Image courtesy Vidya Chandy on one of our excursions in North Calcutta!
Kumartuli is a traditional potters’ quarter in north Calcutta located between Chitpur Road (now Rabindra Sarani) and the Hooghly River. Calcutta is famous as a sculpting hot-spot which not only manufactures clay idols for various festivals but also regularly exports them.
As I explained earlier, when the East India Company decided to build a new settlement (Fort William) at the site of the Gobindapur village, most of the existing population shifted to Sutanuti. While neighbourhoods such as Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata became the centres of the local rich, there were other areas that were developed simultaneously and the villages of Gobindapur, Sutanuti and Kalikatadeveloped to give rise to the latter day metropolis of Calcutta
Under orders from British East India Company, separate districts were given to the Company’s ‘workmen.’ These neighbourhoods in the heart of the Indian quarters (yes, Black town) acquired the work-related names – Suriparah (the place of wine sellers), Colootollah (the place of oil men), Chuttarparah (the place of carpenters), Ahiritollah (cowherd's quarters), Coomartolly /Kumartuli (potters’ quarters) and so on.
Most of the artisans living in the north Calcutta neighbourhoods dwindled in numbers or even vanished, as they were pushed out of the area in the late nineteenth century by the “invasion” from the direction of Burrabazar as the city expanded. In addition, Marwari businessmen virtually flushed out many families from north Calcutta. The potters of Kumartuli, who fashioned the clay from the river beside their home into pots somehow managed to survive in the area. Gradually they took to making the images of gods and goddesses, worshipped in large numbers in the mansions all around and later at community pujas in the city and beyond.
I do not like to take my car when I visit Kumartuli, usually with out of town friends/relatives. We take a cab or the Metro to Shobhabazar and walk to the artisan’s area through the narrow lanes which can take you back in time. Kumartuli is a visual delight. It is even more interesting if you can make it in the weeks leading up to Durga Puja but even otherwise, one can find idols being made. As they say in Bengal, in 12 months there are at least 13 pujas.
In any case, it is always interesting to see how the idols are made and then painted so delicately and beautifully be the craftsmen. It is indeed a novel experience and one of the reasons why Calcutta remains unique. Once we are done with exploring the lanes and the tiny huts that house the families as well at the huge clay models, we have a tea (or two) in a clay pot and then take the narrow lanes twisting and turning and (maybe hop on to a tram or rickshaw if it’s too hot or you do not feel like walking) go through the labyrinthine lanes to Burrabazar and down Chitpur road for a well deserved lunch of Biriyani at Royal! Sometimes we even land up at the riverside at Jagannath Ghat, having headed westwards in our ramblings… and I don’t get bored with this ‘tour’. We just turn a different corner and come up with something new!