Why you should care
Because the old ways are changing — ebbing, and sometimes flowing on.
It’s months to go before the festival celebrating the power of the female goddess Durga, and still longer until its twin puja honoring Kali, Durga’s frightening and fiery incarnation. But already, a group of artisans are toiling in Kumartuli, north of the Indian city Kolkata, building devis and demons.
These are India’s famous idol painters — but they are much more than simple adorners of divine Hindu likenesses. Today, 65-year-old Gopal Paul is managing his small crew of god manifesters as they assemble the beginnings of the Kali statues that are made of hay. Soon, Paul and his team, who are the inheritors of three or four generations of their craft, will coat these statues in clay, set them to dry and dress them in sprightly colors, gold necklaces, crowns and expressions of feminine strength.
Already at the feet of the some 7-foot-tall statues — which are, at the moment, headless — are baby-size creatures that will become the demon Mahishasura, famously killed by Durga. The puja in the fall celebrates that triumph over five to six days; at the end, these idols, which the artisans have labored over for months, will be submerged in river waters, where they will decompose.
What began as a very small hub is now a hugely commercial complex.
Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai
The art form Paul and so many others in this district practice is shifting with the times. Paul, who’s been working in the trade since childhood, says young men “don’t value the art — what financial benefit will they get?” The next generation would rather make money in the city. Standing on a ladder as he prods Durga’s broad hay shoulders, 30-year-old Prasant Paul (no relation), says there’s no guarantee of good money in his line of work. He estimates their shop will make 25 to 30 goddesses and pull in between 8,000 and 10,000 rupees a month ($120–$150). They work 12- to 14-hour days during the height of the season. Their idols will be shipped all over the city and around the world, to clubs and community centers.
Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai, a professor at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication in Pune, has studied the artisans and recounts some who do better than the Pauls, traveling around the Bengali diaspora, their fares paid by nostalgic immigrants seeking a connection to the homeland. “What began as a very small hub is now a hugely commercial complex,” she says. You can find many faces of the shifting times walking through the unplanned gullies and alleyways of Kumartuli. Between giant likenesses of baby Krishna and shops selling purse-size Durgas is a Madame Tussauds-esque installation from the state government, bragging about education initiatives through small statues of children studying and wearing school uniforms. And just around the corner, a crew of teenage boys strolls shirtless through the streets, fresh from a bath at the local outdoor spigot; they cross the latest statue, erected following another Indian victory tale — a cricket match.
There stands a creepy, 6-foot Virat Kohli, the game’s star player, peering beadily out at passersby, just another god to worship.