Clay Idols at Kumartuli

Clay Idols of Goddess Laxmi at Kumartuli. Courtesy: Indranil Kumar

At Kumartuli – the Colony of Potters, you would find almost 400 sculptors etching through clay brought from the nearby River Ganges to create some of the most fascinating idols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. A whole army of sculptors, potters, frame decorators and dressers work in harmony with heaps of straw, clay, cheap gold foils, bamboo, beads and mundane things to create art pieces so vivid, stylised and grand that it evokes a lifetime awe.

More than 450 workshops owned by master sculptors regularly create idols of Gods, Goddesses and models for museums and galleries here. The busiest time of the year is from September to February when the major Hindu festivals of Durga Puja, Kali Puja, Laxmi Puja and Saraswati Puja are held. You can peep into the workshops to see the sculptors in work anytime of the year. They usually start with building the frame out of wood, bamboo and straw. The clay is dug out from the riverbed of Ganges and brought to the Ghat in Kumartuli by boatmen, from where they are supplied to the respective workshops. It may take up to months to sculpt and decorate each idol and the handiwork of scores of artists.

Kumartuli is now a world phenomenon and both men and women artisans work tirelessly to create art pieces which not only adorn the Pandals of Kolkata but of Europe, Australia, Africa and America too. Every year, idols made of Fiber Glass are airborne to foreign land into the homes and cultural clubs of Bangalee expats located worldwide who reminisce the festivals back home.

Location of Kumartuli, Kolkata

Raja Nabakrishna Street connects Chittaranjan Avenue to the Hooghly riverside through the Kumartuli colony.

History of Kumartuli, Kolkata

When the British East India Company allotted neighbourhoods to the Indian workmen in the early 1760’s, they acquired much of present North Kolkata and divided them into work-related quarters. So, Chutorpara was for carpenters, Suripara for wine sellers and Coomartolly (Kumartuli) was for potters.

Initially, the potters settled here from nearby district towns of Nabadwip, Shantipur and Krishnanagar, which were already famous for their clay artisans. These potters usually made pots, urns and similar items needed for everyday life. However, the sculpting of clay idols was not very popular till 1757, when Lord Clive is said to have made offerings to the Durga Puja of Babu Nabakrisha Deb in Sovabazar. Soon the elites of Kolkata took to the fancy of organizing Grand Durga Pujas in their newly built Thakurdalans. It was an opportunity for the nouveau riche Babus of Kolkata to show off their wealth and attract attention. A fierce competition of organizing ostentatious Durga Pujas ensued and orders started pouring in for the potters.

Interestingly, the potters being non Brahmins were in a fix to carve out the figures and appearances of the Gods as they had no idea of religious texts. Thus, rose a unique style of clay idol sculpting where the male demons (specifically Mahisasura) were sculpted on the lines of Greek Gods which the potters may have spotted on the walls of European buildings of White Town. The Goddess Durga and her children were sculpted in traditional Bengalee style with traditional attires and Indian features. In the early days, the potters were invited to the house of the Babus where they would stay for a months to sculpt the idols but as more and more Pujas started sprouting throughout Kolkata, the sculptors stayed back in their workshops in Kumartuli for completing the orders.

With the rise of Nationalism and the culture of the Babus fading out, the Durga Pujas started dwindling but the breath of fresh air came when the Sarbojanin Durgotsavs were initiated in early decades of 1900. These Durga Pujas were organised by commoners, primarily cultural clubs and organizations to bring Durga Puja out of the mansions of the Babus to the common man’s makeshift temples called Pandals. The Sarbojanin Durga Pujas (Puja by the commoners – for the commoners) caught the imagination of the Benagalee populace. Within the turn of the century, nearly 5000 Durga Pujas were being held in Kolkata alone and the sculptors of Kumartuli are creating masterpieces in clay to adorn the Pandals of Kolkata.


Trivia of Kumartuli

  • In the earlier years of idol sculpting in Kumartuli, the sculptors were confused about sculpting the lion (Goddess Durga’s pet) as they had never seen one before. The nearest they could imagine was a horse, so they sculpted the horse with larger teeth to look ferocious. Even today, the lion in Raja Nabakrishna Deb’s Durga idol (a 300 year old Durga Puja) looks like a horse and not a lion.
  • Coolies or porters from few specific villages of 24 Parganas can only transport the Durga idols from the workshops to the waiting trucks during delivery. By tradition, no other Coolies are allowed to do this job.
  • The Kumartuli area presently occupies 5 acres of land in the heart of Kolkata and some four thousand families of sculptors earn their livelihood from here.