Kolkata’s Kumartuli Potters

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I walk through the alleyways of Kumartuli in northern Kolkata a few minutes from the Hooghly River. I watch the potters responsible for making many of Kolkata’s Kali, Durga, Shiva and Parvathi statues.

 

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I don’t see all the different stages, but I see several. In a shop, a man in the alleyway is cutting wood into slats of different lengths. Another man takes the slats and makes a frame with a large piece forming the backbone of a statue. In several shops, piles of straw lay on the floor. Workers have now attached straw to the wood frame. Grabbing a handful of straw, a worker straightens the straw into a manageable bunch, bends it to thicken the bundle, then attaches it to a straw figure’s torso to form a left arm.

In another shop, a man sits on a bench with a mold. With his dark hands, already colored gray from the clay, he takes small amounts of clay and fills the mold. I can tell that he is making snakes because of the three or four drying clay snakes next to him. Prior to the snakes, he has made a dozen or so clay demon heads.

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Although I don’t see where the other body parts are made nor where the kilns are to fire the clay statues, I see in another shop men beginning to paint the statues. The snakes are painted red; ropes around the arms are painted brown; the severed demon heads are painted various colors from yellow to pink to blue. If it is a figure of Kali, her body is painted black, her tongue red from the blood of the demons she has beheaded.

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In a final stall, I see all sorts of statues covered in plastic ready to be sold and shipped.

I can’t help but wonder “What goes through the minds of the craftsmen and the users of these statues?” I can imagine several of those thoughts.

If these craftsmen are Hindus, they are familiar with seeing these images, with listening to stories about the gods/ goddesses such as Kali, with swaying to the drums and singing about the gods/goddesses. They wouldn’t think twice about intellectuals criticizing their anthropomorphizing Kali. Just like their kin in most forms of Christianity, they feel that it is appropriate to make these statues. These Hindu craftsmen might think: “The sacred wants us to know something; the sacred wants us to construct these images to help deepen our understanding.” The craftsmen know that the images make Kali accessible to children and adults. In a way, the legitimacy of the form of personal images is derived from the already held conviction that there is something real in the stories and songs about Kali.

Furthermore, I assume that these craftsmen would think: “For me, the sacred may be more than the personal characteristics displayed in the statues, but the sacred isn’t less.” They realize that their Kali is wild and exaggerated. The facial features could easily be made into a Halloween costume mask for Atlanta kids! The artists know that the surface image only captures a portion of her identity. She is the bloodthirsty Kali; the terrorizer of the wicked. While the images don’t capture Kali dwelling at night in the cremation grounds or her relationship to Shiva, the images do convey Kali’s basic features. She’s great to have her on your side; she’s hell if she is against you.

Finally, I assume that these artists know the limitations of their work. Their statues are disposable deities! They know better than anybody else: “I made this image; my friends painted Kali with their brushes. I may see this very image disappear. I may see this image slowly dissolve into the temple’s pool  orat the end of a religious ceremony. I know that this image is not Kali herself.” This craftsman may even have an intuitive attitude like the medieval Hindu philosopher Shankara. Shankara wrote of language as always “neti, neti” “not this, not that.” For Shankara, all language, and certainly images, are inherently incapable of capturing the sacred. Using a strategy like the early Christian via negativa, the devotee learns what the sacred is not, thus moving to a more adequate awareness of the uniqueness of that sacred.

So why do I find the these ordinary Kumartuli potters fascinating? There is a “simple sophistication” of ordinary craftspersons that I admire and respect. Yet I also simply reject that craftspersons or any individuals from two different religions view the world in the exact same manner. If we were to imagine how a Christian craftsperson might view making crucifixes, then I suspect not only would there be some overlapping thoughts between the Christian and Hindu craftspersons, but also some important differences between those two craftspersons. It is a challenge to appreciate and recognize differences between members of different religious traditions without one tradition’s members belittling the other tradition’s members. My goal is to appreciate and recognize differences without reducing either tradition to a copy of the other.

 

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