Is there Light in the Darkness? A Story of Kolkata’s Kumartuli

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A Brief History of Kumartuli

Kumartuli, is the traditional potter’s quarter in North Kolkata, West Bengal. The history of the place can be traced back to the victory of the East India Company in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The local narrative holds witness to the settlement history of this place, Raja Nabakrishna Deb—the founder of the Sovabazar Raj Bari invited the first potter from Krishnanagar in Nadia district and settled him in the Kumartuli area. The primary agenda of Raja Nabakrishna Deb was to build a Durga idol for worship in order to celebrate the win of the East India Company at the Battle of Plassey. 

The creation of Fort William in Gobindapur village forced the populace of the village to migrate to Sutanuti and eventually Jorasanko and Pathuriaghata near Sovabazar established itself as the site of rich residents. Imitating Raja Nabakrishna Deb, many of the rich of the locality took to worshiping the Durga idol, and hence, the demand for the potters from Krishnanagar increased. The potters would travel from Krishnanagar to their clients’ house (mainly zamindar palaces) near Sovabazar to make idols of Durga and Kali on their house courtyard or their ground floor balcony. However, the travel from Krishnanagar to Sutanuti, Jorasako, Pathuriaghata via the Ganges proved arduous for the potters and their plea to be settled somewhere near their place of work intensified. 

On special request of the Company, John Zephaniah Holwell, an employee of the British East India Company and the temporary Governor of Bengal (c. 1760) who nurtured an interest in studying the antiquities of India, shouldered the task of allocating separate districts to the Company’s workmen. In accordance with the escalating need of the potters near the Sovbaazar area, Holwell assigned a place by the Ganges near Rogo Meeter’s Ghat (now Baghbazar Ghat) to the potters. Going by the profession of the inhabitants, it was named Coomartolly (now Kumartuli). 

Situation Now: Pandemic and Demands in Market

More than a thousand potters live here now and maintain over a thousand workshops in Kumartuli. This place remains in news not all around the year but only when it is Durga puja. Ashok Pal (name changed) a potter who owns a workshop in Kumartuli asserts:

“They come with their cameras, click for pictures and then they go away. These things don’t bring us income and neither does it help us express/voice our agony to the world.”

With time the potters took to making any and every clay item required for the festivities. One among many such items is the ‘diya’ or the oil lamps made of clay lamps. Every year during Diwali / Kali puja oil lamps are in demand but with the time and the advancement of humans into hasty lifestyles, traditions have been eclipsed. Hence, oil lamps have long lost their value to twinkling electric lights. Ashok Pal continues:

“They’ll put the blinking lights in their homes while our art, talent, and we as people will dwindle under financial constraints unless we vanish into the oblivion.”

The fast-moving lifestyle of the urban people is not the singular woe of the potters. Their concerns are many. Several years before, the Communist government of the State of West Bengal removed a few of these potters from the area and partially broke down their workshops promising them resettlement and a renovated place of work. Time flew by, nothing really happened. Then the government fell, and a new government took over the state. But neither the old nor the new government of the state did anything about the resettlement scheme. These potters who had been forced out years ago live-in makeshift houses on the bank of river Ganges near the Baghbazaar and Kumartuli ghat. Some of these potters agitatedly exclaim how the rich among them used their contacts and ready capital to ease the situation and start afresh.

The pandemic has no doubt added to the trauma. The consequences of the COVID-19 related lockdowns have completely shut down many such dwindling pottery businesses in Kumartuli. Ashok Pal laments:

“My son will never join this business, little by little our art and existence will be history. We never went to the costly art schools. We are born with this talent. In a few years, the art college’s big names will thrive. My son, I hope will complete his education and will be a big man someday. I bless him! I sometimes wish if the young man would consider saving this ancestral business—our heritage—and follow his family lineage!”

Return of Ram: Not a Prodigal Son 

Ram is called the maryada purushottam (the supreme man/righteous man). He went to exile with his wife Sita and brother Laxman for fourteen years. His return to Ayodhya—his kingdom, after fourteen years in exile is celebrated as Diwali. Just like Ram came back to take back control of his kingdom, many hollowed eyes of the father’s in Kumartuli hope for the return of their daughters and sons to their place of ancestral business and become their voice of resistance—to be able to ask for financial aid and material support from the government. This, most owners of the workshops believe might be the last attempt to save their art and heritage of Bengal—end the darkness and herald the joyous light of hope and wellbeing.

Amrita DasGupta is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and is currently doing a PhD in Gender Studies. You can find her with her cats on Instagram @minminloo_mommom.

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