Unveiling the Real Kumartuli: Exploring the Hidden Stories Beyond Artistry

In the heart of North Kolkata, one of the most famous tourist destinations, Kumartuli is a slum district where the city’s potters and sculptors dominate. Often, online travel blogs romanticize this place’s beauty, but beyond all artistic splendor lies a darker side: caste-driven labor, migrant struggles, and economic disparities.

Located on the banks of the Hooghly River, Kumartuli remains a favorite spot for travel enthusiasts and art enthusiasts. The narrow alleys are so cramped that a rickshaw can barely pass through with one hand, and the people you’ll meet are mostly Kumars, the city’s idol-makers. It’s from here that the idols of deities like Goddess Durga are sent to Kolkata every year, especially during the months leading up to Durga Puja, West Bengal’s biggest annual religious festival. During this time, the narrow streets of Kumartuli are bustling with customers ordering 13-foot-high Durga idols for neighborhood and residential pujas, alongside Instagram bloggers and art enthusiasts. It’s a celebration of Bengal’s artistic culture.

Kumartuli

However, beyond this aesthetic beauty and traditional facade, Kumartuli conceals the grim reality of the Kumhars (potters). Recent visits to the area have revealed the harsh conditions in which these artisans work. Near the sculpture workshops, you can find flowing sewage, leftover food scattered on the streets, naked children running around in the lanes, temporary sculpture workshops made of plastic and bamboo that have deteriorated over time, and the ‘kacchi’ (raw) residential huts of the laborers, which are a stark contrast to the rest of the region. Despite working day and night – from shaping the idols out of clay to coloring and drying them – laborers receive very low wages, sometimes barely enough for three meals a day.

In the months leading up to Durga Puja, as is common in other parts of Bengal like Krishnanagar, Nadia, Odisha, and Bihar, migrant laborers from outside Bengal also flock to Kumartuli. This influx of outside laborers often leads to competition and tensions between the established Kumars and temporary laborers within Kumartuli. Research indicates that 40% of the shops export less than 5 idols annually, while the rest sell more than 110 idols per year. Economic disparities also exist within the district, with some shops having an annual turnover of 1.5 million while others surpassing 6 million. Unfortunately, in recent years, there have been no government policies or initiatives to improve the living conditions of laborers or provide better employment opportunities.

The dire conditions of Kumartuli’s Kumhars are intricately tied to their caste-based status, often obscured by the lens of ‘Bengal’s beauty and artistry.’

Kumartuli

Most of the Kumars (or Kumhars) you meet in Kumartuli are Bengali Hindu laborers. Their profession is determined by caste, as all Kumars in Kumartuli share the same last name, ‘Pal,’ which is formally associated with the Shudra caste. The uniformity of people in this region can be attributed to the British East India Company, which, during the process of Bengal’s colonization, allocated these regions as “Company’s servants.” These Indian settlements amidst British territories received names based on their occupation: Suripara (place of liquor vendors), Kolotolla (place of oil makers), Chuttarpara (place of tailors), Ahiritulla (residence of cowherds), Kumartoli or Kumartuli (quarter of potters), and so on.

When looked at through the caste lens, can the harsh living and working conditions of Kumhars be attributed to caste-based labor and oppression? Is the economic divide within the district a direct consequence of caste division within the city of Kolkata? Why hasn’t the government taken sufficient measures to alleviate the conditions of these laborers? Is there a possibility of breaking the ‘caste barrier’ for these sculptors? The answers to all these issues can only be found when officials and the people of Bengal embrace the intricate social dynamics of laborers and do away with the misconception of them being enveloped by the glamour and grandeur of ‘culture.’ It’s time to dispel the illusions.

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