Incomplete Habitat: Goddess Smiles, but Kumartuli Artisans Weep

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Kolkata – The dingy lanes are a sharp contrast to the silken strip of river that flows by Kumartuli, an old area of North Kolkata that produces amazing clay idols that India and the rest of the world worship during Durga puja in the month of October.

Over 400 artisans work their nimble fingers on straw and clay for months to produce a picture-perfect Goddess that “descends from the Himalayas” for five days, to be worshipped by mortals. A trip to Kumartuli reveals that all is not well with the economic condition of the artisans, and many of them still lack a proper roof over their shanty workshops.

Promised a permanent habitat complete with workshop, housing, and even an art gallery by the erstwhile CPIM (Communist Party of India – Marxists) Government in 2009, the artisans rue the fact that the project was not finished on time and remains a pipe-dream.

“Only two blocks out of four were built. The Rs 40 crore ($6 million approximately) project was supposed to be funded partially by the central government and partly by the state governments. But in 2011, the Trinamool Congress came into power in the state, and subsequently, there has been no fresh construction,” said Babu Pal, the spokesperson of the Kumartuli Mritshilpo Karigar Samiti.

About 70 odd artisans have been rehabilitated to date. They still manage to make large idols, sometimes towering above 10 feet. The ones that are exported (about 48 this year), however, are only about 6 feet tall and are sent mostly to the US. Idols are exported to about 90 countries worldwide.

“We approached the Mayor of Kolkata (Trinamool Board) for help. Most of us live from hand to mouth since we have to deal with the vagaries of the weather with tarpaulin sheets covering our workshops. But there has been no response from the state government till date,” says Pal.

The other problem hounding the artisans is the growing disinterest of the younger generation in the craft of making idols. “They all want to grow up to be painters. Unless they see our lots getting improved, they will not want to carry on with the age-old art of idol making,” says a senior artisan.

With barely a month away until the festivities begin, the Kumartuli artisans will probably have a prayer on their lips for the Goddess Durga to help them. 

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