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Kumortuli (also spelt Kumartuli, or the archaic spelling Coomartolly) (Bengali: কুমোরটুলি) is a traditionally potters’ quarter in northern Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta), the capital of the east Indian state of West Bengal. By virtue of their artistic productions these potters have moved from obscurity to prominence. This Kolkata neighbourhood, not only supplies clay idols of Hindu gods and goddesses to barowari pujas in Kolkata and its neighbourhoods, but a number of idols are exported.It is one of the seven wonders in Kolkata.
The British colonisation of Bengal and India started following the victory of the British East India Company in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The Company decided to build new settlement Fort William at the site of the Gobindapur village. Most of the existing population shifted to Sutanuti. While such neighbourhoods as Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata became the centres of the local rich, there were other areas that were developed simultaneously. The villages of Gobindapur, Sutanuti and Kalikata developed to give rise to the later day metropolis of Calcutta.
Holwell, under orders from the Directors of the British East India Company, allotted ‘separate districts to the Company’s workmen.’ These neighbourhoods in the heart of the Indian quarters acquired the work-related names – Suriparah (the place of wine sellers), Collotollah (the place of oil men), Chuttarparah (the place of carpenters), Aheeritollah (cowherd’s quarters), Coomartolly (potters’ quarters) and so on.
Most of the artisans living in the north Kolkata neighbourhoods dwindled in numbers or even vanished, as they were pushed out of the area in the late nineteenth century by the invasion from Burrabazar. In addition, Marwari businessmen virtually flushed out others from many north Kolkata localities. The potters of Kumortuli, who fashioned the clay from the river beside their home into pots to be sold at Sutanuti Bazar (later Burrabazar), managed to survive in the area. Gradually they took to making the images of gods and goddesses, worshipped in large numbers in the mansions all around and later at community pujas in the city and beyond.
Being in the periphery of the area in which the Indian aristocracy prospered, Kumortuli was home to a number of renowned persons.
There is a road in Kumortuli named after Nandram Sen, famous as Black Deputy, and the first collector of Kolkata in 1700. Gobindram Mitter, the next Black Deputy, had a sprawling house at Kumortuli spread on 50 bighas (around 16 acres) of land.
Banamali Sarkar’s famous house which is immortalized in Bengali rhyming proverb, was there till the 19th century. He has a winding lane named after him in Kumortuli. It is along this lane that the maximum number of idol-makers work in Kumortuli.
In olden days things were a little different. The popular writer Sunil Gangopadhyay narrates about his childhood days (the 1940s):
- “In those days, instead of buying the idols from the market at Kumortuli, families invited the kumor or artisan home to stay as a house guest weeks before the Puja, during which time he sculpted the idol. The idol at our Puja was known for its magnificent size. It used to be over 10 feet tall. Every morning as the kumor started his work, we children gathered around him and gaped in awe as he gradually turned a fistful of straw and a huge mass of clay into a perfectly formed, larger-than-life figure. And then came the most intriguing part — the painting of the third eye of the goddess. The artisan would sit in meditation sometimes for hours and then suddenly in one swift stroke of his paint brush, it would be done.”
Kumortuli is located in Ward No. 9 of Kolkata Municipal Corporation, mostly between Rabindra Sarani (formerly Chitpur Road) and the Hooghly River. It is between Ahiritola and Shobhabazar. In maps showing thanas or police stations in old Kolkata, Kumortuli is shown as being between Shyampukur, Bartala, Jorasanko, Jorabagan and Hooghly River.
Images of goddess Durga
Kumortuli images are generally ordered well in advance and there a few for off-the-shelf sale. Nowadays, Kumortuli’s clientele has extended to America, Europe and Africa, among the Indian communities living there. In 1989, Durga images made out of shola pith by Amarnath Ghosh were flown to Sweden, Australia, Malaysia and Nigeria. The images weighed only three kilograms each and were ideally suited for air travel.In modern times, Statues and replicas made out of Fiberglass are also being produced and exported to various parts of the country and the world.
In 2006, Kumortuli supplied 12,300 clay deities of goddess Durga. This potter's town supplies images to about 90 countries worldwide with new nations joining the list every year. Many East European countries, where religious ceremonies were previously banned, have started buying images from Kumortuli. A spokesman of Kumartuli Shilpi Sangha (KSS), an association of the craftsmen, said the NRIs of countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia, Austria and Poland, come to Kumortuli to buy images. U.S. based NRIs, including the Bengali Association of Southern California, Bengali Association of Greater Chicago, Dakshini, Sanskriti, Garden State Puja Committee of New Jersey, East Coast Durga Puja Committee of New York, North America Sarbojanin Kalipuja Association of Connecticut come to Kumartuli to select deities to ship to their cities. Additionally, hundreds of agents in Kolkata service NRIs seeking idols from Kumortuli.
In Kolkata, the icon-artisans mostly dwell in poor living conditions. The more popular among them are Mohan Banshi Rudra Pal and his sons Sanatan Rudra Pal and Pradip Rudra Pal, Rakhal Pal, Ganesh Pal, Aloke Sen, Kartik Pal, Kena Pal, who are still reigning figures of Kumortuli and despite the threats from the ‘theme artists’, they are booked by major puja organisers who admire the old school. Women are not lagging behind. Kumortuli boasts of the presence of some 30-odd women-artisans, like Minati Pal, Soma Pal, Kanchi Pal and Chapa Rani Pal. They have been in the business of idol making for a long time. Kumortuli’s own Durga Puja dates back to 1933. The image maker was Gopeswar Pal.
- "Seven wonders of Kolkata". The Times Of India.
- Cotton, H.E.A., Calcutta Old and New, 1909/1980, p. 72, General Printers and Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
- Cotton, H.E.A., pp. 282-3
- Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi, Traders and Trades in Old Calcutta, P.207, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, pp 58-59, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-563696-1
- Gupta, Bunny, and Chaliha, Jaya, Chitpur, in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I, p. 27
- Cotton, H.E.A., p. 291
- Deb, Chitra, The Great Houses of Old Calcutta in Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I.
- Cotton, H.E.A., pp. 297-8
- Mitra, Dola (2006-10-01). "1944: the year that was". Sunil Gangopadhyay jogs his memory (Calcutta, India: The Telegraph, 1 October 2006). Retrieved 2007-07-15.
- Map nos. 6 and 12, Detail Maps 0f 141 Wards of Kolkata, D.R.Publication and Sales Concern, 66 College Street, Kolkata – 700073
- Map on p. 16, Calcutta, the Living City, Vol I.
- Chaliha, Jaya, and Gupta, Bunny, Durga Puja in Calcutta, p.336, Calcutta, the Living City, Vol II, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, 1990/2005, p.2, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-563697-X.
- "Kali Puja In Connecticut".
- Home Chowdhury, Amlan. "Kumartuli, Potters Town". littleindia.com. Retrieved 2007-07-15.
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