Kumartuli and Kalighat with Kounteya
In a bid to save Kolkata’s swiftly vanishing idol makers, Kounteya Sinha, renowned photographer, has undertaken a unique initiative to preserve this age-old cultural heritage that many believe is as historic as the city itself, writes Uma Nair.
Kolkata's iconic by-lanes of Kumartuli and Kalighat – home to the world-famous clay idol makers – a tradition in Bengal dating back to 8th century AD, have found a friend in Kolkata boy and internationally renowned journalist and photographer Kounteya Sinha.
Sinha, a globetrotter who is revered around the world for being "the riveting storyteller whose art stands up for the voiceless", has rolled out the first of its kind fellowship to protect the centuries-old tradition of pottery and idol making in Bengal.
Sinha has named it the Sarba Mangala Fellowship of Arts – named after his grandmother, who passed away peacefully in Kolkata on February 21, 2018. Sarba Mangala Biswas was 89 and a great lover of Bengal's art and culture. Sinha says: "Sarba Mangala is also another name for Goddess Durga, which is the commonest idol made both in Kumartuli and Poto Para of Kalighat."
Sinha calls it Project K2 (the initials of Kalighat and Kumartuli). Kumartuli and Poto Para in Kalighat are two of the city's most visited sites – hundreds of artists, photographers and tourists from across the globe walk through its narrow bylanes almost daily to see how men and sometimes female artists spend days in tiny linear rectangular rooms creating some of the most stunning idols you will see.
However, a serious threat looms large over this community that could wipe out the tradition of idol making in Bengal. Like in most other hard labour intensive trades like farming – children of the idol makers of Bengal aren't interested in carrying forward the tradition of clay arts.
Lack of high pay, a life of anonymity and long hours of mastering the art have made the next generation shy away from the trade in the search for office jobs. Sinha, who has tirelessly campaigned for the rights of these potters, fears that if this trend continues, in another 20 years, clay idol making which has been a tradition passed down over generations from father to son, will forever disappear from the city.
Sinha who calls Kolkata "his muse" – a city he has returned to after 17 long years of living in Delhi and London, has announced the fellowship that will pay five young students a monthly stipend to learn the trade from their fathers.
On being asked how this fellowship will work, Sinha said it will roll out on May 1. Five children (maximum age 20) will each be paid Rs 5,000 per month (Rs 25,000) between May 1 and October 1 (six months) to assist and learn the craft of pottery and making idols from their parents who have been involved in the trade for decades. Five different Pujas across Kolkata will be urged to purchase the idols from these five families so that the children are motivated to continue learning when they see their work being appreciated. The lack of glamour and complete anonymity works as a major hindrance for the new generation.
"I expect Kolkata's heritage lovers to help me in this project. Kumartuli and Poto Para are two of Kolkata's most loved places. It is our duty as common citizens of Kolkata to help these anonymous artists and push their children into following their father's footsteps. Or else, Kolkata will lose a major chunk of its history and heritage," Sinha added.
"My grandmother was a great lover of arts and culture. She, in her younger days, would love exploring places. I couldn't think of a person who would be happier to see Kumartuli and Poto Para saved. I have, therefore, decided to fund the fellowship myself in her name," Sinha added.
"The Chief Minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, is a great artist herself and understands and loves heritage like very few heads of state. This is my way of helping her in a small way in saving the city," Sinha added.
The potters of Bengal are known globally for their art. The fan club of this community spreads across the world as Bengali communities living in Europe, USA, UK or South America purchase idols of Goddess Durga from here and then get them shipped to their respective countries for the puja celebrations that take place around October every year.
Sinha, who is now an international sensation as a photographer, has been shooting in these two localities for the past two years, since his return to India from London. Kounteya is highly respected across the world for taking up brave issues that really matter.
In 2016, he took up the cause of Kolkata's iconic rickshawallas. He, for the first time ever, invited 60 such rickshawallas as chief guests for the opening of his stellar show 'STONE' and also managed to rope in veteran actor Om Puri to travel to Kolkata to embrace the rickshawallas and interact with them. Puri played the part of a rickshaw wall in the famous film City of Joy.
Sinha recently campaigned for Kolkata's dying heritage that brought the city to a standstill. He joined the Calcutta Heritage Collective and unveiled his 2018 summer repertoire 'VIVA' which was probably one of the most acclaimed and talked about shows that Kolkata has ever seen. The city's entire glitterati attended 'VIVA' that means alive in Spanish.
Sinha has now decided to take up the cause of Kolkata's potters. Full-scale idol making in these two localities begin mid-April, after the worshipping of Lord Ganesha.
Historians say, the settlement of idol makers and clay modellers is almost as old as the city itself. The entire practice of idol making is carried out by hand and no machines are involved.
During the peak season, there are about 1600 artists or karigars who come into these localities to work from various parts of Bengal.There has been a marked decline in interest among youngsters to take up the tradition of idol making from their fathers. Project K2 seeks the continuity of a tradition that must not die.