Kolkata is known as the “City of Joy” and this title was very rightly coined by the French author Dominique Lapierre. The city and its people do justice to the title in every possible way and it is very evident during the time of festivities especially during the five day long Durga puja celebrations. The city is burnished with colours, lights, effigies and artistic dexterity.
Durga Puja is the time of the year when the city is decked up like a newlywed bride. The festival celebrates art, heritage, customs, fashion and tradition.
The story of “Durga Puja” of Kolkata will be incomplete without the mention of “Kumortuli” which is an age old potter’s paradise right in the heart of North Kolkata. The potters of Kumortuli started off by making pots from the clay which they gathered from the river situated beside their community and selling them off in the Sutanuti Bazar. Gradually they started expanding their businesses by making idols of gods and goddesses and selling them in big Zamindari mansions in and around the city. Today millions of clay idols are sculpted in this part of the city every year and is supplied to various parts of West Bengal and beyond. These potters are known for exporting their clay idols around the world.
Today this clay paradise is a hub of artisans, who do serious business all through the year by sculpting beautiful effigies and selling them. Well, unfortunately the clay paradise is governed and managed by men. The reason is that as this is a traditional business which started centuries ago and was started by men, the clay making game is running like a baton in the family, it is been transferred from one generation to other. The brothers of the family want to keep it to themselves so that it stays in the family. This practice has made the potters land a male dominated land where women are strictly restricted. However there are always exceptions and when I visited the potter’s land I was elated to meet some women who are struggling to survive in the business of clay but they have got indomitable spirits to remain. This blog is all about these women who are proving themselves everyday to survive in the clay business.
There are only a few who could dare to challenge the stereotypical gender roles assigned to them by their families. They have mastered both the art and the merchandising of idol sculpting. Life isn’t easy for them; they are fighting for their existence every single day. Mala Pal is one among these women artist and I got lucky to get a closer look at her life on my Sunday visit to Kumartuli.
Her workshop was not a fancy one; it was unkempt, small, dingy and remotely lighted. This 32 year old artist inherited her father’s business but against her father’s will. Her father was a true patriarch and was over-protective about the only daughter. She could give the business her name only after her father’s demise. Today brightly her name shines on a yellow board outside her workshop and she is a proud owner of it. She learnt the craft from her father but got to practice it only after 1985. She started with small idols and jewellery but today her art is praised not only in our country but also abroad. She gets orders from all around the world.
She was an assistant to her brother in the workshop in the beginning. “She is a perfectionist”, her brother Gobindo Pal prompted who guides the artist in every step and also is the backbone of the business. Mala gives entire credit of her success to her brother.
Mala’s journey wasn’t an easy one, she had to prove herself to be in it and she proves herself with every passing year. She also has to prove herself at home; she cannot neglect her duties as a homemaker. Her family is entirely dependent on her. However she is lucky enough to have a supportive brother and husband who backed her in every step she took. I was awe-struck to see her passion for the art and her invincible business ideas. She is truly the “woman of power”.
Mala Pal is quite in limelight today when she is receiving accolades from all around the city. When the city is all prepared to get decked up and start the festivities of Durga puja she is busy juggling her responsibilities between home and workshop and gearing up to finish her commitments towards the many durga puja committees around the city. Mala is a dream weaver and she wants to include more and more women into clay making business. She aspires to have her own academy where she wants to train women in clay moulding.
Ironically, a city where female goddess is worshipped, gender stereotyping is still quite evident in almost every corner of the city. It is quite a respite to find few women carving their way out and challenging the traditional practices. Despite all the hardships, these women are raising high with their talent, passion and indefatigable spirits.