Mintu Pal fixing the costumes on his clay idols prior to delivery (Courtesy: Aaheli Sen)

In Conversation with Mintu Pal, Clay Idol Maker from Kumortuli

in Interview
Published on: 18 October 2019

Aaheli Sen

Aaheli Sen, a Lecturer in Geography, Bhawanipore Education Society College, Kolkata, was raised in the city of Kolkata and takes a keen interest in the fabric of the city. She completed her graduation in Geography from Presidency University, Kolkata, and subsequently a Masters in Geography from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is an urban social geographer, and her interest lies in understanding cities, their culture, traditions, neighbourhoods and their histories.

Mintu Pal, 52, is a clay idol maker from Kumortuli, a potters’ colony in northern Kolkata. He has been associated with the art of idol making for decades now.

In this interview with Aaheli Sen, Mintu Pal talks about the survival of clay idol making in his neighbourhood amid the government’s apathy towards its preservation and propagation, and the measures required to be taken for the art to survive in this modern age. 

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted on January 30 at Kumortuli.

Aaheli Sen: When did you take up this profession?

Mintu Pal: I started my career right after graduationin 1988. At that time my father was alive. I had, since childhood, seen him work and assisted him as well. Post 1988, I started working in a full-fledged manner.

AS: What motivated you to take up idol making as a profession?

MP: As a young man who had just completed his graduation, I needed a job but wanted to do something that would match my interest. What better than this? I never had vocational training in idol making. I had no acquaintance with the theory that was taught to the students who pursued sculpting in colleges in Kolkata, but I had some practical experience. As I had seen my father work since childhood, been with him to studios and assisted him at different stages of idol making, this was something I was good at. Also, I had my own workshop where I could work. It was not just about taking forward my father's business—I am very fond of this work and love to improvise and innovate with new techniques and processes. 

AS: Please tell us about your work.

MP: Today, I have this studio which is about 1,800 square feet. I also have two godowns in the Baghbazar area for storage. I have a team of around 25 artists and labourers. This number goes up to 45 during the peak puja season [usually September to October, leading up to Durga Puja]. I make around 40 Durga idols and 100–150 idols of Kali and Saraswati. I also ship my idols to countries such as the UK, France, Italy and Canada. Along with clay, I also work with fibreglass and other materials. Besides idol making, I also decorate pandals during weddings, stage events, television programmes, etc.

My biggest achievement has been the recognition I received for an 88-foot-tall Durga pratima [idol] that I had created for the Deshapriya Park puja pandal in South Kolkata. Unfortunately the pandal was closed down because of overcrowding and inefficient crowd management. So, my biggest success was also my biggest disappointment.

AS: What changes have you seen in this profession?

MP: I think this profession is a typical example of art combined with business. I feel that an artist should get his due respect and money from the work he is doing. Passion along with a sense of business is beneficial in the long run. An artist cannot and should not just keep creating things—they should also earn something to sustain themselves and their art. In my father’s time, there was no internet or any sort of publicity agency that helped artists showcase their work, and they got no recognition. Also, the type of work that they did was limited. But today things have changed. The number of pujas held in Kolkata is now much more, which demands a much more dynamic outlook. We have the internet, which is a great platform to showcase our work and bring in more projects. The current dynamic scene and high competition calls for continuous innovation. I have a team and I owe them something at the end of the month. I have to bring in more projects to sustain my business.

AS: How does the society see this profession?

MP: Societal input is very low, not many people are even aware of the work we do. They do not know the history of idol making or rather they do not feel the need to delve deep into it. It is only during Durga Puja that we come into the picture; or if I provide the public with something extraordinary or unique, they show some interest. Otherwise not many people have any understanding about the art of idol making. This is not lucrative as a career, so people do not encourage their children to take it up as a profession as well.

AS: What is the level of acceptance for this profession among the current generation?

MP: I think very few are interested in this art and not many want to take up idol making as a profession. My daughter is doing a vocational course on sculpting. Her initial interest came from seeing me sculpt idols of different shapes and sizes. She has been acquainted with this art since she was a child. 

But most families here in Kumortuli do not want their children to join this business. The kumors [potters] do not want their childeren to take up this profession; they want them to take up something more secure. Also, those who are trained in idol making, who are well versed with theory and practice, have better studios and better working conditions and therefore never want to work in the shabby lanes of Kumortuli. Kumortuli still lags behind as a misfit in this urban city. 

AS: What is the risk factor in this business?

MP:The biggest risk factor is Kumortuli’s environment. The working conditions along with living conditions for the artists are detrimental to their work. The same space is sometimes used for both working and living. There is also no proper facility for storage; sometimes, when a kumor makes two or three extra idols as a buffer they perish if they are not used during the Puja season as they cannot be stored.

Clients sometimes pay in instalments and sometimes they stop paying midway. Banks also do not offer loans to the kumor and many of them are deep in debt. They have to borrow money from private sources at high interest rates. Also, not many are able to cope with the rapidly changing work environment which requires continuous innovation.

AS: There are only a few women sculptors in Kumortuli. Do you think they are discriminated against when it comes to idol making as a profession?

MP: I think women have an equal right to be in this profession. I know there are prejudices held against them and I have seen this since my childhood. I think this is unfair. If I have the right to carry forward my father’s business, why not a girl? It is fair to be independent and self-reliant. People who keep on complaining about women coming into the picture are not aware of the financial stress that they are made to undergo. I think we should do away with such thoughts and encourage more women to take up this profession.

AS: Do you think this art is dying? If so, what are the reasons?

MP: To some extent, I think it is. The lack of infrastructure is the main reason. An artist needs a proper environment to pursue his art, and here in Kumortuli the working space is not ideal. The lanes are narrow and there is no proper space for storage. The kumors have a lot of problems, especially during the monsoons. Idols are left to dry on the open streets, exposing them to the monsoon rain. Further, artists do not get proper remuneration and banks have also stopped giving loans. It is becoming very difficult for artists to cope. Seeing all this, the next generation also does not look up to this profession—children of the artists’ families do not want to join this business. Many artists are also moving out of Kumortuli. Those who take up this profession are not prepared to stay here. They get better working conditions in other places. As a result, there is a continuous outflow of artists from this area.

AS: Do you think that the government has neglected this neighbourhood? Do you think it could have done something to develop Kumortuli?

MP: Yes, I definitely think that the government could have done a lot to save Kumortuli. In 2007, the JNNURM [Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Missionunder the CPI(M) government initiated a rehabilitation programme, but for political reasons it did not materialise. It could have been a great initiative. 

I believe the government should look into the present environment of Kumortuli. Tourists from around the globe visit Kumortuli, and I think much should be done to turn this neighbourhood into a proper tourist destination. We do not have the money to rent big galleries—I think the role of the government comes in here. They can build some galleries for the artists so that they can showcase their work and utilise the space for exhibitions. This will motivate budding artists to come to Kumortuli. Many artists, owing to Kumortuli’s precarious condition, are either leaving this profession or settling elsewhere. There should be some effort to prevent the outflow of workers. 

Having said this, I also believe it is not just the government’s responsibility. There is very little unity among the artists; we do not collaborate to improve the scenario either.

AS: Do you think that these developments would eventually detract from the essence of this neighbourhood?

MP: See, the scale of work has changed. Today, many more idols are being made and they need proper care. However, the workspace dimensions are still the same as they were when this settlement first came up. The environment is slowly becoming more and more precarious and detrimental to the art. 

I understand that Kumortuli has a unique identity in the minds of people. It is a 300-year-old neighbourhood, with narrow alleys and lanes lined with idols of gods and goddesses and a distinct smell of clay in the air. But people do not see beyond this—they overlook the idol makers for whom this is a tradition, they do not see the working conditions and the decaying state of the art. If we are to hold on to this nostalgia then no development can take place, and it is the need of the hour to do something constructive to save the people and the art. To conserve the past is good but that does not mean we should be against development.

While we, the people, live in the present, Kumortuli, the neighbourhood, still dwells in the past.

AS: What will it take for this profession to survive?

MP: I think the profession today is much more dynamic than it was, and we have to come up with something new every now and then.

The artists in Kumortuli stick to idol making of gods and goddesses, therefore the profession remains seasonal. Many are drowning in debt due to this. I feel that there should be an extension of this work. I wanted to break the stereotype of only working on clay idols, so I also make fibreglass idols. I am also focussing on bronze casting and marble work. This has brought in more stability for me in terms of income. I feel survival in this profession just takes a little hard work, the aspiration to do more work and innovative thinking.