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DIVINE MAKEOVER

Dressing up Durga

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I must confess to being deeply disappointed when they arrived that night, close to midnight. They were almost like mannequins, only these were the kind you would not look at again. After all that anticipation and what arrived were a set of painted, bald, undressed clay figures. How on earth would they be transformed into objects of worship, I wondered, with the Durga Puja due to begin the next day.

The craftsman's words were not reassuring, and I settled down miserably in a corner, unconvinced, and not very hopeful.
The idol-maker (or murtikar) began by pasting chart paper on to an arched wicker and bamboo frame. His assistants pasted a long, folksy patachitra kind of series of paintings depicting various gods and goddesses in a semi-circular panel. These paintings depict the various deities of the pantheon, whose collective power gave birth to the goddess Durga, a feminine form created to rid the universe of the powerful, evil demon Mahishashur. The paintings tell the tale of how she was created and, which deity gave her what special weapon to embellish the power in her ten hands. This panel goes as the backdrop behind the idol, primarily in single-frame or ek chali murtis.

The legend goes that Durga arrives at her parental home on earth accompanied by her offspring Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik. In traditional household and community pujas (like Delhi's oldest pujas at Kashmere Gate and New Delhi Kali Bari) the idols are placed together in a single frame or ek chala.

Meanwhile Chandi Paul, the murtikar, had begun clothing the idols with zari-embellished parchment - like cloth pieces. Traditionally, silver and gold zari, and not a sari, is what the goddess wears. The other option is shola or white pith dressing. We had opted for the very traditional zari dressing, also known as daker shaaj. After tucking, pinning and even nailing in the 'clothes', Chandi slowly but surely matched the ornaments to each of the three goddesses (Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati); waistbands, necklaces, earrings, armbands, bracelets, anklets, and even nose rings, all made of the same, stiff zari-worked cloth. The male deities (Ganesh and Kartik) also wore ornaments on their arms and wrists, but no zari clothing. Instead, they were dressed in white velvet dhotis with a slender gold border and an uttariya or angavastram over the shoulder. While the others were bare feet, Kartik, the narcissistic fop, was shod in black pump shoes while sitting on his peacock.

After getting dressed, the idols' faces were painted, with natural colours, mixed with the sticky resin - like the juice of crushed tamarind seeds - to ensure that the faces did not crack up under the sharp glare of lights. A spot of colour to the eyes and lips and then came the hair, made of jute, which is dyed black, plastered on last to the heads of the gods and godesses. The process was topped off with each getting more or less elaborate crowns, even the peacock.

Finally, a coat of arrowroot mixed with varnish and, by dawn, the transformation was almost magical. Much like top models at a fashion show, the results were absolutely stunning to behold.

The Goddess was ready to receive her supplicants and worshippers for the next few days.

Asked how he felt about concentrating his passion and artistic skills on making idols he knows will be immersed into the river within a few days, Paul said he felt no regrets. That people worshipped, even for a few days, the idols he had created was enough reward for him.

Chandi Paul first came to Delhi in 1960, leaving his family of kumhar artisans back in Krishnanagar, in West Bengal's Nadia district. Not willing to waste his artistic passion on making pots and pans, Paul fled to Delhi to try his hand at the art of idol making. His father had also moved on from making clay pots, and made clay images of Devi Durga, but did not dare to leave home.

Those days, there were barely a handful of community Durga Pujas held in Delhi;notable among them being the Kashmere Gate, Karol Bagh, Timarpur and New Delhi Kali Bari. Chittaranjan Park and most neighbourhoods across the River Yamuna had not even been conceived of, says Paul. When he arrived in Delhi, there were two workshops where idols would be built. Today there are over 17, just in Delhi, of which three are located in Chittaranjan Park.

He found a mentor in Pancho Das, an artisan under whose tutelage he got acquainted with several people associated with the Bengali club, which conducted the Kashmere Gate puja. He worked first as an assistant to Das and then under a legendary craftsman and 'murtikar', Gaur Pal, also from Krishnanagar, from whom he gradually took over the annual labour of love of creating the idol for Delhi's oldest and most traditional puja.

The 63-year-old severed his connections with the Bengali Club after most of the original members passed away and has moved his "studio workshop" miles away to Rohini, in West Delhi. Gaur Pal's son Bankim is among the other most sought after murtikars in Delhi. The other, younger murtikars have come to Delhi from Malda, Midnapore and other parts of Nadia.
Paul is most proud of an idol he is making for which even the clothing, in the form of saris and dhotis, folds and all, is all crafted in clay.

With idol-making now an annual feature and not merely seasonal (between Durga and Kali Pujas) Paul brings young people from his village each year, training them in the skills to sustain the ever increasing demand for idols of gods and goddesses, but acknowledges that this is the busiest time. There are a dozen set of idols he is making for Durga Puja this year, ranging in price from Rs 15, 000 to Rs 50, 000. He claims he uses environment friendly, natural colours and adornments.

These kumhar artisans make the basic clay idols of goddess Durga. The decorative clothing and ornaments are made by the malaakars, most also located in Krishnanagar.

The clay idols will be transferred to their pandals from 'Mahalaya, ' the day the Devi is believed to leave her home in Kailash to journey down to earth. At each site, the murtikar will lovingly adorn them, transforming the clay images into beautiful goddesses, worthy of worship.

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