The morning is interrupted by the fact that a member of the team starts to do some resin work on some large, fiberglass lamp shades at the front of the workshop. Apparently, these are to be used to cover some public statues in the City to protect them from the elements and bird shit. They must make for an uncanny juxtaposition. Each workshop unit is about 3 m wide by approximately 10 m long. There is of course no extraction, bar the open front door, and no PPE. Resin is extremely toxic and I have a particularly bad reaction to it. My head has been known to swell up to something resembling Shrek’s. It is sad to know that working with these hazardous materials, without PPE, is likely causing severe damage to the guys’ health and ultimately could be what kills them. 

There is no option in my mind but for Debasrita and I to leave until they’ve finished the work. We take this time to walk the streets of the Kumartuli, talking with the neighbouring shops and artisans and purchasing a few small decorations. 

Now we’re in the latter stages of the process I’m thinking about the idols’ jewellery and adornments and, as these are produced by other vendors, this is a good opportunity to understand more. There are craftsmen producing gold jewellery in a typical Indian style, with the highest detail and quality, but created to the idols’ scales. Others make decorative headware out of sholapith, the soft, spongy, milky-white core of the Sola plant, which grows wild in marshy waterlogged areas of Bengal; a natural polystyrene. Most affordable, but still extremely dramatic, is the jewellery made from beads and ribbon glued to paper.

Many of the idols hold weapons and we pass workshops where thin metal sheet is being cut down to be folded and shaped. Then there are those making smaller ornaments and souvenirs, others making resin idols, painters, people batch producing heads and fingers, it goes on and on.

We spend a long time talking to one shop owner and his mother. He is also a make-up artist for wedding, film and tv, as his father had been. Debasrita explains to me later that the mother asked her about my marriage status and that she’d been liberal with the truth in response. She felt the lady wouldn’t have been able to handle the shock that I not only had a child out of wedlock but was also a single mother.

After an enjoyable and energising hour in the sun, soaking up our wider surroundings, we return to complete the hands and feet before lunch.

Monday 16th March 2020

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