Nandita Palchoudhuri is my Kolkata-based collaborator for this project. She brings me to meet Naba Kumar Paul the day I land in Kolkata. He’s the owner of the workshop I’ll be with from tomorrow and whose team I’ll be learning from during my first week here. I also want to have a more general look around Kumartuli (kumar = potters tuli = quarters), which butts up against the Hooghly River in the North of the City.

Nandita takes us to meet Naba at the Kumartuli workshop
Nandita takes us to meet Naba
at the Kumartuli workshop
I’m here to start to understand the Kumartuli artisans’ collective methods for producing idols of the Hindu gods and goddesses and the localised social and economic systems that structure this. At its core are the range of artisan fabrication services, workshops and vendors that have grown up to service the annual demand of the many Hindu festivals (pujas).

My approach to this learning is through the act of making, with its intimate connection between hand and head. Making is a journey that leaves tracks and these complex connections and relationships are better and more readily grasped when experienced first-hand.

Practical considerations of the production processes, such as securing raw materials and availability of resources, quality and volume demands, drive the day-to-day. These combine with other local economic, social and environmental factors, from the affordability of labour market, to the cast system, to lack of health and safety legislation, to the seasonal demand of the pujas, to structure the system’s architecture. With very little outside influence into this community it has been slow to evolve over the last 300+ years. But equally, this fact is likely to have contributed significantly to the development of Kumartuli’s unique style and refined craftsmanship.

There’s a conversation between Naba, Nandita and I about what I want to make with Naba’s team. Do I have my own design for an object? Do I have my own design for a god? It’s the right decision to say that no, this is not about making something of mine; that I want to work on one of their forms so that I can better understand what they do, the decisions they make, the roots of their process. Besides, without a knowledge of the techniques you can’t know what kinds of forms are successfully achievable. Though it could have been an interesting challenge for Naba’s craftsmen to figure out the solution to a new sculptural problem, and I can’t say I wasn’t tempted, this feels like way too much unknowing on both sides to be anything other than problematic on this occasion.

An Annapurna in progress

As we walk the narrow alley-ways, we pass a display, in construction, of Annapurna (anna = food and purna = filled completely), goddess of food, strength and nourishment. That night, reflecting on what I should work on the following day, as I need to confirm in the morning, I come back to this form. I’ve often made work involving food. Food is a great leveller, or it should be. It’s essential to survival. Our relationship to food is visceral – we all eat and shit - and that physicality, and the way it connects the hand to the head, means that on a certain level we all understand bodily what it is to make sculpture. It feels right to learn from the goddess of food.

Choosing a form familiar to the artisans means they can prepare what I need and easily guide me through techniques that are second nature to them. I can only scratch the surface whilst I’m here, of this traditional craft, built up over years, but I hope to begin to understand it. Having the reference point of a ‘correct’ form to follow is a real help in an exercise like this. Though not a usual approach with the Kumartuli, who work from memory, it is often the case that a craftsman will follow an artist’s model, or maquette, when transposing into a new material.

On advice from Naba, a table-top form of around 30 cm seated, and 60 cm including the base, is felt achievable in my four half-day sessions and also a realistic size to take back with me.

Friday 13th March 2020

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