Durga Puja: From Bengal to Delhi, idol makers who bring the goddess to life
Raw figurines of straw and clay drying out in the sun are the first sign that the festival season is around the corner. In Chittaranjan Park, home to a large Bengali community in Delhi, idols at a dimly lit makeshift tent are lined in 12 rows. Madhab Halder, an artisan, wearing a mud-spattered t-shirt, is applying a layer of clay on a hay torso. A few steps away, artisan Govind Nath sits on the ground, holding a clay face and etching eyes with a tool.
Madhab and Govind are among a group of 11 artisans who are working to meet the demand for idols in the National Capital Region ahead of Durga Puja celebrations. So far they have received 30 orders from individuals and registered societies across Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab.
The five-day festival, observed by Hindus to mark goddess Durga’s battle against demon Mahishasura, will begin on September 26. Each year devotees set up pandals with massive Durga idols that are immersed into river on the penultimate day of the festival.
Artisans say they come to the city three months ahead of the festival and this year too, the preparations began in month of June. The clay used in the idols is from villages in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Most artisans are from Krishnanagar in West Bengal and they have been working 15 hours a day to meet the demand.
“Traditional idol makers like us, whose families have been in this profession for many generations, come to CR Park during major festivals such as Saraswati Puja and Durga Puja. These few months are crucial for us. We have to make enough money to sail through the year,” said 45-year-old Govind Nath, the head artisan from Kolkata. Nath said he learnt idol making from his father, who worked in CR Park before him. Nath grew up watching his father at work and joined him when he was a teenager.
To begin, the idol makers create figurines out of straw, chaff and clay. The clay idols are then placed in the sun to dry. Artisan Madhab Halder said he has established a reputation over the years. “Whenever people want idols during this festival, they contact us and place orders. An idol can be made in 10-15 days, depending upon the weather and the number of makers. Once the festival is over, we return to our villages in Bengal,” said 30-year-old Madhab.
The price of the idols depends on size, design and decoration. The minimum is Rs 10,000 and the maximum goes beyond Rs 1 lakh.
Artisans say their biggest challenge is working in harsh, unpredictable weather. “It has rained heavily in the last couple of months. There wasn’t much sunlight. The idols took a lot of time to dry,” Halder said.
Another challenge is coming up with new designs each year while keeping the traditional and religious values. Durga idols are usually given 10 hands but this time they plan to make one with 22 hands. Last year, the tallest idol at the famous Kali Bari Mandir measured 18 feet. These artisans also intend to break that record by making an idol 20 feet high and 45 feet wide.
Inside the tent in CR Park, three other artisans are giving shape to a clay lion on which stands a figure of the goddess. One artisan says the job is taxing. “Eye problems are a part of our profession. My father and grandfather too suffered from it. I am in my mid-40s now and have started wearing glasses,” Nath concurs.
Also, dealing with wet clay and working in damp conditions can produce persistent cold and cough. “I don’t want my children to take up this profession. For that matter, the modern generation is not interested in learning this art at all. Everyone wants to become doctor or engineer. Nobody wants to become an idol maker,” said Nath.
Since demonetisation and GST, the cost of raw materials and transportation has increased two times, they say.
“Take for example our most important material — clay. A small amount of it cost us Rs 10 last year. But this time, we paid Rs 20 for the same quantity. The cost has increased for everything,” Nath said.
Nath and others continue to camp in the Capital for four to six months a year to create gods and goddesses. “As long as festivals are celebrated every year, the art of idol-making will not lose its charm. We have blessings of the gods,” said Nath.