Covid-ridden Bengali New Year at Kumartuli

Idol hub Kumartuli will skip Poila Baisakh festivities and taking Durga Puja orders in the face of lockdown

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As far back in time as one can remember, there was probably never  a more gloomy and despairing start to a new year in the past. Caught in the nasty grip of an unknown and unfamiliar virus, life has come to a complete standstill. The virus has eaten away celebrations and gulped down festivals with ease.

While Covid 19 has taken its toll on business trade and work, another part of the city, that is seen throbbing with life and activity, today wears a look of gloom and despair in the face of the lockdown.  The lively lanes and by-lanes of Kumartuli wear a graveyard’s look. Studios closed, no sight of any idols being  made, paints a painful picture of one of Kolkata’s most lively localities.

Traders and businessmen who usually performing the annual puja on Poila Baishakh, and start a new ledger on this day will skip the ritual this year. “Impossible, with the lockdown, I cannot perform any ritual right now. Let things come back to normal, then we will see,” said Subir Kumar Bose, owner of a grocery store in Bhowanipore.

The Bengali New year also brings bright days for the idol-makers who take the advance for orders for Durga Puja idols on this day. “The entire locality is decorated with flowers and lights and till night, our customers visit us to pay a booking amount for their idols. We give our guests sweets and calendars. This year, we will have to give it a miss,” said Tapan Rudrapal, an artisan. Most of the artisans have fled to their villages, as soon as the lockdown was announced.

Almost all the 2500 odd artists have left the idol hub after the state government declared lockdown on March 24.  Only a few security guards can be seen moving around keeping vigil on the closed studios. According to custom, studio owners start taking advance for Durga Puja on the Poila Baisakh.  “No puja committee member is going to visit Kumartuli this Bengali New year,” said Tapan Rudrapal, owner of a studio. Not just local puja committees, idols going to foreign lands have also been cancelled. Rudrapal said that usually 12 to 14 orders of Durga idols come from different parts of USA and UK.  With the whole world gripped by Covid 19, these orders look bleak. “Already six orders have been cancelled and we are just waiting for the rest to be cancelled soon,” Pal said.

Besides, raw materials like clay, straw, bamboo, jute rope and other things needed for making idols are not available now. “Supply of straw comes from Midnapore and Hooghly but that has stopped due to the lock-down. Besides, a large number of day labourers are needed to load and unload, who are also not available now,” said a studio owner. He said the men who draw clay from the riverbed are also not working.  “We made six Annapurna Idols after getting advance from puja committees. But the orders were cancelled. The puja committees informed us that they had cancelled the puja which was on April 1,” said Swapan Rudrapal, owner of a studio.

Akhil Das, secretary, Kumartuli Mritshilpi Samity, said that almost all the artists had left Kumartuli within a few days of lockdown for their villages in Howrah, Hooghly, East Midnapore, North 24-Parganas and Nadia.

“A day after lockdown was declared the studio owners paid their staff a few hundred rupees and asked them to leave. Although there were no vehicles available, they paid more money and hired cars to reach their homes,” said Das. He said that artists of Kumartuli are categorised as A, B, C. Their payments range from Rs 8,000 to 12,000. Now that the artists have left the idol hub they were on the brink of starvation in their homes.  “We want to appeal to the state government to consider giving a financial package for the economically challenged Kumartuli artists or they will be forced to commit suicide,” said an artist who did not want to be named.  

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