It feels a lot more lively heading to my second day of work in the Uber. Maybe I didn’t notice it before, maybe we went a different route, but there are more stalls out and shops open. Perhaps Sunday is market day. Debasrita says it’s like this every day though. Maybe my jet lag is dissolving and I’m becoming more aware of my surroundings.

I learn today that there is an Annapurna Puja coming up in April, hence the display I saw and why, as it turns out, the workshop is also making a number of editions of her. I learn, too, that it’s only in this display that Lord Shiva appears fat. (I have to say his straw armature looks more like a heavily pregnant lady, without the swollen breasts.) The standard arrangement is Annapurna in the centre and Lord Shiva to her left. Sometimes a smaller figure of one of Shiva’s children is on the right. According to Debasrita, he is coming to her for food which she refuses him. Is it because he’s gluttonous I wonder, looking at his form? According to Google, Annapurna is an avatar of Parvati that was born out of Shiva telling her that food is only an illusion and not required. Later, there’s a massive food shortage on the earth and so he appears to Annapurna for food for his children, which she refuses him.
There are pre-existing plaster moulds for the heads of each god/goddess at each standard size. This ensures speed of production and consistency to the face but also keeps the bodies of uniform proportions. My head for Annapurna is still drying and it’s explained to me that it will be very hard to build up the proportions correctly in the clay without it, but that I should start anyway, giving my time constraint. I’m told to work from the waist down and leave the waist up until I have the head. Dada demonstrates the kind of volume of clay to apply and I followed suit. He makes the clay look very malleable. However, I find it sticky. (I learn later that usually the form is built up with a drier layer on top of the rough coat, before a stickier layer, but that they’d mixed these together for me because of my tight schedule.)

Dada suggests I use my own anatomy to build up the clay as I’ve nothing to follow. It makes sense to me to use Debasrita as my model and I begin happily working this way, a method I’m comfortable with. About an hour passes and I’m feeling pretty pleased with the accuracy I’ve achieved; the way the shoulders run in to the arms, the differences in muscle definition between the two arms because they are held differently. During this time a few of the other artisans from the workshop come to investigate what I’m doing and I receive several comments that I’m making Annapurna too bulky. She’s looking too much like a man; she should be more feminine. The irony is not lost on me that I’m actually copying from a real women (and a slim one at that) and that their stylised version – certainly designed by a man – is in no way anatomically correct. But I’m making the assumption that gods and goddess are based upon the real human form and it’s now clear that this is not the case.
Anyhow, I’m pleased that my reproduction is true to a real female body and that I’m adding my own mark by taking this approach, disrupting the status quo in this small way. However, the next thing I know is ‘boom’ Dada comes over and in 30 seconds, or less, he pushes and pulls my work around to create what is, in his view, the correct shoulder and arm: thinner, the shoulder less broad and dropping away, ‘chicken-leg’ arms... Copy this on the other one he says. I want to cry.

I’d begun to feel that I may actually be making art and I’m upset it has been destroyed so confidently. I remind myself that this isn’t the point of the exercise. This is a research trip to gain better understanding of the work of the Kumartuli. In this regard, what has just happened is really useful and telling. What first appear basic representations of human anatomy are also very specific and considered. Nandita has mentioned that in recent years new designers have been working with the Kumartuli wanting to create new styles for the gods and I wonder how comfortably this sits with the artisans that have been producing this same way for so many years.  
I decide at this stage to mute my initiative and become the pupil who only follows instructions.

Smoothing out the rough clay with a wet finger, as I’m instructed, takes out even more of her shape. Her legs begin to look like the straight legs of ladies in 80s workout videos, with little muscle definition. The breasts are definitely boobs created by men, large half-spheres. I do appreciate the realistic bulge of the tummy though.

I’m given a temporary Kali head (her tongue sticking out) of the same proportions Annapurna’s will be to work from so I’m not held back by the fact my cast head isn’t ready.

A larger scale Kali in progress
in a neighboring workshop

Simple tightly-bound rolls of straw form the foundation of elaborate displays 
I learn that in a day Dada can produce two large, two or three medium and two or three small straw forms. There is at least a second day of work on the straw form after this to build up the wooden support and base. This is a technique I’m fascinated with for its simplicity and effectiveness, creating sausages of straw around 8-10 cm in diameter which are wrapped and bound to the supports to disguise and decoratively integrate into the design. These straw tubes seem such a strong and flexible building material. I see huge potential in an approach to a public exhibition which identifies and works with components from the Kumartuli production process, such as these, but that uses them in a surprising way.

I brought some clay tools to India but so far have purposefully not brought them to the workshop, preferring to copy their methods. Working the clay it seems to be all about the thumb, which can quickly apply a decent amount of pressure, move clay easily around and smooth. At the end of the day Dada gets out a small piece of metal sheet to tidy up the clay form and then goes back to wet fingers for more smoothing.

I’d appreciate the time to watch someone applying the outer layers of clay to one of the larger forms tomorrow to better understand how the process translates to a different scale.

They are impressed with my straw work and according to Dada, ‘his new trainees based in India couldn’t have done such a good job’. I hope I have some technical skills after so many years as a sculptor but I appreciate the sentiment. I’m reminded how shared sensitivity to material and craft, and the language of production, can build connections and enable you to communicate even when language is a barrier.

Sunday 15th March 2020

British Council and City of Culture 2021, Coventry - International Changemakers, 2020