Tradition embraces modernity this Durga Puja
Goddess Durga is all set to transcend on earth to wipe out evil and this time the deity will sport the traditional 'taana chokh' (wide godly eyes), signifying a return to the roots as potters in Kumartuli in northern Kolkata give finishing touches to the idols.
Kumartuli, the traditional potters' quarter, where the life-like idols of Durga and her family are impeccably sculpted using clay and straw and virtually brought to life with paint, sarees and ornaments, is abuzz with activity with the biggest festival of the state - Durga Puja - to be celebrated Oct 20-24.
Mirroring the devotee's love for the traditional, this time around the deity will sport 'taana chokh' as against the human like eyes which were in vogue last year.
"Last year most of our customers ordered models with human-like eyes but this year it's the 'taana chokh' that is in demand," said Kakoli Pal, one of the handful female potters.
According to Hindu mythology, goddess Durga, accompanied by her four children Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati, descend to earth each year to visit her parents, occasioning the celebration of Durga Puja.
Durga is believed to stay for five days to eradicate evil - buffalo demon Mahishasura - from the earth before returning to her husband, Lord Shiva, at Kailash on Dashami (the 10th day).
The potters of Kumartuli, who now have moved from obscurity to prominence thanks to their ingenuity, are busy blending tradition with the modern, giving shape to the idols of all sizes from the life-like to the miniature.
"Various sized showpieces of the deity are in the offing this year. One is a miniature coloured Durga in clay mounted on a thermocol leaf; another is a multicolored thermocol pot carrying a daab (green coconut) atop along with a clay goddess figure on the pot's surface," said Dipak Dey of Lokenath Shilpalaya.
Priced modestly, the pot-Durgas, supposed to adorn entrances, stand at three feet whereas the leaf-Durgas, meant to be wall-hanging, stretches to a foot-and-a-half, ensuring ease of transportation.
"The foreign tourists find it easy to carry and buy them as mementos. Locally we are doing good business as well with most of our products selling in the northeastern states," added Dey.
However, much to the dismay of the potters, the sales of paper-pulp models have declined.
"There is stiff competition from fibre glass idols. While locally the sales of the paper-pulp models have declined, there are some export orders," said Subal Pal, a potter who exports paper-pulp idols.
Paper-pulp models are at a disadvantage because they can get soggy and lose their form if they come in contact with water.
"The fibre glass idols are stronger in comparison and therefore in greater demand," lamented Pal.
Similarly, the accessory-makers face their own perils.
"The price of the raw materials for the embellishments - like the mukut (crown) and artificial jewellery for the arms and necks of the goddess - have gone up by 25 percent," said Biswanath Dey of Sandip Stores, specialising in idol decorations.
"We are running our business at a loss as our customers won't agree to the hike."
The decorations use zari (brocade), beads and sequins as raw materials which are sourced from within the city and Mumbai.
Seconding the accessory-makers are the idol-painters, for whom the eco-friendly paints are proving a bit too expensive.
Lead-based paints, which are hazardous to both human health and the environment, have been the staple of the Kumartuli artists for decades.
"We use whatever comes in handy. Given our busy schedule, any paint that's available in sufficient quantity and within the budget is given preference and so far the lead-based paints are the clear winners," said Babu Pal, the spokesperson of Kumartuli Mritshilpi Sanskriti Samity.
Non-lead-based paints, a recent addition, have had a slow start with the artists.
"The price of one eco-friendly paint can is almost twice as much as the lead-based ones. And the suppliers have provided just about five litres of such paint to each artist for free.
"We need around 20 litres to complete one set of idols. That means we have to purchase the remainder with our own funds. It is impossible for us to do so," rued Pal.
Despite the hurdles, eco-friendly paints definitely signal greener pastures.
"We have no objection to using the new variety of paints. Our customers also look forward to such innovations. We have requested the suppliers to reduce the cost, but the government has to stop or limit the manufacture of lead-based paints to have a substantial effect," said Pal.
(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)