Three natural calamities -- COVID-19 crisis, Cyclone Amphan and now, the heavy rains, have struck traditional artisans who make idols for Durga Puja. At least 2.5 lakh artisans affected in Kolkata alone. Financial losses run into several lakh rupees.
There is still no clarity on whether Durga Puja would be held this year, or not. The artisans, however, continue to sculpt Durga idols. Photo: Purnima Sah
Cooch Behar. North Bengal.
Pal Para, popularly known as Kumartuli (potter’s locality), is the oldest and probably the largest locality of potters in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, about 700-kilometre from the state capital Kolkata. There are six factories in this area alone where artisans sculpt Hindu deities during various festivals.
During this time of the year, with Durga Puja around the corner, this locality used to be bustling with potters and buyers. But now, its lanes are deserted and its atmosphere gloomy.
Dhaka Vikrampur Shilpalaya, almost a century old, is the oldest factory in this area. Usually, this factory would have more than 15 daily-wage artisans busy sculpting gods and goddesses. But now only two artisans sit idle in the stock room as they watch idols crafted for the now-cancelled orders.
The artisans in Bengal usually start receiving Durga Puja orders from February end and by March, they slowly start purchasing raw materials like clay, stacks of bamboo poles, wood, and pile of dry grass/hay, ornaments, clothes, weapons, and decorative items for the deities. Since the Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Janta curfew on March 22, followed by series of nationwide lockdowns, confirmed orders were cancelled one by one.
“Within a week of Janta curfew and then lockdown, we lost orders worth three lakh rupees,” said 40-year-old Sujit Pal, one of the three artisans who own the Dhaka Vikrampur Shilpalaya factory. A semi-dark wooden room in his factory is filled with clay idols of Ganesha, Bipodtarini, Manasa, and countless Durga idols. All unsold.
“Our forefathers moved here before India-Bangladesh partition. We are born potters. Both men and women are familiar with this art passed on from our forefathers. Our 95-year-old mother, Vishnu Priya Pal, continues to paint idols,” Sujit Pal informed Gaon Connection. He, along with his brothers, 67-year-old Badal Chandra Pal and 60-year-old Pradip Pal, live in 1.5 katha (a unit of area for measuring land in Eastern India), that is approximately over 1,000 square feet, two-storey semi-pucca home-cum-factory ever since they migrated here. “Our forefathers moved here before India-Bangladesh partition. We used to live here for rent, bought it from the owners only 12 years ago,”
The Kumartuli Mritshilpi Sanskriti Samity, an association of artisans in Cooch Behar, had to stop work since the first lockdown was announced in March. The association has around 60 artisans registered with it from within the district. There are many artisans, unregistered, scattered across the district. All are without work and wages.
Somewhat similar is the plight of idol makers of Kolkata Kumartuli Mritshilpa Sanskriti Samity (Kumortuli Idol-makers’ Cultural Association), which was formed in 1964. Kumartuli usually would be bustling during this time of the year but, is now deserted.
“Around 15,000 daily wage artisans from Nabadwip, Krishnanagar, Purbasthali, Patuli, Bamanpukur, Nadia, Burdwan, Haldia and Birbhum travel to Kumartuli in Kolkata for work but due to the lockdown and the coronavirus scare, they have not turned up,” said Prashanta Pal of Shilpa Kendra in Kolkata’s Kumartuli.. “With containment zones being completely under lockdown, people who placed orders a few days ago are cancelling it. The foreign customers, who placed the orders and made payment in advance in March, however, haven’t withdrawn the money. They have asked to keep the payment for the next year’s order; they are kind I would say,” he added.
Babu Paul, a noted idol maker and secretary of Kolkata Kumartuli Mritshilpa Sanskriti Samity informed that in Kolkata alone over 2.5 lakh artisans depend on Durga Puja to make a living. With uncertainity about the puja, these artisans are staring at a dark future.
“We have been in talks with the government bodies but we haven’t received any confirmation whether puja will be organised or not. We had sent a written appeal 25 days ago. Those who are giving orders are asking for small idols,” Paul told Gaon Connection. “For the last few months, our artisans in Kumartuli have had no income due to the lockdown. We received donations from abroad and distributed dry ration to the families,” he added.
With no income for almost four months now, running their families has become tougher. “Every day, we check regional newspapers and television news channels hoping the government will announce something in our favour. In March, we also visited the district magistrate’s office to share our grievances,” said Badal Chandra Pal. “We filled forms and wrote an application, but we never heard a word from them… We artisans have been neglected for years,” he complained.
This is the peak season for idol makers because most Hindu festivities begin this month. Pal’s factory, Dhaka Vikrampur Shilpalaya, used to get orders for at least 80 Durga idols every year from various locality clubs, barir puja (Durga puja hosted in houses) in the town, and another set of out-station orders from Siliguri, Falakata, Mathabhanga, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar, Assam and Meghalaya.
“We have received just three confirmed orders from three clubs in Cooch Behar so far, and they are not interested in buying big idols. So, our income won’t be more than Rs 15,000,” said Sujit Pal. Last year, he sold an idol for a lakh or two each, and earned more than Rs 50 lakh during the puja month.
Meanwhile, 51-year-old Pulak Pal from Ramesh Chandra Pal Karkhana in Pal Para has not received a single order yet. “I had bought raw materials by February end. I don’t have enough money to pay my debts now. I am unable to pay the contract labourers who work for me. If sale doesn’t start soon, I will have to open a tea stall,” he told Gaon Connection.
Sixty-one-year-old Gobindo Paul of Bhuban Shilpa Mandir Model Studio in Pal Para has the same story. Apart from the idols, this 70-year-old factory also manufactures flowering pots and has a small nursery to sell saplings. “There have been enquiries from different clubs in the town but no confirmed orders. We have received only two barir pujo orders so far, and that require only small idols,” said Gobindo, who as a little boy joined his father in the profession of idol making. “Most of my orders come from different parts of North Bengal, Jaigaon and Phuntsholing but I haven’t heard from those clients yet. Because of my nursery, I am able to at least arrange food for my family,” he added.
Apart from men, there are women artisans, too. Forty-year-old Sampa Pal in Gunjobari Kanai Pal Protima Karkhana works with her husband to make idols. “Our forefathers moved here 85 years ago when the Maharaja (King) of Cooch Behar brought them here and gifted them three bigha (1.2 acres approximately) land. Now we are left with just two kattha (0.16 acres) land,” Sampa told Gaon Connection. Her family is originally from Krishnanagar and her forefathers were among the many artisans who sculpted idols and statues inside the Cooch Behar Rajbari (Palace).
“I guess this is the first time in the history of Bengal’s Durga Puja that artisans do not have orders. Usually, during the puja season, we would earn around Rs 60,000 a month,” she said. Her family has 10 members and all solely dependent on idol making work.
Artisans who own factories, and with better capital, employ other artisans as daily-wage labourers. This is still going on, despite less number of orders, because they have been working together for years. “We make idols without orders also because we have to pay the artisans who have been with us for decades. They solely depend on us. We hope customers would buy at least the small idols for barir puja,” hoped Pradip Pal.
“Neither the banks, nor the government offers us any loan. Our raw materials had arrived in March from various places like Pundibari, Bhetaguri, Tufanganj, Chilakhana, Kakribari, Maruganj and also from Kolkata. To cover the whole expense and debt, we took loan of six lakh rupees. That’s how we paid the staff,” he added.
In April, during Poila Baisakh (Bengali new year) and Akshaya Tritiya, Dhaka Vikrampur Shilpalaya had handcrafted around 500 Ganesha idols, but received just two confirmed orders. “We were hoping we would be able to sit on the footpath and sell the idols, but there was a strict lockdown. During that period alone, we incurred a loss of over Rs 5 lakh,” said Badal Pal.
According to him, for years artisans have been approaching government officials to seek financial aid “This kind of work cannot go on without seed investment and loan is our only option. Kolkata artisans receive loan from Pouroshobha (West Bengal Municipal Administration) but not even once the Kumartoli artisans of North Bengal received smallest of financial aid,” he complained.
“Every year, a minimum of 25 trucks of clay, over 4,000 pieces of bamboo poles are required,” informed Pradip Pal. Some 15 to 30 artisans depend on the daily wage of Rs 300 to Rs 500 and come from various parts of North Bengal, Krishnanagar and Kolkata. At least six people are needed to sculpt on idol. “This profession has a chain of people depending on each other, so if one goes through loss, others will face the similar brunt,” he added.
As if the lockown had not caused enough sufferings, Cyclone Amphan in May, and now heavy rainfall in the monsoon, have added to the woes of these artisans. They are struggling to protect the clay idols. Many idols are stacked up in temporary shelters on the footpath, and covered with tarpaulin.
“Storing these clay idols requires extra investment. We need to pack them well with thick plastic sheets separately or else they start to crack, and eventually break,” said Sujit Pal. “We don’t have enough plastic sheets. The water has been stagnating every day, it is a flood-like situation. We may not be able to protect the idols kept on the footpath and on the ground floor of our workstation. Let’s see what is in our fate,” he added.
There is still no clarity on whether Durga Puja would be held this year, or not. The artisans, however, continue to sculpt Durga idols. “We continue to craft Durga idols, in less numbers, hoping there will be a sudden announcement from the government and things will change for us,” 55-year-old Moini Pal, who cycles 10 kilometres everyday from Sonari Kakribari village to Cooch Behar town to work in a factory, told Gaon Connection. He also stressed on how they cannot think of alternatives as this is the only work they have done for generations. “During pujo season we used to earn around Rs 20,000 a month. Now, we are not even making Rs 5,000. If we don’t get work, we will starve to death,” he told Gaon Connection.
To run this show, they also had to take loan from private bodies. “Neither the banks gave us loans nor did the government. Our raw materials had arrived in March from various places like Pundibari, Bhetaguri, Tufanganj, Chilakhana, Kakribari, Maruganj and also from Kolkata. To cover the whole expense and debt, we took loan of six lakh rupees. That’s how we paid the staff,” informed Pradip.
It has been years that they have been approaching government officials seeking financial aid. “They never helped us all these years, how do we except them to help us now amidst a pandemic? This time they have a genuine excuse, you see?” asked Badal. “This kind of work cannot go on without seed investment and loan is our only option. Kolkata artisans receive loan from Pouroshobha (West Bengal Municipal Administration) but not even once the Kumartoli artisans of North Bengal received smallest of financial aid,” complained Badal.
Prashanta Pal of Shilpa Kendra in Kolkata’s Kumartuli is known for receiving international orders from countries like UK, USA, France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore and Netherlands along with orders from clubs in Kolkata, Jalpaiguri, and also from Rishikesh. “I usually have some eight international orders. I take only 30 local orders because they are all big and theme-based idols. In February, clients had made payment for the orders but after the lockdown was announced no one is sure whether to organise puja or not,” Prashanta told Gaon Connection. There are also orders that came and got cancelled in a day or two. This is worrisome. The local orders are very few and they all want small idols,” he added.
Kolkata’s Kumartuli usually would be bustling during this time of the year but, is now deserted. “Around 15,000 daily wage artisans from Nabadwip, Krishnanagar, Purbasthali, Patuli, Bamanpukur, Nadia, Burdwan, Haldia and Birbhum travel to Kumartuli in Kolkata for work but due to the lockdown and the virus scare, they have not turned up,” said Prashanta. “With containment zones being completely under lockdown, people who placed orders a few days ago are cancelling it. The foreign customers, who placed the orders and made payment in advance in March, however, haven’t withdrawn the money. They have asked to keep the payment for the next year’s order; they are kind I would say,” said Prashanta.
With endless hardships in the profession, none of the artisans Gaon Connection spoke to wished their children took over this profession. For Pals of Dhaka Vikrampur Shilpalaya, their sons and daughters are already working in cities like Pune. “They have seen us struggle day and night. Not having enough money is one of the major reason they never showed interest towards this profession,” said Sudip Pal whose son works in an IT firm in Pune. His daughters are married to families with different professions. “It hurts to see our traditional art will be lost but, I don’t blame the kids and cannot expect them to join this work as I got nothing positive to offer them,” said Badal Pal.