For hands that build Durga idols, nothing has changed

October 11th, 2008 - 9:55 am ICT by IANS  

Kolkata, Oct 11 (IANS) Narrow, murky lanes, leaking roofs and filth are their daily companions. For some, the houses are so dingy that even a few rays of the sun are hard to come by. Nothing has changed for the artisans of Kumartuli even though another Durga Puja has come and gone.At the three-century-old potters’ town in the northern part of Kolkata, the artisans toil day and night to make the idols of gods and goddesses. These very idols are at the centre of many celebrations and much merriment across the country, but for the artisans life continues amid abysmal conditions.

A rehabilitation project announced by West Bengal more than three years ago has missed several deadlines and is yet to take off.

“The rehabilitation package has been stuck in the files for over four years. Nothing’s been done so far for the Kumartuli artisans,” Mintu Pal, general secretary of the Kumartuli Mrit Shilpi Association (Kumartuli Potters Association), told IANS.

The term ‘kumar’ denotes potter and ‘tuli’ means locality in Bengali. More than 4,000 artisans live in Kumartuli.

“We are still facing the same problems and getting only a mouthful of assurances from government officials and the political leaders,” said Pal.

For instance, the idols are made in sheds that are not concrete structures. And with leaking roofs in the rainy season, the job takes that much longer.

“Every year we have to brave incessant rain during the pre-puja season and for that we face a lot of trouble like late delivery of idols, high labour and raw material costs,” said Pal.

The Kumartuli rehabilitation plan, worth Rs.260 million, is funded by the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNURM). The entire work is expected to take one-and-a-half years for completion once it starts.

The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) will implement the project, 35 percent of its cost to be borne by the centre, 15 percent by the state government, and the remaining 50 percent to be raised through loans.

The KMDA will construct houses for the artisans over five acres of land at Kumartuli on the ground-plus-three-floor pattern. It will also build an art gallery for artisans to showcase their creations.

“The project got delayed because of some administrative procedures. Earlier we identified a piece of land at Kashipore (further north of the city) to rehabilitate the artisans but there were some litigations pending for that ground,” said Sudhanshu Seal, an MP of the state’s ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) who is heading the committee constituted for Kumartuli’s makeover.

“Now we’ll temporarily rehabilitate all the artisans in a nearby place and again shift them to the potters’ town once the project is over.” He said the plan was conceptualised in 2005 and was supposed to be implemented last year.

When asked why several deadlines were missed, Seal told IANS: “This time we’re hopeful of starting the process just after the festive season and will complete it in the next two years.”

“The area where we’ve decided to accommodate the artisans is owned by the state health department and public health department,” he added.

The history of Kumartuli, the haven of clay model-makers, dates back to the 17th century when potters in search of a better livelihood came from Krishnanagar to Gobindapore, a prosperous village on the banks of the river Hooghly, to make a living by making pots, clay toys and cooking utensils for household use.

Later, when the land at Gobindapore was required by the British East India Company to build Fort William, the inhabitants migrated further up the river to Sutanuti. The potters moved on to the new destination, started living there and named it Kumartuli.

The Bengal Consultations, a journal published in 1707 AD, gives an account of the presence of Kumartuli’s artisans who occupied 75 acres of land at Sutanuti, which is part of present-day north Calcutta.

“All the three associations of Kumartuli artisans are jointly fighting for the project so that it would be implemented shortly. The earlier our state government kickstarts the project, the more helpful it’ll be to all of us to continue our tradition of idol making,” Kumartuli artisan Panchanan Rudra Pal told IANS.

“The project will help us revitalise this craftsmanship of ancient Bengal and will create huge employment opportunities for the future generation of artisans.”

(Soudhriti Bhabani can be contacted at soudhriti.b@ians.in)

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