Clay that Binds

Breathing life into idols

Kolkatta (previously known as Calcutta) is a traveler’s delight. It is the last stop of the Ganges before it blends into the Bay of Bengal through the mangroves of Sunderbans. Sunderbans is a natural habitat for the royal Bengal tiger, the vehicle of the ferocious Goddess Durga. The story of the goddess’ triumph over evil is celebrated in a week-long festival known as Durga Pooja. The goddess is believed to be visiting her parents’ home in the plains during this time. Celebrated with much pomp and grandeur, it brings regular life in the city to a complete halt. 

During the festival, people visit the pandals--temporary and elaborate structures erected to showcase the goddess on a stage. Initially celebrated only by rich families across Bengal, the festival turned into a community event during the Independence movement.  

Situated in the northern part of city, Kumortoli, the potters’ quarters, is the seat of activity for days leading up to the festival.  The tiny settlement is home to some illustrious artists whose work is sought after by Bengalis across the world. Most of the famous artists’ works are booked a year in advance. It was estimated that Kumortuli sold more than 12,300 clay idols in 2006.  Their artistry is so well known that they export as many idols as they supply locally.  

The idols’ base is made of straw which is then covered with clay. Upon drying, the idols are painted in bright colors. Adding the third eye, the one that breathes life into the idol, is a crucial process. It is a work done by the senior artists, some of whom are known to meditate for long hours beforehand. 

Today, the entire city is home to multiple pandals. Many are elaborate structures with magnificent architectural features  with themes that range from mythology to period-based architecture or even current events. Each neighborhood competes in showcasing the festival, with some having idols as tall as 20 feet. In the midst of all this ostentatiousness, the central figure in every pandal is the idol of the goddess where she is depicted with her ten hands holding different weapons and standing on a lion mount. 

Post festivities, the idols are taken in a procession with the entire city coming out on to the streets. They are then immersed in the river. In earlier times, the materials used were eco-friendly causing no damage to the river. However with the bright-colored paints that replaced the older and bio-friendly options, the river has been adversely affected by the harsh chemicals. The government is taking measures to stop the usage of these toxic materials. 

The week-long reverie comes to an end as the goddess departs from her parents’ home to her marital abode in the Himalayas. Kumortoli gears up for another busy year of planning and idol making. 

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