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Female idol-makers

The female idol-makers of Kolkata: China Pal
The female idol-makers of Kolkata: Mala Pal

Jhimli Mukherjeepandey, The women behind the goddess, Sep 25 2016 : The Times of India

Kolkata's potters' district used to be a male bastion.

But a few female artisans are breaking into the bylanes of Kumartuli. Meet the new Indian idol-makers

Perched on a ladder with an earth en bowl full of colour in her hand, she reaches up to paint the moth er goddess in the golden-yellow hue recommended in the scriptures.With the pujas knocking on the door, China Pal has little time left to ready the goddess for her annual journey .

China Pal is one of the only four women artists of Kumartuli -Kolkata's potters' district which has a century-old tradition of crafting Durga idols.All of them -China and Lakshmi, both in their fifties; 30-year-old Soma, and 40-plus Mala -had to struggle to enter an all-male bastion, with even their own families opposed to the idea of their working in an environment “not meant“ for women.

China's father, the famous Hemanta Pal, did not like it one bit when out of his six kids only his youngest daughter bothered to come to his workshop to see him work. Gradually, she started dabbling with clay and before her father realised it, she was assisting him.When Pal suddenly fell ill and passed away in 1994, it was his little girl who would emerge as the saviour of a business he had built over many years.

China has not deviated from her father's traditional `ek chala' style (where Durga and her four children are mounted on a single frame), and today a large number of old family pujas rely on her for idols. Last year, she made news with an Ardhnarishwar idol (an androgynous depiction of Shiva and Parvati) for a transgen der group, Pratyay Gender Trust, that sponsored the Udyami Yuvak Brinda Puja at north Kolkata's Joy Mitra Street. It was the city's first transgender puja and drew a lot of crowds.

China has a band of workers and has even expanded her business to start a studio near Bagbazar because her father's workshop cannot hold the huge number of orders that she delivers every puja. Right now, she's in the zone -immersed in work as she g radually tur ns those mounds of clay into goddess after goddess after goddess. “I enjoy it. As July approaches and it is time for me to get orders, my heartbeat literally turns into dhaak beats,“ she smiles down from her perch on the ladder.

Noted artist Haru Pal (Kumartuli's artists belong to a caste of potters who use the surname Pal) didn't want his wife Lakshmi in the trade because he thought it wasn't appropriate for a woman to come out and work alongside men. But when orders started piling up, and his wife offered to help with the smaller details, Haru agreed reluctantly. He was surprised to see how his wife excelled at it despite lack of training.“I think the skill runs in the veins of potters' children and my wife is a potter's daughter too. It is only that we do not encourage them much. I think the time has come to change,“ Haru says.And indeed he has, allowing his daugh ter Soma, a trained painter, to diversify into clay modelling first and now, image making. Soma has her own list of clients and apart from helping her parents at Kumartuli, she has a workshop in Behala where she makes idols.

Mala Pal, with her pantheon of miniature idols, is a class apart. This year her idols are go ing to Germany, US and Dubai, not to speak of Indian cities like Chennai, Bengaluru and Delhi. Less than a foot high, the idols are perfect in features and proportions right down to the toe nails and have won her many awards over the 14 years she's been in the trade.

“I started as a child, soiling my hands with clay, trying to imitate the huge idols that my father would make.

Mine were doll-like. Gradually, from abstract shapes I was able to create limbs and torso and soon my father was appreciating my doll-goddesses. I de cided not to get into big idols and miniatures remain my forte to this day,“ Mala says, giving finishing touches to her creations. Today, she runs her father Dulal Pal's busi ness, and husband Bhanu Rudra Pal, also a potter who has diversified into making images with fibre glass, pitches in with help during the puja season.

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