Kolkata: As the Durga Puja season approaches Kolkata, the artisans of Kumartuli, the traditional potters’ quarter in the city, are hoping for better business after two years as the pandemic and cyclone Amphan hit them consecutively in 2020 and 2019. However, the rise in input costs and a slow market mean it would be hard for the idol makers to generate adequate profit this festive season.
Last year, the Covid-19 induced period and lockdown had hit Kumartuli hard. Business was at utmost low at the potters’ quarter, one of the biggest in India. “This year we are hoping for better baina (advance payment against idols) even though the markets are still sluggish,” said Maya Pal (66), one of the few women clay idol makers in Kumartuli. She, along with her sister-in-law Anima Pal, has made about 9 idols this year -- all small sized unlike earlier years when she made big idols. However, except for one, all the other idols have received ad hoc payments from puja committees this year, she informed.
Image Courtesy: Sandip Chakraborty
Her husband, Ramchandra Pal, passed away a few years back and since then, both the sister-in-laws have been preparing the clay idols of gods and goddesses all by themselves. In 2019 and 2020, cyclone Amphan and Covid-19 pandemic hit the artisans respectively. By utilising their reserved money, they managed to tide over the crisis somehow. This year, with their savings hitting the bottom, they are in dire straits and are hoping for brisk business before the festival time.
However, the price of the idols this year is not rising while the cost of inputs for making the clay idols has risen manifolds, rued Sujit Pal (45) of Kumartuli Mritshilpi Sanskriti Samiti, who has prepared about 45 idols this time. Sujit Pal is the son of late Samir Pal, a renowned clay artisan. Sujit carries the legacy of his late father and he is the idol-maker for many big pujas in this years’ festival.
There are 213 members of the Kumartuli Mritshilpi Sanskrti Samity, the only organisation that looks after the welfare of the Kumartuli. Up to 2019, the entire artiste community used to do a business of Rs 100 crores, which during the Covid-19 period was shrunk to only three fourth of that. Nearly 1,000 labourers are also engaged by the 213 Kumartuli artistes to make the basic frames on which the idols are made.
Sujit Pal said that during the Covid-19 period when the whole industry faced its lowest, not even a tiny share of government help was received by the artisan community. However, many private individuals knowing the dire condition of the artisans, extended help towards them.
Image Courtesy: Sandip Chakraborty
“Originally we hail from Nadia district of West Bengal and Maharaja Krishnachandra sent us here to make idols for Shovabazaar Rajbari about 300 years earlier. Before Independence and after, some more artisans came from Dhaka in present-day Bangladesh, and settled here. Such people use the surname Rudrapal while others of West Bengal origin have the surname of Pal,” Sujit Pal told Newsclick.
This year, traditional bamboo sticks, clay and hay needed to make the idols are overpriced and Jute fibre is priced around Rs 120 per kg, increased from Rs 80-85 per kg. “Earlier, after making an idol, we used to get a profit of 60:40. Now it has come down to 80:20 -- that is 80% cost and 20% profit. We have to sustain for one year with business fetched in October. Seeing the condition of the business, newer generations are not interested to come into this profession,” Pal said.
To dry the idols, kerosene was earlier given at a subsidised rate to the artisans and they used to get 30 to 40 litres of kerosene at ration shop (PDS) rates, however, the present government has decreased the amount to 5 litres. “Now, due to the dearth of Kerosene, we had to make innovations making blow pumps with cooking gas. But cooking gas price is also hitting the roof. Tarpaulin earlier used to be distributed in a clear cut manner, which is now unavailable to an average potter,” he said.
Sujit Paul also lamented that earlier bank loans were readily available for Kumartuli artistes. But since the fall of the Left Front government in 2011, bank loans have not been available for making the idols. In 2009, the Urban Development Department of Government of West Bengal had charted out a development roadmap for Kumartuli. However, it was scrapped midway due to the change in governance in the state.
The entire Kumartuli is situated on ‘Thika Praja’ land and is covered under thika tenancy act of the West Bengal government. Now, change in names of landholders is happening through the backdoors, alleged Sujit Pal.