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With the start of the pre-Puja 'muhurtha' of 'Mahalaya', we are bringing you images from the timeless atelier-lined lanes of North Kolkata's historic KumortulI, in the ancient Sovabazar area. This is where the cosmic Devi, Durga, comes mystically alive from clumps of sacred Ganga Clay, as she is tenderly sculpted by the Kumor’s masterly hands and painted in vivid kaleidoscopes, for the ensuing days of worship. This kinetic panorama of Goddesses-in-the-making is a sight out of some surreal planetary realm where Divinity rules; where humans know the true meaning of Sadhona, Bhakti, Art, worship and supplication.
Kumortuli is one of the seven wonders of Kolkata: it is also spelt as Kumartuli, or the archaic colonial British spelling Coomartolly. This is a traditional potters’ quarter in northern Kolkata . By virtue of their brilliant and unique artistic sculptural productions, these 'Kumor' potters have moved from obscurity to international prominence as artists of repute. This ancient and sublime north-Kolkata neighbourhood not only supplies clay idols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses to 'barowari ' - aristocratic 'khandaani' - domestic pujas in Kolkata and its neighbourhoods, but a number of idols are also exported.
In the 18th. century. the three villages of Gobindapur, Sutanuti and Kalikata developed to give rise to the amazing metropolis of ideas called Calcutta - now Kolkata. Some neighbourhoods acquired specific work-related names – Suriparah (the place of wine sellers), Collotollah (the place of oil men), Chuttarparah (the place of carpenters), Aheeritollah (the cowherd’s quarters) and Coomartolly (the quarters of potters, artisans and sculptors). In the late 19th. century, with the commercial invasion of Burrabazar, most of the skillful and humble artisans living in these north Kolkata neighbourhoods dwindled in numbers - or even vanished - as they were pushed out of the area by the calls of urban commerce. The potters of Kumortuli, who fashioned the clay - from the river beside their homes - into pots to be sold at Sutanuti Bazar (later Burrabazar), somehow managed to survive. Gradually they took to making iconic images of Gods and Goddesses that were worshipped in large numbers in the stately Bengali mansions all around - and later at community pujas in the City and beyond.
Visually, we are surrounded here in Kumortuli by a surreal clay-scape of looming beautiful Parvatis, Lakshmis, Saraswatis, Ganeshas and Karttiks; as well as ugly Asura-demons with the face of Evil, squirming beneath the Devi's outraged dainty foot; and also charming, pet-like animistic 'Vahanas' - including Durga's lion, Lakshmi's owl, Saraswati's swan, Karttik's peacock and Ganesha's mouse. These are all being invoked and brought alive with the help of the holy Ganga Clay. The River flows alongside these mysterious ateliers, where master-sculptors work in dim light under straw roofs to create our Devi Durga Mahamaya-Shakti, protectress of the Universe. Resplendently graphic and unrobed, she - of the ten arms and the sweet Gioconda-smile, Trinayani, the three-eyed Devi of all Devis - rises from the mud, majestically naked, sans any sari and adornments. She is first as grey as the sacred Ganga's dark silt and mud, and then is scintillatingly painted in glowing shades of pure, sacred yellow and gold. Her Chakkhu-daan - 'Eye-benediction' - is the final painterly touch that makes this Goddess Jagrata – Alive - before she is lovingly draped in exquisite red and gold brocade saris and ornamented with golden tiara and jewels, like a
Behold Durga! She is the beloved married daughter, Parvati, who returns from her distant northern Himavant to her eastern paternal home in Kolkata for the Sharad-Utsav or Autumn harvest, to save her people from all evil and injustice, which is manifested in the ugly, twisted face of the demon Mahisasura - whom she exterminates with her long pitchfork and multiple weapons, as he squirms, helpless, at her divine, red-'aalta'-rimmed, lotus-feet. Behold the Supreme Mahamaya: bow down to Her wrath and Her benedictions!
The sculptures are of myriad aesthetic styles - from the ancient Chaalchitra folk-tribal Totemic idiom to Renaissance-inspired neo-classical Greco-Roman models. The Kumor sculptors have formidable artistic skills. And yet they choose to remain nameless, humble and silent, penitent worshippers of this supreme Shakti - which they spend their entire artistic lives to evoke and invoke for worship. Their astounding creations are preserved as High Art in all the world's museums.
The Mother will be worshipped with the devout Arati of 108 clay lamps, incense, sandalwood, chants and fresh flowers; and finally, would be emotionally immersed back into the Ganga river on Dashami - as she is tearfully asked to return to us again from the sacred River the next Sharat or Autumn season. Millions poetically entreat her --- "Ma, aabar esho, amader rokkha koro shorboda" ~ ("Ma, return to us again and again; save us forever from all evil"). Ma Durga Namoh Namaha.
On the Back page, Jit Kumar's worthy lens captures the spirit of Kumortuli.
Artist, Writer, & Curator
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