Kumbhars of Kumartuli (Kolkata) and the story of the creation of idols for Durga Puja

With the last spell of the monsoon rains having drained down the narrow lanes of Kumartuli, the season bids adieu to an important festival – Durgatsav. It has been a busy time for the kumbhars of the region, especially of Eastern India, who have been busy with the making of the clay idols of the deity for this festival of Goddess Durga. Amidst the many stories of the kumbhars of the region, those of the area of Kumartuli from Kolkata occupy an important space of historical significance. This is a story of the kumbhars of Kumartuli, who has been moulding the clay idols of Goddess Durga and other deities through generations. Today, their craftsmanship has reached even foreign shores as the idols find a way into several regions all around the globe.

Chokkhudaan- or 'imparting the eyes'- is considered to be very auspicious and is done at an auspicious time

cast being used to make fingers

Fingers made from the cast

The word kumbhar is used for potters in Sanskrit and several Indian languages, including Bengali. Though traditionally, the festival of Durga was celebrated during the Indian agricultural month of Chaitra (corresponding to the Roman calendar months of March-April), the kumbhars of Kumartuli witness a spurt of activities during the period of the Durga Puja festival in Ashwin (corresponding to the Roman calendar months of September-October). This puja of Ashwin reflects an important historical as well as mythological strain. According to popular lore, the first kumbhar was brought in Kumartuli area from the region of Krisnanagar (Nadia district in Bengal) by Raja Nabakrisna Deb to build a Durga idol for worship and to mainly celebrate the victory of the British at the Battle of Plassey (June 23- 1757) against the Islamic power of Siraj-Ud-Daullah (the last Nawab of Bengal). After the battle and in the following Ashwin month thus, Durga Puja was observed in Kolkata with aplomb. This worship followed the mythological story of the worship of Lord Rama from the Indian epic, The Ramayana. In due course of time, this puja also inspired several other rich families of the region to perform similar puja of the deity, giving rise to more number of Durga Pujas and a rise in popularity of the kumbhars. As demand increased with time, the kumbhars found it difficult to travel across the Ganges river to build the clay idol in Kolkata since they were travelling from Krishnanagar. On their request, this community was given a section of land to settle down and work. This was the beginning of the region of Kumartuli. Various lore describes the contribution of different rich families to help the settlement of Kumartuli. One popular one which still reverberates is:

Jagatseth’s money

Umichand’s beard

Banamali Sarkar’s house

Govinda Mitra’s walking stick

(“Jagat Seth – an influential banker” with “the road called Banamali Sarkar street [which] runs out of Kumartuli into the Chitpur Road on which is situated the temple of the Mitra family”- all being rich and influential families of the time).

Also, Read Here:

Glimpses of Calcutta (Kolkata) heritage

The fact that Bengal already had Durga Puja, even before the Battle of Plassey, can be ascertained through various lore, e.g. the Maharashtra Purana of the Marathi poet Gangaram. The story also ascertains the significance of the worship of Goddess Durga in the region. A piece of important evidence is reflected in the story of Maharashtra Purana. According to Gangaram, Bengal faced serious threats from Marathas of Western India, known as Bargees between 1740-1750. The poem of Gangaram also describes a battle between the forces of Bengal under Nawab Alivardi Khan and the Maratha general- Bhaskara. According to the poem, as Bhaskara desired to win the battle, he wished to perform a puja of Goddess Durga and summoned the local zamindars or landlords to help him. The zamindars invited several kumbhars to make an idol of the deity for Bhaskara. However, Bhaskara had to flee before the puja could be completed being beaten at the hands of the Nawabi forces. Bhaskara managed to only complete till the seventh and eighth day of the puja- Saptami (seventh) and Ashtami (eighth) and fled. This happened in the month of Ashwina. A few months later and in the month of Chaitra, Bhaskara returned once again. Nevertheless, the deity is mentioned to have been displeased with Bhaskara at the very first time, since he could not complete her puja and fled. Thus, though Bhaskara fought valiantly, yet he was defeated and killed after a fierce battle at the hands of the Nawabi forces. Through much other local lore as well as literary sources, the popularity of the deity is seen and by the time of the 19th century, many British officials also used to attend pujas in many rich households. The worship also started to come out of family circles as a community effort (Baroyari Puja). This was first performed by twelve Brahmin friends of Guptipara region in Hooghly district of West Bengal in 1790. Finally, this community puja in Kolkata was introduced in 1832 by Raja Harinath of Cossimbazar (from Murshidabad district).

Deities stands at various stages of completion

Awaiting the mounting of the weapons across the ten hands of the deity

Artists At work within the narrow lanes of Kumartuli

A workshop of a kumbhar at Kumartuli

Ganesha and Lakshmi

The deity is often decked in a red saree

Making the idols

The process of the making of the clay idols has traditionally followed the following steps:

  • Making the framework out of bamboo and dried straw, entwining them to
    render the basic shape of the structure.
  • Coating with well-kneaded and manually prepared soft clay to render the entire shape of the idol.
  • Drying them in the sun
  • Applying the basic and the primary and secondary layers of paints.
  • Finally decorating the idol with other embellishments.

The fine clay is prepared through various layers of straining (refining the texture) and mixing with water and hand-made glue which is made from the power of seeds of the local Siris tree (Albizzia lebbeck)– mixed with water and boiled to get a certain thick consistency. This hand-made glue is also mixed with the colours before they are applied to the idols. Finally, this glue is also used to attach the many embellishments onto the idol for decoration. The cloth/sari and dhoti are adorned variously- keeping in touch with changing times and demands. Of the popular types of decorations are- “Daaker saaj”, ‘Rangta saaj’ and ‘Sholar saaj’. Daaker Saaj or postal decorations came from the beaten and thin sheets of silver which were traditionally delivered from Germany through post or daak. Rangtasaaj traditionally came from the beaten and thin sheets of gold which were used for decoration. At present though- neither gold or silver are used- but the name remained. Sholar saaj (decoration made from shola) remains a popular decoration due to its pristine white touch. Shola is obtained from the fleshy, white interiors of the bark of pith plants which are found in marshy areas of West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The puja in the month of Ashwin- Akal Bodhon- and the lore associated with it

Interesting lore is associated with the festival of Durga Puja in the month of Ashwin. This story from Indian mythology also explains the reason for this puja. According to the version of The Ramayana, written by poet Kirtibas during the battle between Rama and Ravana, the latter began to sing praises of Rama. Thus, Rama found it difficult to slay him as he had turned into a devotee. Seeing this tricky situation, all the Gods and Goddesses assembled in heaven to find a solution and finally decided to send Goddess Saraswati to reside on the tongue of Ravana to make him utter foul words against Rama. As soon as this happened- an enraged Rama cut Ravana into two halves, however, he came back to life as he had a special boon of life bestowed by Lord Brahma. Ravana also prayed to Devi Ambika to assist him in the battle and the appeased Devi sat with him in his chariot. Seeing an impossible situation to defeat Ravana now- Rama was finally advised by the Gods and Lord Vishnu to pray to the Devi. However, she was not appeased and did not appear before Rama. Finally- Bibhishan suggested that she be worshipped with 108 neel kamal or blue lotuses. On the request of Rama- Hanuman flew to Debidaha- the only place where one could find blue lotuses and Hanuman brought back the lotuses. Halfway through the puja- Rama discovered that there are only 107 neel kamal. It was too late to stop the puja and Rama finally decided to offer one of his eyes as the last lotus with his arrow. At this moment- the Devi appeared before Rama and blessed him and also mentioned that she would leave the side of Ravana. Rama had started the puja on the sixth day (Sashti) of the month of Ashwin and the Goddess appeared before him on the eighth day (Ashtami). At the meeting point or sandhikkhan between the eighth and ninth days- the Devi entered into Rama’s weapons and gave them required strength to fight against Ravana and the latter was killed a day after- on the tenth day (Dashami). Thus, this day is also referred to as Vijaya Dashami (the victorious tenth day). Following this story- on the day of Dashami- many effigies of Ravana are burned across many celebrations in India. The idols of Kumartuli also reflect this image of the victory of good over evil. Traditionally, Bengal worships the Mahishashurmardini (slayer of the demon- Mahish) form of Devi Durga as a warrior goddess. However, she is worshipped along with her family and this is represented by two daughters Saraswati (Goddess of knowledge and learning), Lakshmi (Goddess of prosperity and wealth) and two sons- Kartikeya (Warrior God) and Ganesha (God of good wealth and fortune).

The history of the clay idol-making profession of the kumbhars of the region also got moulded according to the stories of Indian mythology and local history. It is also interesting to note the representation of the warrior deity in Bengal which follows a complacent expression and never displays anger- as should befit a warrior goddess. The goddess is also worshipped in Bengal (including by the Bengali community worldwide) along with her ‘offsprings’ Kartikeya, Ganesha, Saraswati and Lakshmi and the image portrayed across popular belief is that of a married woman visiting her father’s abode, along with her children for a few days every year. Through time various changes have taken place to include these representational transformations, as well as the changes within the sculptural expressions, adornments and embellishments.

Author – Dr Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai

Born and brought up in Kolkata, Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai now lives in Pune. A specialist in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology and cultural journalism, Lopamudra has a PhD in Ethnoarchaeology (a branch of archaeology that deals with living cultural practises as an enquiry tool to draw parallel with past human behaviour). Over the years Lopamudra has also specialised in Visual Anthropology and has worked extensively in the genre of intangible cultural heritage of India and South Asia and their reflections in visual- including media, art, architecture and folk culture and has authored 40 international publications on the subject- including her edited volumes at SAARC, Sri Lanka recently._DSC0263

At present Lopamudra teaches at MIT World Peace University, Pune and a Research Grant Fellow of the Indian High Commission, Colombo (Sri Lanka). Until recently Lopamudra had been deputed as the Culture Specialist (Research) at the SAARC Cultural Centre- Colombo in Sri Lanka (2017) – where she edited publications- covering intangible cultural heritage of all the 8 SAARC Member States. You may access these issues- edited by herself at http://saarcculture.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/issue3.pdf (Issue 3- March, 2017- focus being- Theatre)

and http://saarcculture.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/issue4.pdf (Issue-4- September, 2017- focus being- Storytelling and Folklore)

Lopamudra has also recently been invited by Aleph publications to edit a book for them about the folktales of India. This will be a collection of folktales from all over India- including firsthand accounts as well.

Kalighat Patachitra – A Journey

“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” as Plato had once said and it holds true for Kalighat patachitra. With their lack of symmetry in human figures and sense of proportions, they often fail to impress the eyes of a realist. However, these paintings appeal to many art lovers with their bright colours, bold and vigorous strokes, and free flowing curves. It also occupies an important place in the history of Bengal and Indian art, as it forms a distinct line where the traditional pata or scroll painting took an urban form, while transcending the boundaries of religion and exploring into the contemporary socio-political realm. Thus, Kalighat patachitra is the first school of art in India that can be considered as truly modern.

 

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Hanuman in boots. Note the modern twist given to popular characters

 

Kalighat paintings, as evident from the name, originated in the vicinity of the famous Kali temple, which was founded in 1798 and is located on the bank of the Adi Ganga in southern part of Calcutta. This school of painting, which started sometime between the 19th century continued until early 20th century and included sketches and paintings created by artists referred to as the ‘Patuas.’

Historically the Kalighat paintings claim its lineage from the once popular narrative scroll paintings of rural Bengal.  Patuas, who were avid story tellers, moved from village to village with their painted patas and sang tales from the epics, various folklores, and the Puranas, to the largely illiterate farmers. The scrolls or patachitras which were hand painted, were long narratives that often stretched to more than 20 feet. Sometimes the paintings and narratives were made on scrolled clothes, and these were known as jorano patas. In a patachitra, each section was referred to as a pata. The travelling patuas would roll open the colourful patachitra scroll and would sing about one pata at a time.

 

Somewhere in the middle of 18th century, many of these patuas moved to Kolkata from the villages, especially from the Midnapur and 24 Paraganas areas, and settled around the Kalighat temple. Amidst this new setting the patuas soon realised that painting long narrative scrolls was not just tedious and time consuming but economically not feasible. The devotees that thronged the temple were looking for small, inexpensive paintings that were done quickly and could be carried back as souvenirs. Thus, to meet consumer demands, handmade papers were replaced with cheap, locally available mill papers; paintings were made affordable; and churned out in large numbers. Despite the influx of mill papers, the patuas continued with their tradition of  using natural dyes, made from different vegetables and plant extracts that were mixed with natural binding agents, such as, those made from bael fruits and tamarind seeds. The colours used along with the bold black strokes were mainly shades of red, yellow, blue, and white, while the jewellery was depicted using silver or tin, the later being a cheaper alternative, easily available, that also did not tarnish with time. The brushes used were also natural, made from easily available materials, such as squirrels’ fur, calf’s hair, and goat’s tail. Later with the coming in of water colours from England, the painters slowly adopted these synthetic paints, as they were easily available and proved to be more cost effective.

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Kalighat paintings unlike other folk paintings of India show the human face in full frontal or three quarter views. Also interestingly, Kalighat patuas depicted enhanced glittering effects of jewellery in tin/silver or gold, which is seen only in Mughal and Rajput paintings. Another influence of Mughal art is seen in the large number of animal depictions by the Kalighat patuas. These artists did not follow any set rules of art but mirrored contemporary social life, thus giving us a wonderful insight into the religious and social life of Bengal during the 19th and early 20th centuries. These paintings were ultimately a product of that particular era, which skilfully amalgamated both the British style and Bengal techniques in their bold colours and strong lines that showed simple settings with minimum characters.

 

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From the Sundari series that depicted voluptuous women

 

 

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Duldul, the horse of Imam Hussain in Karbala. The silver lines have been used to highlight arrows. Patua artists painted scenes from other religious narratives indicating the secular bend of the art form.

 

The Kalighat patachitra themes vary widely and the patuas of Kalighat did not separate art from life; and social hypocrisies, quirks, meanness, and follies, were all shown liberally through their paintings.  The early patachitras (early 19th century) focused mainly on religious topics, but in later part of the 19th century the themes turned more contemporary and depicted some famous social events, like the infamous Elokeshi-Mohanta affair, or the subsequent murder of Elokeshi by her husband known as the great Tarakeshwar scandal. Paintings also depict the then well known characters, such as, Rani of Jhansi, and the wrestler Shyamakanta fighting a tiger, and Bengali women on a balloon flying in the sky. Often humorous scenes are also depicted from the ‘Babu Bibi culture’ that show the changing Kolkata socio-cultural landscape under colonial influence. The popular religious themes of Kalighat patachitras were depictions of the Kali devi, devi Durga as Mahisasurmardini, Shiva in his various avatars, Vishnu in his different incarnations, tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata, and depictions of scenes from Krishna’s life, such as Krishna milking a cow, Kaliya daman, Krishna killing the demon Putana, Krishna with Radha, Krishna with Balarama, Krishna with Yashoda, among many more.

 

 

 

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The Whore’s goat. A humorous depiction of the times when Babus were in the throes of bewitching prostitutes

 

The Kalighat School of painting started dying out with the influx of cheap oleographs that reproduced the paintings. These cheap oleographs from Bombay and Germany blatantly copied the Kalighat patachitras, and flooded the markets with their machine made prints, ruthlessly killing the once flourishing Kalighat patachitras. The patuas with their strong sense of creativity and skills, failed to cope up with the rapid speed of the machines and decided to give up the art form. By 1930, the school of Kalighat patachitra completely died out, and whatever paintings were later found are now seen in prized art collections in various museums and private collections of connoisseurs.

 

pata1
Saraswati

 

Famous artists like Jamini Roy took inspiration from this art form that could truly be called as the product of rural renaissance. A school that has inspired satire in narrating social events while preserving an age old tradition of storytelling was hailed globally but has failed to achieve similar recognition on homefront. An exhibition of Kalighat patachitras was held in Prague as early as 1872 but in Kolkata only in the late 90s for it was labelled as bazaar art catering to gossip mills rather than a higher pursuit of excellence. As Shyamalkanti Chakravarty, Director of Indian Museum, once said “It’s time art lovers realised who the forebears of modern Indian art really were.”

(All photographs shown here are of prints in post card size, collected by the author over time. No original paintings have been shown here, and the pictures are for representational purposes only)

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be reached here

Chhau: A Folk Performance of Eastern India

Indian theatrical tradition goes back to antiquity and is deeply rooted within local culture and consciousness. Therefore, it has its own uniqueness and structure that is truly eastern in its orientation.  The theatrical traditions of India are divided into  Loka dharmi (the popular), the folk, which includes Nautanki of Punjab and Swang of Himachal Pradesh and the Natyadharmi (the traditional), the classical, based on ancient texts on drama, like the Bharatanatyam. Several characteristics delineate the classical and the folk.  The classical performances of India are based on a set of codified laws, such as those of the Natyashastra, but at the same time are “open” to interpretation.  The Natyashastra (800 A.D.) is an ancient Indian treatise on drama, written in Sanskrit that is the foundation for not just the classical dances but also most of the theatrical dance forms prevalent in the country such as Kuttiyatam of Kerala, Ankiya Nat, Ramlila and Raslila of Uttar Pradesh and Terukootu, of Tamil Nadu and Chhau of Eastern India.

Chhau is a fine example of a semi-classical form, since it keeps the basic elements of acting styles, costumes, instructions for directors, stage craft and design and plot structure as based on the Natyasastra, and yet it does not follow the same “strictness” and “purity” of the classical form.  Chhau involves basic martial art techniques and is performed traditionally by males belonging to the three contiguous States of Jharkhand (Seraikela), Odisha (Mayurbhanj/Baripada) and West Bengal (Purulia).  While these three forms have the same basic stances, modes of expression and expressive symbols, there are some differences between the three forms.  Chhau of Seraikella utilizes graceful masks of soft tonal qualities lending the dance form a “feminine” quality.  At the same time, since these masks make facial gestures impossible, it therefore involves elaborate footwork.  The Mayurbanj Chhau (cover picture) on the other hand, does not use masks at all and lays more emphasis on facial expressions.  The Chhau dance at Purulia does not have many female characters, since its themes are from episodes of the epics of Mahabharata that do not have such characters. Women as performers have not yet been introduced to Chhau at Purulia, while Chhau at Seraikela and Mayurbhanj have an array of female characters and women as participants.

 

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Seraikela Chhau

 

 

Chaou
Purulia Chhau

 

 

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Mayurbhanj Chhau.  Picture courtesy : Dancer Ms. Carolina Prada

 

The reason why Chhau is predominantly male can be attributed to its history. Gajapati rulers of Kalinga desa (present day Odisha), on their mission of expansion annexed parts of many present day states such as Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Their territory extended from Ganga to Kaveri and they were able to do this with the help of infantry troops called Paikas. The word Paika is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Padatika’ meaning infantry. These valiant Paikas were not on the regular payroll of the militia but farmers who became soldiers part-time. These groups rendered their services in return for huge land grants. In order to stay fit and battle ready, these farmers would gather every evening at the local paika akhadas to exercise and practice. This gave rise to a martial form called Parikhanda Khela, practiced with swords and shields, which later metamorphosised with time into the magnificent dance form Chhau.

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The warriors of the royal princely houses of Singhbhum and Manbhum dynasties (eighteenth century to early twentieth century) employed the techniques of the martial arts or Parikhanda khela, and used them to dramatize narratives.  These dramatized narratives became the genesis for Chhau and since this form involved these martial art techniques, it was taken to be a masculine form.  The word Chhau has its origins in Chauni (military camp) and Chhaya (Shadow or mask). The colloquial meaning of the word Chhau is dexterity, skill and technique.

The royal princes of the Manbhum and the Singhbhum dynasties remained the major patrons of this form before Independence.  They were not only instrumental in keeping the tradition alive by funding the form, but also by participanting as performers.  They often supported this art by giving generous donations and encouraged competitions among the individual performers or troupes.  The kings of the Singhbhum region (Baripada) organized the performers into two main competitive groups, the Dakshin Sahi, southern part and the Uttar Sahi, the northern part named after the regions of the town of Baripada and yearly competitions was held between them.

The dramatic form of Chhau parallels Kathakali, another all male martial art dance drama of Kerala.  Since the techniques that are involved are based on martial art techniques, men have traditionally performed both these forms.  These forms are semi classical and do not have any set codification. Chhau has elaborate masks but Kathakali has elaborate face make up that resemble masks.

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chhau1Chhau2

The basic steps of Chhau involve imitation of nature: the walk of a cow, stalking of a crane, fish jumping out of water, household duties performed by females like mixing of cow dung, grinding of spices, fetching water from the pond etc.  These movements, the Uflis (the basic stances), and the Chauk (elaborate footwork) are synchronized to form the pieces or the Topkas.  The basic plots of the dramatic form are taken from Hindu mythology, religion and history for example Chandrabhaga (depicting love of the moon), Ratri (a love story between the moon and night) and Meghdoot (based on a popular Sanskrit play written by the playwright Kalidasa).

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Most popular theaters, like Ramlila and Raslila of rural north India have deep ritualistic and mythological foundations that are performed during major festivals.  Like other religions these nativity plays depict the birth of gods and dramatize stories about them.  Chhau is also associated with a major ritual festival of Eastern India, the Chaitra Parva (spring festival), held in the month of Chaitra or April. It does not have a religious base but uses themes from mythology and is performed in the evenings to entertain the people of the regions of Sareikela, Mayurbanj and Purulia.  The parva has rituals that honor the Hindu god Shiva, the lord of destruction.  The festival is held over thirteen days involving the Chhau performances in the evenings of the days of the rituals, barring some specific days and thirteen men of some specific communities or the Bhaktas, the devotees, perform these rituals.     Many austere practices, ceremonies and ritual sacrifices mark the Chaitra Parva.  However, the performances of Chhau are not a part of the ritual and are performed in the evenings for the entertainment of the local people.

Some folk theatre forms of India like the Lavani and the Tamasha of Maharashtra are meant purely for the entertainment of people.  These use sex and strong sexual innuendos as a theme that makes it immensely popular.  Since, these performances are held in the night and employ the use of secular songs and dances, the women performers are not given high social value and esteem, and many women are discouraged to participate as performers.  Many of the performers also come from traditional low classes.  Traditionally, Chhau also had placed restrictions on women as performers. The origins of Chhau can best describe the lack of any female participants in the early years and their denial as performers.

 

 

To be continued….

The cover picture is courtesy Ms. Carolina Prada

Most of the other pictures used in the post are from the presentation on Chhau Masks and Footwork of Seraikela Chhau by National Folk Support Centre and can be accessed at the website http://www.slideshare.net

Author – Gouri Nilkantan

She can be reached at pact.delhi@gmail.com