Kumortuli artisans are surely feeling the pinch. Prices of raw materials used for making the goddess have registered upward mobility over the years putting not only Durga Puja committees but also artisans themselves under duress.
“Prices of raw materials have no doubt increased over the years. But the biggest problem is maintenance of labourers. There is a growing lack of skilled workers, as a result of which the existing bunch has started demanding more. We pay around R2,000- 2,500 per day to a labourer against R700- 800 that we used to pay them two years back,” said artisan Bankim Pal.
Artisans complained that prices of all raw materials including soil, colours, thermocol, jute, hay, bamboo, flour and decorative items have shot up especially in the last few years.
“Water colour is R16 per five gram which was R12 last year. A basket of soil that we used to get for 20 paisa 8 years back now sells for R20. Thermocol has shot up from
R20 to R200 during the same period. Zari dust that sold for R150- 300 a kg now costs anything between R1,200-R1,500. An average 10-feet Durga idol that we sold for
R25,000-R30,000 now has to be sold at R50,000-R60,000 to meet growing expenses," complained veteran artisan Kalicharan Pal.
The scene is no different on the outskirts of the city. “Two years back, a truckload of soil used to cost R1,200. Now it costs R3,000. Soil bought from the fertile areas of Canning and Uluberia are more expensive at R10,000 per truck,” said Bhola Pal, who used to work in Kumortuli but later settled in Narayanpalli for the last 20 years.
Agrees Shambhu Pal, another artisan in Kumortuli. “For R10,000, we used to get 10 tons of soil two years back. Now we get only 8 tons. Flour that we use for making gum increased from R20 just two days back to R22 today, and is expected to rise as Puja advances. Hair made of jute costs R70 a kilo as against R40 two years back," he said.
Artisans fear that with the young generation not enough enthused to learn the work of sculpture, there will be tremendous crisis of skilled labourers in the coming years and the cost factor is only expected to escalate. Most of the famous artisans in Kumortuli have either passed away or have taken ill and the onus lies in the hands of a older few to continue the tradition of this historic place. “A 30 feet-long bamboo stick that cost R60- 80 two years back now costs R140160. Cost of water colour has increased by 25-30%. Smaller ornaments have become expensive from R75 to R140 and from R500 to R1,100 per set. An 8-feet idol of the goddess of thinner structure used to sell for R8,000 two years back. Now we are compelled to sell them at R20,000,” Bhola Pal said.
Ornament makers in Kumortuli could only express helplessness. “Smaller ornaments are sold at higher rates because prices of raw materials have gone up. Chumki is procured at R200 as against R180 two years back. Zari rates have gone up from R170 to R200 during the same period. Most importantly, prices of gum, without which we can't do, have gone up from R90 to R120 in the last two years,” said Biswajit Sarkar, who specialises in the art.
Along with their mother, idols of Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik have also seen their fare charts going up. Sold for about R500- 800 two years back, they now fetch anything between R1,000- 2,000.
Artisans agreed in one voice that to meet the growing expenses, they have been required to compromise on the quality part.
Also various puja committees would not agree to pay them the hiked rates, in case they decide to shelve cheaper alternates, they opined.
“Colours used in Khajuraho, Ajanta and Ellora paintings are immortal. We neither have the technical know how to create nor to use those colours. Previously we used natural components as metesindoor and halud in our creations, but the government stopped the use of such materials. They are encouraging us to use oil or distempered water colours,” said Kalicharan Pal.
“Oil colours are too expensive to be afforded by artisans. Already import of sola has been replaced by thermocol due to cost factor. It is heard that during Indira Gandhi's time the Reserve Bank of India confiscated our bank accounts. If the amount can be recovered, we artisans can hope to lead better lives,” he said. The artisans do get bank loans up to R2 lakh just to make sure that their work is not hampered due to funds crunch. The union stands as a guarantor for the same.
"Puja committees though bargain with us never pay less than promised. But often we sell out the idols at minimal profits to clear our stock as we have limited space in our homes," said Shambhu Pal.