One of the reasons I wanted to go to Kolkata was to visit Kurmartuli, a clay workers district, where you can observe Hindu sculptures being made by hand. The Idol Makers of Kumartuli are the talented artisans who make the incredible deities and idols for the famous Durga Puga held annually around the world. Part of the Hindu festival of Navaratri, which is taking place now (October 2016), these sculptures are an important part of the festivities and in Kumartuli they work year long in preparations, making thousands of clay works.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Whether it was acceptable for a woman to go alone, whether there was a need to make an appointment, or whether one can simply turn up; but in the end I did just that.
It can take hours to get across Kolkata because of the traffic so instead of a bus or taxi, I boarded a boat which took me straight to Kumartuli.
After getting off the boat I had no idea how on earth I would find the exact area but as I headed into the main part of the neighbourhood, I began to spy a store selling clay gods, and saw statues of clay horses left out on the roadsides to dry.
I turned a corner into an alley way and there it is before my eyes. I felt like I had properly uncovered the real City Of Joy, although perhaps it should be renamed the City of Grey?
I made my way through the labyrinth of workshops and artisans moulding, sculpting, slipping, painting and sketching away. It was so quiet as the workers, all men, worked diligently away.
I spied heads, bodies, animals, masks, giant beings, mythical creatures and humans, all created from clay and straw. Every so often I turned a corner to see photographers snapping up the world of the idol maker; it’s certainly an image-maker’s paradise.
The skills of these artisans is exceptional. There is so much detail and consistency in their designs and it’s so fascinating to see the various parts of sculptures come together in different stages. If you have any interest at all in clay, pottery or sculpture, Kumartuli is worthy of making a pilgrimage to.
Some of the workers were based inside workshops while other seem to be just sprawled out onto streets.
Stages I saw included building the base model, covering it in slip, then straw ,then more slip before seeing them painted and adorned with embellishments.
It’s estimated that for the Durga Puja festival, deities and sculptures are created here in Kumartuli for 100 countries. The artisans also take private orders, such as the man I met who was working on a commission.
Again, I was blown away by the creativity and craftsmanship.
To get the most out of a visit to Kurmatuli it’s worth taking a guide who can explain a bit more about the stages and the history of the area, but wondering alone as I did, gives you the freedom to simply enjoy the atmosphere, and there’s something very satisfying in wondering amidst a labyrinth of clay; you’re not sure what you’ll witness next.
Visiting Kumartuli was a highlight of my travels in the West Bengal region, whether you have a spare hour, or an entire day, it’s worth every minute of your time being here. Here’s a few more snaps from my explorations…