While breaking the glass ceiling in sport for women brings instant glory, Mala, Kakoli and China Pal have also quietly broken into a male bastion, that of Calcutta’s legendary Kumartuli idol making
The Rath Yatra is just over. Kumartuli, the famous colony of clay image makers of Calcutta, sports an image of the humdrum and the mundane from a distance. A peep inside the dingy lanes, however, would immediately correct one’s erroneous assumption. The celestial colony is far from quiet; the buzz of activities could be heard from almost all the makeshift chalas (structures that are the backdrops of the idols). The master iconographers alias clay modellers are back in action. For, the Durga Pujas, the four days of unrivaled revelry, are barely two and a half months away; the images that are likely to be on the pedestal, have already come alive in skeletal structures. The exquisite artistry of the modellers here has perhaps no parallel in the country.
However, in this predominantly male bastion, three female artists have made quite a name for themselves. Among close to three hundred potters, the three women have successfully eked out a different existence for themselves by virtue their signature works. Meet Mala Pal, Kakoli Pal and China Pal. The traditional iconography of Durga which is both majestic and artistic, projects the goddess having ten hands, riding a lion and spearing the half buffalo-half demon Mahishasura. Secondary images – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartick – are arranged around her in a compact and intimate display. Mala, in sharp contrast to her male counterparts, is very shy and would hardly speak without prodding. Even though her Durga image would shortly be bound for the United States this year, she feels her job is to keep alive the tradition. “For me, it’s neither a male or female bastion; it’s a tradition that we’ve to keep alive for generations,” she told this correspondent.
“I’ve asked my daughter to listen to her heart first; if the call of a clay modeller is more important than any other, then she ought to reckon that first. There is no compulsion on my part that she would have to join the trade leaving other professions of her choice,” explained Mala as she took a tiny paint brush off from the head of Lord Ganesh. (The clay artists use the hands, fingers and other parts of the unfinished idols to rest their tools while working.) However, Mala refused to enter into any controversy on whether the appeal of the clay goddess is superior in Shola or clay images. “At the end of the day, it’s the visual appeal and craftsmanship that matters. The more the appeal, the more the acceptance and recognition.” Last year, Mala’s images of Durga travelled to Germany and Dubai, not to speak of Indian cities of Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi.
One can order idols for upwards of Rs 15,000 each which is the starting price for Mala; it may touch 35,000 and beyond for larger ones. For the image destined to travel to America this year, Mala has quoted Rs 70,000 towards the cost of the image. Hardly one and a half feet high, the idol on which the paint has just been done, is perfect in features and proportions right down to the toe nails. Her Durga images have won her many awards over the 14 years she’s been in the trade. For Kakoli, it was no smooth entry; she had to struggle to enter into this all-male bastion as her own family, besides her husband’s were opposed to step into this territory where artistry and hard labour combine to fetch one success and money. The sudden death of her husband Shyamal Pal, also a potter, paved her permanent entry into Kumartuli.
“My passion, my penchant, my love for fashioning the idols remained subdued in me; after his death, I’ve completely devoted myself in this trade and now, there’s no going back. It has given me so much,” Kakoli turned emotional as she struggled to balance the earthen bowl of colour in her left hand. Kakoli gets various sorts of orders; for instance, this year, she has been approached by four clubs to supply as many varieties of idols with modern themes. “I also fashion images for some private households where Durga pujas are being held for many generations,” she said. According to her, the main reason behind people placing orders with her is that she has not deviated from the ek chala (single-structure) style, the tradition of old families. “Hnce, these families continue to rely on me,” she pointed out.
Asked to comment on the varying beauty of shola and clay models, she differed with Mala. “Without undermining the shola art, I would say idols made of clay alone can capture the real grandeur of gods and goddesses. If there is no religious fervour, mere craftsmanship won’t carry the day for you always,” Kakoli opined. In fact, images made in Kumartuli are most sought after because of a rare combination of exquisite craftsmanship and religious appeal. Even though, the modern clay modellers are increasingly succumbing to the pressure of modelling images after popular hero or heroines or the Ajanta-Ellora type, there has been a late resurgence of demand for themes to pull the crowd.
The story of China Pal is little different; his father Hemanta Pal, didn’t quite like her to step into this world even though out of his six children, the youngest daughter often dared to peer through the door at his workshop. He would often chide for wasting time there; but an alert and ingenuous China did not waste time there. Her eyes kept hovering on the grace of the art and it posed no problem for her to take the baton from her father who suddenly passed away in 1994 and carry on the family business.“ For me, it’s neither fibre nor shola; I’d only work with clay as I believe it’s in clay that I could see my father come alive before I try to inject life into the goddess,” said a sobbing China. “Without his studio, I have no existence. I believe it’s a devotion and I work devotedly.”
China presently employs more than 16 workers who hail from Nadia district. Her studio is presently a beehive of activity as more than 16 images of various sizes are on the pedestal and the workers are busy with pastes of earth to properly frame the images.
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