On an ordinary day, the names Kumartuli and Krishnanagar would not make much of a difference to a Bengali. But come Durga Puja, and these two ordinary towns near Calcutta, become the focus of great attention. For it is here that the clay idols of Durga are made. This age-old tradition of clay sculpture has been preserved by the community of Pals.
Months before the Puja, clay artisans start to breathe life into the images of Durga.
Body of bamboo, straw and clay
The basic structure of the huge platform is made with bamboo, as is the Durga idol’s skeleton. The flesh over the bones is made of straw tied with the help of jute strings. The palms, head and feet are made separately.
As soon as one set of craftspersons finish making the straw body, the artisans specialising in clay work apply several layers of clay over the body, to give it a smooth look. It is at this point that the palms, head and feet are attached to the main torso.
On being completed, the figure is given a skin colour of white. Then the whole statue is painted with earth colours like yellow and red. The head, palms and feet are made by the highest graded artisans or Pals.
Making the head is a delicate process
The making of the head is a delicate process. The Pals make it with good-quality clay, giving delicate touches to the features. When completed, the head is dried. The liquid plaster of Paris is poured over it. This creates a mould.
When the plaster dries, it is separated from the clay head. The plaster mould is now hollow and many more heads can be made by pouring clay into it.
Finally the eyes are painted by the main artist. Then jute ‘hair’ is glued on, the idol is varnished and dressed up with fine clothes and ornaments.
Preparing for the goddess’ visit
Celebrations for the festival span a period of ten days. Since it is essentially a community affair, almost every colony or locality in Bengal erects tents for the grand Puja. So do Bengalis living outside the state. Artisans create beautiful tents or pandals, and there is rigorous competition to see who puts up the most lavish pandal.
On the first day of the festival, hymns are recited to invoke the goddess in the heavens. This special recital is known as Mahalaya. The next five days are spent preparing for the grand yearly visit of ‘ma’, or mother as Durga is affectionately called in Bengal.
Sixth day: breathing life into the idol
On the sixth day, called Mahashashti, the idol of the goddess is placed on a raised platform in the pandal. This is the day when the goddess is believed to arrive, accompanied by her children Ganesha and Kartikeya, as well as Lakshmi and Saraswati.
It is then the turn of the priest to “put life” into the idol. This is done by a priest’s ceremony. For the next four days, the idol is treated as the goddess herself.
In the entire making of the idol, it is possible to see the hierarchy of the Indian caste system in play. Craftsmen from lower castes make the skeleton, with the higher castes making the more delicate features, and the brahmin priest imparting “life” to the idol.