We might call the deity Mahishasurmardini or the destroyer of the asura who appeared from a buffalo but we should not forget that goddess Durga was ornamented with weapons given to her by several other gods and goddesses.
Thus, Durga is the incarnation of the collective powers of all these gods and goddesses.
Likewise, an idol of goddess Durga is not made by just one person. Several artistic prowess of different artists are what it takes to give shape to the cluster of mud and straws.
From the weapons to the ornaments and from the chalchitra (backdrop) to the entire attire, all take the sweat and pain of several artists who tediously work day in and day out for months to make the idol look beautiful.
In Bengal, we may say that the Bengalis have baro maashe tero parbon (13 occasions in 12 months which are innumerable festivals for Bengalis), however, we cannot shy away from the fact that Durga Puja is the biggest festival which boosts the economy in several ways.
All the artists, who toil hard to make the idols or its ornamentations, look up to this time of the year just to earn a living of their own. But this lasts for just a few months and the requisition of their artistry during rest of the year is lower than meagre. It is too low to feed them the year round and that is essentially why they engage themselves in other occupations.
Interestingly, there are separate artisans for making different aspects of an idol. The makers of the chalchitras or the huge backdrops behind the idols that depict the bringing of all the five deities under one roof cannot make weapons and for that we need some other artists.
Just like the Sanskrit shloka: “Yavatwang pujyeshyami, tavatwang shustirabhava” (warm welcome to the deities as a family), one artisan who makes the backdrops and other ornaments and other accessories, believes in the words of the shloka and makes them in the same spirit.
Ashish Kumar Bagchi has been into the trade for a long time now and for the last 16-17 years has been making the ornaments for the famous Bagbazar Sarbojanin Durgotsav.
Bagchi says: “I work all year round as there is a huge demand for the products in this season. But if we see a bigger picture, then it is not enough to keep us going for the entire year. Thus, I engage in other similar works as well. For example the works that needs to be done for beautifying a stage for some event and the like.”
Bagchi, in other times of the year, indulges in overseas events in London and designs and executes several stages for such functions. He boasts of having worked for an event which was based on the theme of confluence of both India and Trinidad and Tobago’s cultures that were skillfully composed and a stage was set up on those lines.
Like Bagchi, another such artist, an idol maker, Amit Paul, who is also a revered miniature artist of Kolkata says: “Working only during the Puja season is not enough.
In other times I make statues and mainly miniature artworks, some of which go to exhibitions and museums.” However, Paul also added that there are some artisans, mainly in the villages, who primarily work during the season.
“For them, keeping pace with inflation is a real challenge and thus they indulge in other works like harvesting fields and even work as labourers at times.”
Tracing these artisans from the villages, a man from Bengal’s Diamond Harbour, Parameshwar says he is really fond of his work as an artisan and believes it runs in his blood as his entire family indulges in making ornaments out of thermocol.
However, he added that the revenue he earns from making these ornaments is not enough to keep his family ticking all year round. “We also work in the fields and harvest crops and earn an extra buck. It’s a tough life but we manage somehow.”
In recent times, Kolkata has been witnessing a lot of theme pujas and in tracing an artist who indulges in conceptualisation and execution of such themes, Shibsankar Das says his artistic requisitions are not limited to only the Puja season but goes much beyond it.
Working on three theme pujas of Kolkata this time — Beleghata 33 Pally Bashi Brinda, Dum Dum Jubak Shangha and Kalight No. 64 Palli — Das says that in other times he sets up stages for the Kolkata Film Festival as well among other similar assignments.
“Conceptualising artwork according to someone’s desire and standing up to his wishes is my passion. I often give my ideas as well but I take it as a challenge when I am asked to design something on my own. I work year round and it is seldom that I run out of work,” says Das with a genuine smile on his face.
Thus, the general consensus among the artisans is that they engage themselves in some or the other work, related to what they are good at or at times unrelated but do it for sustenance. This helps them not only to run their family but also to shake off the tag “seasonal” artisans.
It is an unsaid truth that Durga Puja is secular in many ways. And to back it with facts, this reporter went down to the factories where weapons and ornaments to adorn the deities in Krishnanagar are made. The ground reality and the truth behind the same were mesmerising.
On the floor of these factories sat scores of artisans donning skull caps, yes, they were all or most of them Muslims. Talking to one such artisan, Mujibar, he made it clear that his inhibitions to do something for a festival of the other religion is quite less in front of the excitement he bears in showcasing his artistic prowess.
“I have been doing this since childhood. My parents had come to Bengal during Partition and had very little income to run the family. It was my father who learnt the art of making ornaments and I carried forward the legacy,” said Mujibar.
He added by saying: “Many in our family had said that my work is napak (not pure) according to the Muslim scriptures. To them I showed the verses of Quran that say any work a “banda does have been given to him by Allah.”
With Puja just round the corner and plans of pandal hopping being made, take a little time out and stop to admire the work done by these artisans.
After all, it is their blood and sweat that makes the deities and everything around them look as beautiful as they are.
We might not know them but a silent note of thanks might just be a little inspiration to push them harder to create and recreate such artistic marvels year after year.