Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Profile pic

How and why Durga idols have changed over time

Story image

Debdutta Gupta is a well-known art historian and professor at St Xaviers College, Kolkata

Have you ever wondered, how many months of hard work goes into putting up an imposing idol? Idol-making in Kumartuli involves three basic processes and interestingly the clay used is not baked clay, but sun-dried. Layers of wet lumps of clay are used over the basic framework of bamboo and straw, to give an initial shape and form to the idol. Clay layers are interspersed with layers of cloth which are smoothened to hold them in place and painted with a natural white colour. Application of paints is always not by brush strokes. Spray painting and drying with bunsen flame is the usual mode, as it is a quicker process. Golden embellishments, decorations, sequins and dresses are then attached to the idol with a type of home-made glue (made from the powder of sirish tree).

There was a time when the dried straw or khar that made the basic frame, came from Bagbazaar Market,  that again got its supply from Midnapore district. Wood and bamboo came from Shyambazaar, Salkia or Murshidabad. Clay from Uluberia was the show stopper as it was sticky and dark, known as ‘entelmati,’ and was finer, devoid of stone particles. Another kind of clay used in idol-making is ‘balimati’ that has considerable amount of sand. The clay is mixed with tush or the outer skin of paddy and applied over the basic structure of the idol.

Final form of idol making goes through a series of arduous steps: from applying clay, binding straw to the wooden structure, variations in colour applied on the clay idol, making of brushes, giving shape to the Devi’s eyes, proportional execution of different postures of the idols. Experimenting with eyes that are said to be the reflection of our hearts, have always been an integral part of idol making. Such as ‘Khas Bangla’ idols had a pair of elongated eyes and eye brows, which almost touched the ears, sharpened nose like the Shuk Pakhi or parrot, a stiff smile and a slender look. The ‘Do Bhasi’ idols had shorter eye brows, with eye-balls occupying a broader space, to make the look more natural. The frame of the Devi was also voluptuous. Later, with intrusion of ‘Art er Thakur’ or Chobiana, the facial expression became more recognisable and could be compared to that of a real-life woman.

Even images of the anti-hero Mahisasura changed over the years, keeping in line with the changing socio-economic scene. At times, the demon was seen with bulging biceps and triceps, a copycat of villains of Bollywood. While, idols of Durga’s children often sported modern fashion. Kartikeya with hair-cuts resembling modern heroes, Laxmi and Saraswati with handheld gadgets, Ganesha as the intellectual icon with a relaxed poise, reclining against pillows and upholsters and reading scriptures. Even Devi Durga was not spared from the ‘movie effect.’ Her facial contours and clothes reflected the typical prima donna of silver screen.

Is tradition then fast losing in the hands of a global media exposure? Or does tradition help in identifying one’s roots in the middle of a global influence on art? With India riding on a wave of globalisation, it is all too natural to find its impact on the style and form of idols, keeping in mind the suave global audience. Thus, Kumartuli idol makers have tried to change the forms of idols to make them look like modern day fashion icons.

Yet, traditional forms still rule amidst modern day experimentation. The touch of a vermillion dot on the deity’s parted hair, red and white lac and conch bangles on her elegant wrists, pronounced curves around her hips and breasts, her long and wavy black hair, well-formed, slightly plump limbs, fair complexion and wide kohl-lined eyes with red luscious lips, are all reminiscent of a married Bengali woman and how we view a feminine form in Bengal. This representation is still maintained in traditional idols worshipped at many Bonedi Bari, where the deity is even draped in a white saree with a red border.

Idols also reflect lost eras, such as colonial figurines used as deities, remind us of the British rule in Bengal and how the mass stood up against the subjugation of foreign lords and zamindars. Every idol has a story to narrate, for they are in reality, an artistic expression of the human mind. In this case, they bear the creative surge of artisans and reflect on changing times. Thus, Kumartuli is not just the hub of idol business, but also a seat of silent revolution, the narration of that age-old story of human struggle for a better tomorrow.

Impacted by World War II, artisans like Gopeswar Pal had left the traditional Bangla Chaler Thakur and embarked on a more dynamic representation of the Goddess with the demon, expressing an array of anguish and pain. During 1940, the Goddess’ face changed, divinity got marginalised and humanity took the forefront. Artist Ramesh Pal juxtaposed anatomical detailing of European academics merging with the Bangla style, where natural eyes reflected hidden feelings. During 1970s, Naxalite Movement took Bengal by storm, with artisans dedicating themselves to trigger something new. Gorachand Pal came up with the village damsel idol, directly looking at the asura, giving a visual dynamism to the composition. Beheaded Mahisasura, twisted torso of a demon as if in action, were invention of Ramesh Pal.

During 1980s Mohan Banshi Rudra Pal, presented the goddess with huge eyes and face. The form of Parvati Durga was introduced by Jiten Pal with earthen ornaments and weapons, a feel of that Mother Earth, so beautifully etched on an idol. Around the same period came up the destroyer, in the form of Nataraj Durga. There were so many forms like the spangled beads of a kaleidoscope, yet they all led to the same divine form.

But no human hand can housebreak Durga entirely, even the deft artisans of Kumartuli could not. Out from that white and red saree, surged ten mighty arms, demure, dazzling or at times wild. Whatever Her unfathomable purpose aims at, it is all too easy in the modern world to mistake the external image for its internal substance, particularly when that image is exotic and power-laden. But Durga is not the ‘diva’ of the modern world. Kumartuli idols will always bring her forth as the Shakti or intrinsic power, where universal forces mate and meet in a cosmic dance.