potters' colony that is now Kumortuli.
The earliest recorded Durga Puja celebrations seem to have taken place in Krishnanagar, organized by its royal family, dating back to 1606. Around 1757, Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabazar Rajbari (the king's palace) in north Kolkata, inspired by Raja Krishnachandra, initiated the tradition of Durga Pujo at his family residence. Skilled kumors were brought in from Krishnanagar to create goddess idols—marking the inception of Kumortuli. Gradually, workers began to settle in Kumortuli, situated along the banks of the Hooghly River.
Initially, Durga Puja celebrations in Bengal were confined to the zamindars (landowners), causing the work of craftsmen to be predominantly seasonal. To sustain themselves during the off-season, these artisans crafted other clay items, including crockery, which some kumors continue to produce full-time even today.
The process of crafting idols is intricate and demanding, involving a multitude of skilled and unskilled tasks. Artisans are assigned specific roles: some draw the deity's eyes in a process known as "chokkhudaan" (offering of eyes), while others create hands using moulds or undertake the task of colouring the idols. Some craftsmen play supporting roles, assisting the primary artisan.
The wages of labourers in Kumortuli vary from Rs 500 to Rs 10,000, contingent on the nature of the work and the labourer’s working hours. Given the seasonal nature of the work, wages are also influenced by the work schedule. The active period for labourers spans from July to January or February, with the peak season occurring from August to October during Kolkata's main festive season. Workers often put in extra hours during these months, leading to slight wage increases ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 200 per day, based on the specific tasks. Additionally, these studios serve as informal platforms for aspiring artists and sculptors. College students interested in learning this art form visit these studios to observe skilled artisans at work.
In conclusion, Kumortuli stands as a testament to the rich cultural heritage and artistic prowess of Bengal. This ancient neighbourhood, rooted in history, has evolved from its origins in Krishnanagar to become the heart of traditional Bengali craftsmanship in Kolkata. The skilled artisans of Kumortuli meticulously shape clay and straw into breathtaking idols, embodying the spiritual and religious values deeply ingrained in the culture. Their creations transcend mere artistry; they are embodiments of devotion and creativity, destined to become the focal points of the grand Durga Puja festivities.
The journey of Kumortuli has been one of evolution and adaptation. From its early days as a colony for potters, providing idol-making services primarily to the zamindars, to its current role as a thriving hub of creativity, Kumortuli has weathered changing social dynamics and economic shifts. The artisans, despite the challenges posed by seasonal work and fluctuating wages, have managed to preserve their craft while also welcoming new talent into their fold.
As modernity and urbanization continue to reshape societies, Kumortuli remains a steadfast guardian of tradition. Its studios not only produce awe-inspiring idols but also serve as classrooms for aspiring artists, ensuring the continuity of this ancient craft. The story of Kumortuli is a testament to the power of art to bridge generations, transcend time, and connect people through shared cultural expressions.
In Kumortuli, the past and the present harmoniously coexist, reminding us that while the world around us may change, the essence of devotion, artistry, and tradition endures. This neighbourhood stands as a haven for potters and artists, an eternal source of inspiration, and a living embodiment of the vibrant cultural tapestry that is woven into the very fabric of Kolkata.
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