March 6: The sleepy lanes of Kumartuli woke up to two visitors on a treasure hunt on Monday morning.
The idol-making hub is used to many a foreigner dropping in to marvel at the artisans and their work, but these visitors were a bit different.
Colombian city planner Alejandro Echeverri, known for his social urbanism and revival of the city of Medellin, and the first elected mayor of Bristol George Ferguson, also an architect, were fascinated by how an idol takes shape from a straw structure. Ferguson found in them "a great accidental charm". Listening keenly to how the bamboo structure is made and the straw skeleton coated in clay, Echeverri said: "This moment is wonderful. You anticipate and understand how it all happens."
An array of Kali heads with tongues sticking out made the two stop in their tracks. The artisans shared with them the story of Kali's dance of death and how she steps on Shiva and Ferguson recalled visiting the Kalighat temple in the 1980s.
Unlike the frenetic pace of Durga Puja preparations, Monday found the artisans of Kumartuli working leisurely over some Gopal idols for Dol Jatra, and a few others sculpting idols of Shitala or Manasha.
A huge Gopal idol in wet clay put out to dry on the road reminded Ferguson of the works of Columbian figurative artist and sculptor Fernando Botero, whose signature style Boterismo is all about huge exaggerated figures on display on the streets of Medellin. "It would make a good gift for Botero," joked Ferguson and Echeverri was quick to agree.
Stepping into a workshops to watch an artisan cut out a paper crown, the Columbian bought a mukut to take home. It was when he saw goddess Kali all decked out in a pandal that he realised how it all fitted in.
Talking to another artisan putting the finishing touches to an idol, Ferguson asked: "Do you all live here?" "Yes, we sleep on a loft above," replied Santanu Chitrakar of Santanu and Sons Studio, pointing to a rickety bamboo roof.
The talk inevitably turned to the state rehabilitation scheme for artisans, of which nothing has emerged. But both Ferguson and Echeverri seemed convinced that the artisans should not be taken out of their colony. "Moving them out would destroy the atmosphere. The community takes pride in its surroundings. The main thing is not to lose their spirit," said the former Bristol mayor.
Echeverri found a static logic to their existence in Kumartuli. "You have to understand the logic of how they use the place. If you change it, they will stop. The static of the place belongs to the process, how they build," said the architect, who found great pleasure in pulling a rickshaw he found parked in a lane. "The rickshaw has static mobility," he laughed.