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Women break mould, make the goddess

Like most Calcuttans, 40-year-old Kakoli Pal is looking forward to Durga Puja. Unlike most of them, however, she has no intention of going pandal-hopping. On the four days when dhaks drum up a festive fervour, Kakoli would just like to catch up on lost sleep.

With about a month to go for Puja, it’s a busy time for Kakoli and the small but growing number of women artisans of Kumartuli who are slowly but steadily making a mark in what has been a traditionally male-dominated sphere.

Kakoli has to complete 17 idols. In the seven years that she has been making idols, the orders have nearly doubled and so have her work hours.

She had been a homemaker with two little daughters when her artisan husband died suddenly in 2005. With no other work experience, she had no choice but to take up the profession.

“I had no interest in this. However, my children had to be sent to school and the household had to be run,” she said.

Business has improved since then. While Kakoli attributes this to the blessings of Ma Durga, others in Kumartuli said she had to work doubly hard to gain her customers’ trust.

A few doors down, China Pal has entered her 19th year as an idol-maker. In fact, China is popularly known as “Dashabhuja Ma” (10-armed goddess) among her fellow artisans for her ability to multi-task. She manages her home and studio equally well.

With two older brothers uninterested in taking up the 70-year-old family business, the entire responsibility of making and delivering idols fell on China’s shoulders when her father died just a month before Durga Puja in 1994. She and a small army of workers managed to make all the deliveries on time and she has never looked back since.

“Twenty years ago, there was just one woman artisan but today, there are around 10 who are seriously into this profession,” said Babu Pal, a former secretary of Kumartuli Mritshilpo Sanskritik Samiti. Veteran artisan Dileep Pal said the younger generation, including his son, was reluctant to enter the business. “It’s a very good sign to see women take up the baton,” he said.

Minakshi Pal, who took up the trade only last year after her father died, has a similar story. “I took it to keep my father’s name alive,” she said. The enormity of the job — having to supervise and deliver more than 20 idols — nearly overwhelmed her last year but she is much more confident this time around.

China said it had taken a while to gain old customers’ trust when she started out. Kakoli echoed her, saying she felt hamstrung by customer scepticism at first. Both, however, conceded that veteran artisans had always been generous with technical help.

For most women artisans, the goddess, whose idols they create, has turned into a source of inspiration. “The image of Durga vanquishing the demon gives me constant courage,” China said.

A lot has changed over the years, but their prayers to the idols they create will be the same: a brighter future for their family and better working conditions.