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Kumortuli’s Female Sculptors: Meet the Women Who Mould Durga

“There have been times when I’ve wanted to give up – but then, this is what I love doing the most,” says China Pal.

Updated
Women
6 min read
“I certainly wish she joins the same line, but I think she’d prefer a high paying 9-5 job in a big company,” says Mala Pal of her daughter.
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(This article was first published on 22 September 2017. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the beginning of Navratri/Durga Puja.)

Right at the beginning of the narrow lane that winds up towards Kumortuli – Kolkata’s famous locality that houses scores of idol makers – there lies a small little kiosk managed by a woman.

As you approach her and inquire about China Pal’s workshop’s location, she waves her hand towards a little shop near the end of the winding road and says, “That one”.

In a lane lined with shops, China Pal’s shop looks like it has forcefully claimed its spot, but it is hard to miss. Inside, China Pal, dressed in a pink saree sits and gives finishing touches to idols as her co-workers scurry around in the little workshop, adding ornaments to idols, painting the eyes of the goddesses and coordinating with clients on the phone.

China Pal, dressed in a pink saree sits, gives finishing touches to idols as her co-workers scurry around in the little workshop.
China Pal, dressed in a pink saree sits, gives finishing touches to idols as her co-workers scurry around in the little workshop.
(Photo Courtesy: Shomini Sen)
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Much like her shop, China Pal has also had to somewhat forcefully make her way into a profession that has been predominately run by men for centuries. ‘China Di’, as she is popularly called, comes from a family of idol makers but it was not a profession she chose herself.

In 1994, 25 days before Pujo, my father passed away. He was an idol maker and clients enquired if we could deliver the orders without him. I had a fair idea about the work from a young age but had never worked at the shop until he passed away. To complete the pending orders, I took up the work.

China recalls that she was never encouraged by her father to take up his profession. “During his last few days, he was compelled to ask me for help.”

China recalls that she was never encouraged by her father to take up his profession.
China recalls that she was never encouraged by her father to take up his profession.
(Photo Courtesy: Shomini Sen)

China’s foray into the business was also resisted by people outside the family. Many thought that she would give up soon.

Being a woman, they thought I would not be able to cope with the pressure. But I never gave up.

I Used to Help My Father Who Was a Sculptor: Mala

A few metres ahead of China’s workshop, I inquire about Mala Pal – another woman who has made her mark in the line. Unlike China, who had to fight her way into a man’s world, Mala was brought into the line by her elder brother, Kalu Pal at the age of 14.

“I used to help my father, who was also a sculptor, from a very young age. I have always had an interest in sculpting,” says Mala as she proudly displays press clippings and the publicity the media has given her over the years. After a chance encounter with an official from Delhi’s Handicrafts department, a young Mala found herself in Delhi for two weeks receiving training in jewellery and idol making.

I remember crying so much and not wanting to go to Delhi but Dada insisted I should.
Mala Pal
“I used to help my father, who was also a sculptor, from a very young age. I have always had an interest in sculpting,” says Mala.
“I used to help my father, who was also a sculptor, from a very young age. I have always had an interest in sculpting,” says Mala.
(Photo Courtesy: Ayan Nandi)
I told her she has a gift and has been chosen for this workshop, and it would be foolish to let go of this opportunity.
Mala’s brother Kalu

Mala’s inclusion in the profession, though, wasn’t smooth, recalls Kalu –

Her in-laws did have a problem initially but they realised she has a talent and has even won awards for her work. Eventually, they agreed.
“I told her she has a gift and has been chosen for this workshop, and it would be foolish to let go of this opportunity,” says Mala’s brother Kalu.
“I told her she has a gift and has been chosen for this workshop, and it would be foolish to let go of this opportunity,” says Mala’s brother Kalu.
(Photo Courtesy: Ayan Nandi)

Mala’s husband, Bhanu, though has a different take,

She is an artist’s daughter. What else would she be doing, if not for this? Just see the recognition she has got for her work.

How Kakoli Delved Into Her Husband’s Business

While two men have ably supported Mala’s career, her neighbour Kakoli has had to face opposition from her family. Hailing from an artist’s family in Krishnanagar, Kakoli learned the tricks of the trade while working on the job.

My husband died early and I had to feed two kids and survive in a city like Kolkata. After my husband died, I had two options – either go back to my father’s house, which would have brought shame to him, or beg on the streets of Kolkata. Instead, I decided to take my husband’s business forward. Initially, I started with limited orders but over the last 14 years my business has grown. I now have a few men working for me.

The three women balance a household as well as a career with equal ease.

I cooked rice and came in the morning today. Now I will go home in a bit and cook fish curry so that my daughter can have her lunch after she is back from school.
Mala

Kakoli, in between coordinating with clients on phone over the delivery of the idols, stirs vegetables in a pan and attends to her granddaughter at the same time.

Hailing from an artist’s family in Krishnanagar, Kakoli learned the tricks of the trade while working on the job.
Hailing from an artist’s family in Krishnanagar, Kakoli learned the tricks of the trade while working on the job.
(Photo Courtesy: Shomini Sen)

“I don’t have too much time on hand. Can we make this quick?” she asks as I approach her for an interview. “Don’t you have someone to help you with household chores,” I ask.

“One daughter is married with a baby so her hands are full; the other one is in school. They do whatever they can,” says Kakoli.

The love for the work has kept China going and made her fight the odds over the years.

There have been times when I have wanted to give up – but then, I don’t know anything other than this. This is what I love to do the most.
China Pal

All three women encourage more women to take up this profession. Mala acts as a guarantor for many women at the local cooperative bank.

A lot of women now want to become financially independent in this area and want to start their own business after they have seen my success. I act as their guarantor so that banks give them loans at a lower interest rate.
Mala
“I act as their guarantor so that banks give them loans at a lower interest rate,” says Mala.
“I act as their guarantor so that banks give them loans at a lower interest rate,” says Mala.
(Photo Courtesy: Ayan Nandi)

Mala’s daughter is studying commerce at the local municipal school. Would she want her daughter to take her legacy forward?

I certainly would wish she joins the same line, but I think she’d prefer a high paying 9-5 job in a big company.
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What After Pujo?

While the circumstances and the family background of all three women differ, it is their determination and the love for the work that has helped them carve a mark in a male dominated profession.

There were other women who also worked on idols earlier, but marriage and children take precedence in most cases and they eventually stop working.
Kakoli
“There were other women who also worked on idols earlier, but marriage and children take precedence in most cases and they eventually stop working,” says Kakoli.
“There were other women who also worked on idols earlier, but marriage and children take precedence in most cases and they eventually stop working,” says Kakoli.
(Photo Courtesy: Shomini Sen)

Long hours of work, especially during the peak season, also make a lot of women quit the profession.

The girls may know the work but most of the time, the parents object to their working in the shop. But hopefully things will change if proper guidance is given to the young girls.
Mala

What happens once Pujo is over, I ask?

We will start prepping for Lakshmi Pujo and Kali Pujo. Work is almost all year round. I get about 15 days’ break in the middle and I take my mother out for a vacation.
China

Has criticism ever made her want to quit in these last 20 years?

“Never. I got the strength to fight the odds from Durga Maa herself,” says China with a smile.

(Shomini has written on lifestyle and entertainment for most part of her career. In a career spanning little over a decade, she has worked in Indiatimes, Zee News and Network18 – which was her last stint before she took a break to study Film Appreciation at FTII. While writing on cinema remains her first love, her other interests lie in topics like gender, society and Indian literature. An avid reader, she also dabbles in music and theatre when work permits her. Currently working as a freelancer, she is often found self musing on her personal blog. )

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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