Sumanta Banerjee on the Clay Modellers of Kumortuli (Photography Credit: Naveen Kishore)

The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth-Century Calcutta analyses the development of the various forms of folk culture of the the urban poor in the new metropolis of nineteenth-century Calcutta. Consisting primarily of traditional artisans and craftsmen who migrated from the neighbouring villages, the ‘lower orders’ of Calcutta evolved a new urban folk culture from their own older rural inheritance.

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Sumanta Banerjee on the Clay Modellers of Kumortuli (An Excerpt from The Parlour and the Streets

Photography Credit: Naveen Kishore 

The Kumortuli clay modellers played an important role in the visual folk art of Calcutta. They worked almost throughout the year, modelling images of gods (starting with that of Ganesha who was worshipped in Baishakh, the first month of the Bengali year) and goddesses for the various religious festivals. Preparation of these images was a collective affair which involved the participation of various occupational groups, each contributing its little bit to the completion. A contemporary critic describes the collective effort of these artistes who mainly came from the Bengali lower orders:

‘Thatched houses (in which the images were placed) are made by professional thatchers called gharamis; baskets are made by Doms, a low caste people . . . trees and plants are made by men who have acquired a proficiency in this branch of work . . . The potter makes the figures of such idols, the painter colours them, and the Mali, a member of the flower-selling caste, adorns them with tinsel ornaments . . .

The tinsel ornaments were made from ‘shola’ or a parasitic plant collected from under the waters of tanks. The artistes showed great ingenuity in carving these plants and making ornaments of various types known as ‘dak’ to adorn the idols. A contemporary poet describes the process of preparing the images which also included the painting of the ‘chalchitra’ or the background behind the images:

‘First the kumor works,

Then the painter starts.

With earthen colours

He paints numerous figures on the chal (chitra),

Carefully using his brush.

Then the dak artist comes

And makes splendid ornaments . . .

Among all these religious festivals of idol-worshipping, the Durga puja was of course the most important. Describing the gradual expansion and elaboration of the Durga puja figures and festivities, a contemporary observer noted: ‘Gradually the gods and goddesses came to be furnished with attendants, and in public worships got up by subscription, more for amusement than for a religious obligation, life-size mythological scenes, scenes from daily life, portrait figures of athletes and other celebrities, caricatures, comical subjects and figures representing any scandal current at the time, were gradually introduced . . .’Thus sawngs also found their way into Durga puja celebrations.

Such expansion afforded the kumors in particular a chance to give ingenious expression to their creativity. As in the contemporary kobi songs and panchalis, in the puja images also the divinities were often moulded according to certain types that were to be seen in the surrounding society. The god Kartika (son of Durga, who, along with his brother, Ganesha, and two sisters, Saraswati and Lakshmi, was depicted as accompanying the main goddess Durga, who, astride a lion, was poised to kill the demon, Asura) was a favourite character for the kumors. The style of moulding his image changed according to the fashions prevalent among the foppish babus of Calcutta in different periods. Describing the changes, an observer towards the end of the nineteenth century wrote:

‘During our childhood, the Kartika we saw was quite a handsome young man, with long and curled hair hanging down to his neck, a thin trace of a moustache, dressed in superfine dhoti, a light plaited scarf thrown around his neck and wearing a pair of gold-embroidered shoes . . . But now, instead of his curly hair hanging down, we find him sporting the Albert fashion of hair style [after Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria]; in the place of the gold-embroidered shoes, he wears English shoes and covers his body in a jacket . . .

Kartika had always been identified with the natty dandy in Bengali imagery. Observing an old-fashioned image of Kartika in a Durga puja festival, one nineteenth-century poet urges him to live up to the fashions of the age:

‘Phul pukurey pheley diye paro ohey boot

Sherry, champagne khao ruti bishkut.

Bauri kheuri hoye kato Albert-sinthi,

Shikho ohey hab-bhab adhunik reeti.

(Throw away your flowers into the tank, and put on a pair

of boots. Drink sherry, champagne and eat bread and biscuit.

Shave off the hanging curls and part the hair in the

Albert-fashion. Learn the manners of the modern times.)

The style in which the images were dressed and decorated with various types of ornaments was of course dictated by the tastes of the patrons—the rich Bengalis who sponsored the elaborate puja festivities. Commenting on the trend to decorate even Kali in golden ornaments (against the conventional style of depicting her according to the old scriptures), a contemporary observer felt that since the rich tended to identify beauty with expensive ornaments, they beautified their tutelary deities with gold and jewellery.

But even within this framework of patronage, the clay modellers never lost the chance of a jibe at the rich and the religious leaders, just like the kobi-walas who never hesitated to hit out at their patrons whenever there was an opportunity. The clay sawngs which were a part of the Durga puja festivities provided them with such a chance. Kaliprasanna Sinha, in his inimitable Calcutta cockney style, describes such sawngs during a Durga puja:

‘On either side of the image [of the goddess] were sawngs—first, the ‘religious hypocrite’ and second, the ‘pigmy nawab’—both exquisitely done. The religious hypocrite’s body was roly-poly—like a cobbler’s dog—his belly round like a tomato—the pig-tail on his shaven head tied in a tuft—a garland and a few golden amulets like tiny drums hanging around his neck-amulets tied round his arms— his hair and moustache dyed in black—dressed in a blackbordered dhoti and a vest . . . giving sidelong glances at the housewives and whirling round his fingers the pouch of his rosary beads . . . The pigmy nawab—looks quite handsome—his skin as fair as milk with a drop of lac-dye in it—his hair parted in the Albert-style—like a Chinese pig—short-necked—carrying a red handkerchief and a stick—wearing a fine, transparent dhoti made in Simle [Simulia in north Calcutta], tucked firmly behind . . .