Friday 12 April 2019

K is for...Karigar...Kumbhakara... n...Kumortuli

The first track today is from Kabir Suman, who started his career as Suman Chattopadhyay - one of the pioneers of Anyodharar Gaan (Alternative Music) in the 1990s. He converted from Hinduism to Islam to protest the mob killing of a Christian Missionary and his two minor sons by a Hindu fundamentalist group in the late 90's. He is a popular musician who has worked both in West Bengal and in Bangladesh but is also controversial for his colourful personal life and political views. 

The next title Katodure (How far) is from a Kolkata based band - Krosswinds. They have been playing for more than 25 years and have collaborated with both Indian bands/musicians as well as European and American ones. 

A couple of Bengali singers who must be mentioned here are Kishore Kumar  (1929-1987) and Kumar Sanu, the first a legend, the second also uber successful, both stalwarts of film music and playback singing in Bollywood. They have both sung a heap of Bengali songs as well, though it is safe to say their major work has been in languages other than Bengali. Here is Kumar Sanu singing Bengali folk - Amay Bhasaili Re, originally composed by Jasimuddin from Bangladesh.

Talking about Bangladesh, here's another track - by Hridoy Khan, take a listen 


Another name that popped into my mind is Kalim Sharafi (1924-2010), a famous singer who sang Rabindrasangeet, the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, which is a genre by itself. And then, if we're talking about RT, just have to mention Kanika (1924-2000), okay...stop, stop, stop! I'm not starting off another ramble into the old-is-goldies here. But there are a heap of singers/musicians/lyricists/composers for every letter, some of them just too important to leave out.  Feel like a perfect idiot not to mention at least some of them.

Karigar. Kumbhakara. Kumortuli. And the story of the Durga Puja.

Kumortuli translated means ‘Potters’ Town.’  A Kumor is a potter, the word derives from Kumbhakara in Sanskrit – the one who shapes a pot, Kumbha = a water pitcher, Akara = shape/form.  A Kumortuli potter is an artist as well as an artisan, a karigar.

Pottery is one of the first markers of civilisation – it is so ubiquitous that it defines specific cultures in archaeology. In India, pottery has been dated back to around 6600 years BP. Bengal had a tradition of clay pottery from antiquity, the proof scattered in the archaeological sites of Erenda and Pandu Rajar Dhipi dating to 1400-750 BCE. Because Bengal never had an abundance of stone, it evolved clay bricks and elaborate carved terracotta panels as building material, but that’s a different story for some other time.

Remember the three villages Job Charnock acquired for setting up the first EIC Bengal ‘factory’ in 1690’s, Kalikatah, Gobindapur and Sutanuti?   They built a fort in 1700, and the city of Calcutta crystallised around it gradually. The settlement grew in importance, tradesmen migrated to the area. And then in 1757, the British toppled the Nawab of Bengal and took charge.

John Zephaniah Holwell, the temporary Governor of Bengal in 1760, allocated separate neighbourhoods to all the tradesmen in the surrounding areas. So there was Chuttorpara (Carpenter’s Quarters), Ahiritolla (Milkmens’ Neighbourhood) Collotolla (Oilpressers’ Lane) Coomartolly (Potters’ Lane) and so on.  Most artisans got gradually squeezed out of their North Calcutta neighbourhoods by the urban merchant class later, but Kumortuli survived. Survived because it wove for itself an inextricable part in the city’s biggest festival – the Durga Puja, the worship of Durga.

Durga is a super-ancient deity, the fierce, protective form of the Mother Goddess. Archaeological evidence of her worship has been found everywhere from Afghanistan to Indonesia. The Rig Veda, the oldest religious text in the world (1500 BCE), mentions Durga. So do both the ancient Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. An image of Durga is among the findings in Pandu Rajar Dhipi (1400-750 BCE) and the oldest evidence of Durga in Bengal. Clearly, she has been celebrated for yonks.

Durga is traditionally depicted as a ten-armed warrior goddess riding into battle on a lion, a different weapon or item of war held in each of her hands, at the exact moment of climax when she has just defeated/killed the Mahishasur or Buffalo-demon, a shape-shifting evil fiend which all the male deities in the Hindu pantheon were unable to vanquish.

Originally, her worship coincided with the harvest festivals in spring and autumn. Somewhere along the line, the ‘harvest’ aspect dropped out and the ‘protection’ aspect gained currency. What was a private, household ritual of faith exploded into a public carnival. And the Kumortuli karigars became an indispensable part of it. How did that happen?

Initially, the rulers and the rich landowners would perform the Durga Puja in a show of power and prestige. Oral histories indicate that the ruling families of Malda and Dinajpur performed Durga Puja in 1500’s. The ruling family of Nadia, the Rays, were also known to celebrate Durga Puja. Krishnachandra Ray, a great patron of the arts, popularised it during his reign (1728-82) and brought it into the public domain. He invited potters from Dhaka and Natore in East Bengal to come and settle in his lands, specifically to fashion the images. Some of these potters migrated to Sutanuti later as Calcutta grew in importance.

The first such Durga Puja in Calcutta has been recorded in 1610, before the founding of the city, by the Sabarna Roychowdhuri’s, from whom Charnock acquired the land for the EIC factory.

In 1757, after Robert Clive toppled the Nawab with the help of colluders from within the court and the support of Bengali traders/gentry, one of the latter - Nabakrishna Deb, hosted a lavish celebration of Durga Puja as a thanksgiving party for the British. It started off a trend of these Pujas on a grand scale which the Bengali aristocracy hosted, where the Company officers were royally entertained with all manner of exotic food and drink and performing arts. However, they were not truly community affairs as a few individual, affluent families remained the sponsors. And the clay artisans of Kumartuli continued their tradition of creating and supplying the images of Durga used for these celebrations.

The first actual community Durga Puja happened in Guptipara in Hooghly in 1790. Twelve Brahmins friends got together, roped in contributions from local residents and performed the Puja where the entire neighbourhood participated. This gave rise to the term Baroyari which still denotes a participatory social event. (Baro=twelve, yaar=pal, buddy; Baroyari= organised by twelve pals). By 1910, the small localised Baroyari Pujas had become Sarbajanin (lit ‘of all the people,’ sarba=all, jan=people) with widespread participation of common folk.

Today, apart from India and Bangladesh, the Durga Puja is celebrated among the Bengali diaspora in 150 locations in 36 countries spread across the world in every continent. Kolkata itself celebrates more than 2000 Durga Pujas in community marquees called ‘pandals.’ The images, the marquees and the festival lighting constitute huge seasonal industries by themselves. The Kumortuli karigars create the idols for this festival and form the pivot on which the event rests.

There are around 450 workshops in Kumortuli, where 300+ families of karigars live and work, producing about 4000 images every year for the Durga Puja. Half of those clay idols are against commissions in Kolkata, a quarter are shipped to Delhi, and another 1000 images are shipped to other cities in India, a handful are sent abroad. Unlike the Pujas in India/Bangladesh, the idol abroad is often packed away for future use. At home, the images are taken in a grand procession to the nearest river and immersed in the waters after the ritual worship is over. The clay dissolves and goes back to the riverbed.

Previously, everything used for the idols was biodegradable and eco-friendly, but now with the rising numbers and modern materials used, river pollution is a concern. Also of concern is the gradual loss of skills as the children of the karigar families break away from their traditional occupation to take up more lucrative, industrial jobs with a steadier income potential. K2 is a project to keep the skills and the art of these karigars going.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019 


  1. I really like the idear of the images being returned to the river...
    Thank you for the link to K2.

    1. The original Vedic ideas were all eco friendly.

  2. Interesting information. Singers, poets, pottery and Durga pooja. Thank you. For my blog, the post for 'I'is the best blog post of this challenge. It had 211 page views so far. I consider it as a good two-day performance.
    Industrial Engineering and Operations Management - Distinction and Combination

  3. I just wrote a very thoughtful response and then lost it. Sigh.

    1. Ha that's happening to me to more often than I can stand. :)

  4. I knew some about Durga from stories, but not about the festival. That last part about pollution made me feel sad...

    The Multicolored Diary

    1. The festival is huge in West Bengal. The entire city of Calcutta is involved. There's some effort to be 'clean' now that the people and the authorities are more aware.