Natives & Neighborhoods How Immigrant Sculptors Shaped an Artists’ Hub Called Kumartuli
This “heritage site” has been home to my family since the 1940s.
The narrow alleys of Kumartuli, a neighborhood in the metropolitan city of Kolkata, are flanked by thatched workshops in which artisans carve clay models of Hindu gods. This artisans’ colony is a remnant of the colonial era, when the British divided the northern parts of Kolkata, which they called “Black Town,” into caste-based quarters for communities of skilled workers.
The neighborhood has been home to my father’s family since the 1940s, and my earliest memories are of strolling past rows of idols—that is, clay models of gods such as Durga, Kali, and Krishna—drying under the sun. A walk through Kumartuli at any time of the year offers one a glimpse of idols in various stages of completion. The idols vary in size: Some are small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, others are more than ten feet tall. There are also subtle stylistic differences among the idols carved in the different workshops, which are colloquially called ghar or houses. This is because every workshop in the neighborhood belongs to a specific family of idol-makers. They produce idols under labels—“Rakhal Chandra Rudra Pal & Sons,” “Gora Chand Paul & Sons”—that identify the family or the ghar of artisans. The workshop space is an extension of the idol-making family’s household and the idols sculpted in the workshop reflect the family’s aesthetic.
The Kumartuli workshops supply idols that are worshipped in various Hindu festivals across the world. Durga idols sculpted in these workshops play an especially crucial role in the life of the Bengali Hindus. In the early twentieth century, the worship of Durga idols in the autumnal months would bring Bengali Hindus together as a community, promoting solidarity and facilitating anti-colonial resistance movements. Now, Durga Puja allows Bengali Hindus to celebrate folk crafts and local culture. If you attend a Durga Puja, celebrated by the Bengalis in Kolkata or the Bengali diaspora across the world, chances are you will encounter the handiwork of Kumartuli craftsmen.
The neighborhood itself is identified as a “heritage site” in travel guidebooks and appears in government-sponsored advertisements promoting tourism to West Bengal. Alongside Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial, Kumartuli functions as a visual shorthand for the city of Kolkata.
However, despite the conspicuous presence of Kumartuli and its workshops in contemporary Bengali and Hindu cultural spheres, the complex history of caste-based settlement during the colonial period, followed by the influx of migrants during the Partition of India and the rivalry among the old and the new settlers that underlies the craft of idol-making practiced in this artisans’ colony remains relatively unknown. A consideration of the neighborhood’s past reveals the extent to which phases of migration and settlement have contributed to the evolution and continuance of idol-making as an art form. At the same time, the colony’s history also shows how, in the aftermath of large-scale displacement of populations, existing social structures and bonds fail the displaced people. They had to forge new bonds among themselves to get by in the new land.
Located between the eastern bank of the Hooghly river and Rabindra Sarani, a central road in Kolkata, the area that is now called Kumartuli was once a swamp. In the 1700s, when Bengal was colonized, the British East India Company allotted the area to kumors— potters who made earthenware—perhaps owing to the abundance of soft clay in the region. The neighborhood came to be known as Kumor- tuli after the community of workmen who settled there. Near Kumartuli were other workmen’s colonies, such as Colootollah (quarter for kalus or oil pressers), Puttuatola (quarter for puttuas or painters), Suriparah (quarter for shunris or distillers and sellers of wine), and Aheeritollah (quarter for ahirs or milkmen of Bihari-origin). For the Hindu workmen, caste was tied to occupation. The kumors of Kumartuli were of the ceremonially pure Shudra caste and shared the last name Pal (also spelled Paul). Of the various colonial era caste-based quarters, only the potters’ quarter—Kumartuli—survives in present-day Kolkata. But the artisans in the neighborhood no longer produce earthenware. The kumors’ workshops are now almost exclusively devoted to sculpting idols and related accessories.
Contemporary artisans Sunil Pal and Jyotindranath Pal say that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, landowning families of north Kolkata began to bring idol-makers from Nabadwip and Krishnanagar, cities in western Bengal, to sculpt clay models in the potters’ quarter. Shyamal Pal recounts that when horses drew trams in Kolkata (between 1880 and 1900s) his kumor forefathers would seasonally come to make idols in Kumartuli. Eventually, the idol-makers settled in the neighborhood. About twenty-five kumor families from western parts of Bengal— edeshi idol-makers—were already based in Kumartuli when the Indian subcontinent was Partitioned along religious lines in 1947.
Through the early 1940s, sectarian violence among Hindus and Muslims was on the rise in Bengal. Partition of India was imminent. Bikrampur, Faridpur, Barisal, and Dhaka were among the eastern parts of the Bengal province that the British government had identified as comprising a “Muslim-majority” population back in 1905. Under Lord Curzon, the Bengal province was then divided into two parts—East Bengal and West Bengal—for administrative purposes. Both provinces remained part of the same country—British India. However, in the 1940s, Hindu families in East Bengal realized that when independent India is split to form the Muslim-majority nation-state of Pakistan, East Bengal would belong in the newly-formed country. As such, upper- and middle-class Hindus from East Bengal with professional or familial connections in West Bengal began migrating. My grandparents were among the Hindus who came to West Bengal during the years preceding Partition. When my grandfather found employment as an administrative officer in Kolkata, West Bengal, around 1940, he brought his wife, parents, and siblings to the city, permanently abandoning their home in East Bengal’s Bhadda village.
In Kolkata, my grandparents moved into a house in Kumartuli as tenants. The house was owned by an edeshi landholder. My father grew up in this house, surrounded by the idol-makers’ workshops, and to him, Kumartuli remains home. I have found homes elsewhere, having migrated from India to the US, but my writings and memory often take me back to Kumartuli. The limited presence of women artisans in the idol-makers’ colony prompted me to explore, via fiction, what it would be like to be a woman idol-maker in Kumartuli. This fictional exploration culminated in my first novel. Based in Ohio at the time, as I revisited the neighborhood through my writing, I realized that the experience of losing and finding homes, the movement of people, is at the root of the folk-art form around which my community—the Bengali Hindu community—constructs its cultural identity.
The kumors— potters—of East Bengal, whose livelihood depended on molding earthenware and sculpting clay idols for upper-class Hindu families, were caught in the same tide of mass departure during Partition as my grandparents. Artisan Sridam Pal, descendant of an East Bengal-origin kumor family, recalls that his father came to sell earthenware in West Bengal and Assam just prior to Partition, and reported home about these markets. Between 1946 and 1950, many kumors, including Bikrampur’s Rakhal Chandra Rudra Pal and Dhaka’s Gora Chand Paul left East Bengal, anticipating that Hindu festivals would not continue in their former glory in Pakistan.
However, independent India’s government was unprepared for the influx of migrants in West Bengal and did not recognize most of the displaced population from East Bengal as “refugees” needing permanent settlements. Governmental policies even tried to ensure that the East Bengali migrants return to their ancestral homes. Meanwhile, due to caste and class pride, many evacuees avoided registering themselves as refugees. They were left to figure out their own survival strategies.
The kumors displaced from East Bengal gathered in Kumartuli. In East Bengal, they had been scattered—there was no thakur patty or idol-makers’ colony there. However, the displaced kumors expected to find support and kinship in the corner of Kolkata where edeshi kumor families, who shared their caste and occupation, were concentrated. The kumors of East Bengal also wanted to tap into the market for earthenware and idols that already existed in the region due to the presence of the edeshi kumors. The advent of migrants, however, made the old settlers of the neighborhood anxious. The edeshi kumors perceived the migrating families as competition. In such circumstances, how the newly arrived kumors from East Bengal with no land and little resources made inroads into the area and the idol-making business remains a subject of contention.
Narayan Pal, Rakhal Chandra Rudra Pal’s son, says that the East Bengali kumors survived in Kolkata not because of the benevolence of their “caste-brothers”—that is, the edeshi idol-makers who also have the same last name “Pal”—but rather due to the support of the Roys of Bhagyakul, a wealthy landowning family based out of Bhagyakul near Dhaka in East Bengal. The Roys had zamindari estates across Bengal and Bihar. During Partition, like many other upper- and middle-class Hindu families from the east, they had moved to Kolkata. A branch of the family came to live in a mansion in Kumartuli. In solidarity with the similarly uprooted East Bengali kumors, the Roy family offered land, adjacent to their palatial mansion, to the emigrating kumors. Here the artisans could build workshops. To live close to the workshops, the kumor families rented matchbox houses, if they could afford them, or squatted in open plots around the locality. Thus, even though the East Bengali kumors had migrated to Kumartuli in the hopes of finding easy acceptance among practitioners of the same trade, it was a new kinship founded on the shared experience of migration that helped them find a footing in the region and the trade.
In the East Bengal-origin idol-makers’ narratives of the past, they remember how the edeshi kumors prevented Faridpur’s Ramesh Pal—the first idol-maker to also receive formal training at Government Art College—from setting up shop in Kumartuli. Formal training at a prestigious art college would give Ramesh Pal competitive advantage over other artisans who learned idol-making from elders in their family but had little theoretical knowledge about sculpting, and knew nothing of the differences between eastern and western styles of carving statues. Ramesh Pal eventually set up his shop in the vicinity but never entered the traditional idol-makers’ lanes. When he passed away, a legendary idol-maker and sculptor by then, his family did not let the kumors, who wanted to pay him their last respects, carry his corpse through Kumartuli. In an interview published in anthropologist Gier Heierstad’s book Caste, Entrepreneurship and the Illusions of Tradition: Branding the Potters of Kolkata (Anthem Press, 2017), East Bengal-origin artisan Gour Pal claims that the edeshi idol-makers were jealous of the more enterprising migrants, whereas edeshi artisan Niranjan Pal says he helped migrant potters like Rakhal Pal learn idol-making. These accounts of rivalries remind us of the dissolution of bonds predicated on caste and occupation among the artisans during Partition. The experience of forced migration proved to be a stronger thread of connection than caste at the time.
Growing up in Kumartuli, my father went to a public school, which boys from both West Bengal and East Bengal-origin kumor families attended. Many of them continue to be his friends. I have known him to share the closest camaraderie with the East Bengal-origin idol-maker Narayan Pal. As a child, whenever I walked through the lanes of Kumartuli with my father, we would stop by Narayan Pal’s workshop. While my father and Naru kaku (as I call him) chatted over cups of tea, I played with balls of wet clay and pretended to be an expert idol-maker. My father’s friendship with Narayan Pal, spanning almost half a century, is based on many common interests, but the experience of belonging to families that were once perceived as outsiders in the neighborhood also plays a part in it. The emergent fraternity among the uprooted East Bengali Hindu families who settled in Kumartuli during Partition, however, did not completely dissolve class and caste disparities among them. My father recalls that he and the other neighborhood boys used to be awestruck by the “blue imported car” one of the members of the Bhagyakul Roy family drove through the locality’s by-lanes in the ’60s. The Roys’ red brick mansion, though dilapidating, is still grander than most houses in the neighborhood. My father’s family was not economically affluent but they were upper-caste. Education was given supreme importance in his family. So, my father graduated from school and went onto study Engineering in college. Narayan Pal, on the other hand, like many of the other kumors, dropped out of school to apprentice in his family’s workshop.
The animosity among the edeshi and the East Bengal-origin idol-makers is rarely discussed. When asked about the differences between the two communities, the artisans will typically talk of the distinctions in their aesthetic practices rather than the communal tensions among the old and the new settlers in the neighborhood. According to Narayan Pal, since the edeshi kumor s were in Kolkata prior to independence, they mold Durga goddesses in the image of Memsahebs (British women), the epitome of beauty in colonial India. Perhaps this aesthetic choice also had to do with the fact that the Durga Pujas held in some of the feudal houses of Kolkata during the colonial period were attended by the British. Nabakrishna Deb, a zamindar in north Kolkata, famously invited Lord Clive to attend the Durga Puja at his house and thank the goddess for the British victory over Bengal’s Nawab in the Battle of Plassey. The East Bengal-origin artisans, on the other hand, were less exposed to the British. Their Durga idols resembled Bengali “mothers,” with round faces and waists. Due to the art form’s dynastic nature, the differences between the edeshi and the East Bengal-origin kumors’ aesthetic practices persist to this day.
Decades after Partition, the edeshi upper-class families still tend to employ edeshi kumors. The idol-makers displaced from the east found patrons among the migrant upper-class families of East Bengal. Community Pujas, not tied to particular families or ancestral lands, had first begun during the anti-colonial agitation in British India and today they far outnumber the family Pujas. The rise in community Pujas across Bengal and among the Bengali diaspora around the world has considerably expanded the market for both clans of kumors. This fall, if you attend a Durga Puja, the idol you see worshipped might very well have come from Kumartuli. But, over the few days of Durga Puja, when the creations of Kumartuli artisans are celebrated across the world, there is a lull in the idol-makers’ colony. Frenzied activities in Kumartuli’s lanes come to a momentary halt. Having sent off Durga idols to the clients’ Pujas, the workshops are relatively empty. Unskilled wage laborers who come from rural Bengal to work for the ghars of artisans during the busy months leading to Durga Puja are gone. However, soon enough the workshops spring back to life, as the artisans return to finish the Lakshmi and the Kali idols that would be worshipped after Durga in the annual cycle of festivals.