| Debasis in the Selimpur Club pandal. Picture by Sudeshna Banerjee
Debasis Bhattacharya was nine years old when his family was forced to stop cultivation of jute, finding no takers for the produce. That robbed them of their only source of income. He was 10 when Rishra Jute Mill closed down and his uncle, a factory hand, committed suicide. At 28, today, the youth stands tall beside his creation — a Durga idol, woven out of the same golden fibre that has shaped the course of his family’s fortunes.
The amazing jute idol, the object of puja and plaudits at the Selimpur Club pandal, is the handiwork of this self-taught artiste from Khanpur village, in Hooghly district. So neat and intricate is the weave that a Jute Corporation of India official, in course of pandal-hopping, has offered to showcase the creation at their city museum. Purchase proposals are pouring in from NRI visitors.
But Debasis is unperturbed. “When I started, my only request to the organisers was that it is not immersed,” the frail, soft-spoken young man smiles. After all, he has already got his reward — a ceremonial ovation from the jute farmers in his village. “In the midst of so much desperation surrounding jute, this creation has brought the fibre under the spotlight and ushered in a surge of hope to my village.”
For six months, the Bhattacharyas had toiled, man and wife. “I had decorated a pandal in Chandernagore earlier with jute, but I had no experience in something on such a grand scale,” he says, mopping his brow as yet another group of visitors enter the pandal and stand transfixed, admiring his creation. So there was a lot of trial and error involved. “We started with Kartik and Saraswati, tying and reopening the ends at least six times.” The face of the lion, he says, caused maximum trouble. “The bundles of fibres just would not be aligned smoothly.” Ultimately, they did, after 10-11 attempts.
Alongside wife Sonali, his neighbours had egged him on through those trying initial period. “Every day, there would be around 300 visitors from near and far — Shiakhala, Janai, Rishra, Begumpur, Kalachhara… I had to stop work in the daytime to attend to them.”
Material help, too, was at hand. “The fibre that has been used for this idol is shun. This is the costliest and smoothest variety of jute, of which clothes used to be made. Shun grows near flowing water and is available only during this season. I was worried whether I would get adequate stocks. But as the word spread, farmers came over from far-off villages with bundles of the fibre on bullock carts.” The 10-foot idol has used around four quintals of jute.
The day when the Devi departed for the city address, around two thousand people came to bid her adieu, with mothers blowing conchshells. “So many families there have their livelihood tied to jute. It was a matter of collective pride and sentiment.”
Debasis’ father-in-law is in the last stages of cancer. “He could not come to see the finished image. But so inspired was he on seeing the photograph that he has asked my brother-in-law to start sowing jute seeds again, come what may.”
The father of a five-year-old makes a living taking drawing classes in Dankuni, the nearest town, and painting the motifs on Mother Dairy vehicles. But Puja 2003 has woven golden dreams in his eyes — in jute.