Kumartuli is where statues of Hindu gods, goddesses, and cultural figures have been sculpted for hundreds of years.
Idol worship is a critical component of Hinduism, and idols are created only in specific places, one of which being this neighborhood in Kolkata, India.
The artists in Kumartuli are especially fond of creating Durga idols. Durga is a Hindu goddess celebrated as a warrior and for her defeat of the demon king called Mahishasur. In Hindu mythology, gods and goddesses typically have an animal as a ‘vehicle,’ which they use to travel from one place to another. Durga’s vehicle is a tiger, and she is often depicted as this fierce cat.
Kumartuli is located in the state of West Bengal in India, a region home to a yearly festival called Durga Puja, a festival honoring the goddess. During the festival, celebrations are spread over a period of five days and every neighborhood sets up its own pandal (stage) to feature their Durga idol.
The Kumartuli potters also sculpt idols of Lord Ganesha, Goddess Saraswati, and Goddess Lakshmi, all of whom occupy important roles in Hindu mythology, while other artists create stunning likenesses of Jesus Christ.
Amazingly, most of the sculptures are eco-friendly. Following a “dust-to-dust” principle, potters use a base made up of bamboo sticks, coat the frame in clay to shape it, then use recycled paper to fill in the cracks. Finally, the artists paint over their sculpture and later adorn them with clothes and accessories.
I was first struck by the pungent smell of the clay. But then I laid eyes on a still-incomplete Durga sculpture, amazing even in its unfinished glory.
In the same workshop, an artist worked on painting the statue with utmost concentration, ignoring the photographers passing through the narrow alleyways of Kumartuli. Like everywhere else in India, I was struck by how unassuming the artists were. I’ve never had the good fortune of celebrating or witnessing the grand Puja celebrations in the region, but in seeing these artists at work it was easy to imagine the pomp and splendour of the festivities.