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Durga Puja 2022

Kumartuli artisans’ income drops despite frenzied action

Idol input costs are up but Durga Puja organisers are tight-fisted

Kinsuk Basu | Published 20.09.22, 06:11 AM
Durga Puja idols being prepared in Kumartuli on Monday.

Durga Puja idols being prepared in Kumartuli on Monday.

Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta

Ten days to the Puja, the artisans’ hub in north Kolkata’s Kumartuli is a picture of frenzy.

Deadlines are approaching but the idols are far from ready.

Underlying all the action is anxiety — anxiety over how to balance mounting expenses and reduced income and ensure profit for the hundreds who are toiling day and night.

An artisan this year is spending Rs 55,000 to Rs 65,000 to create a 9 foot tall Durga idol.

Last year, he spent around Rs 45,000.

However, the prices of idols haven’t matched the sharp rise in input costs.

The result: a decline in income despite such frenzied activity.

Like many business houses, the idol makers, too, have had to cut down on the number of workers to bring down cost.

“We tried all forms of cost-cutting but we could not compromise on quality. Reducing the number of hands we hire was the last option,” said Tarun Pal, who has to deliver at least 18 idols by Wednesday.

Earlier, Bimal Pal, another artisan, had 16 to 18 people working for him. This year, there are just about a dozen.

In 2019, around 3,600 labourers were working in Kumartuli around this time of the year.

This year the count is barely 2,400.

As a result, many of the artisans are struggling to deliver on time and looking for short-term workers.

“A 12-foot idol of Durga, done up with all ornaments, costs close to Rs 1.2 lakh. Two years back such an idol would cost between Rs 80,000 and Rs 90,000,” said Kali Charan Paul, a veteran artisan.

“But Puja organisers are not ready to pay the current price. How will we survive?”

The cost of making an idol has shot through the roof and fuel prices have to take a large part of the blame.

The wood that is used comes from auction centres in north Bengal, Bihar and Assam.

Last year, a quintal of wood cost between Rs 1,400 and Rs 1,800. This year, it costs Rs 3,000 to Rs 3,200.

Transportation expenses have gone up manifold, an artisan said explaining the hike.

“Bamboos that would come for Rs 140 apiece last year now cost Rs 250. Traders from parts of Murshidabad, Shantipur and Nabadwip say the demand is high at construction sites across Kolkata. Add to it the transportation cost,” said Manti Pal.

Other raw materials are also dearer.

A bundle of straw costs Rs 50. It was Rs 20 last year. Jute now sells for Rs 100 a kilo; earlier it was Rs 50. The cost of dress materials has gone up, too.

Increased cost and reluctance of many puja committees to pay what artisans are asking for have forced the majority of the Kumartuli artisans to accept orders in excess of their capacity.

Despite such a steep rise in input costs, a puja committee’s idol budget has not gone up.

“With the pandemic almost gone, there is now pressure to arrange a community lunch on three days, Saptami to Navami. If one has to factor in the cost of food, it becomes difficult to spend more on idols,” said a puja organiser from Tallah in north Kolkata.

“We have a tight budget.”

Lack of work here has forced many traditional Kumartuli hands to migrate to Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and other states.

They are making idols there.

At Kumartuli, skilled workers take home between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,000 a day. The same person, or even someone who is less skilled, makes at least Rs 2,600 a day in Maharashtra.

The lack of experienced hands in Kumartuli is slowing down the last-minute work.

Almost all artisans this newspaper spoke to said unless the puja organisers spent more on idols, Kumartuli would sink deeper into crisis.

Last updated on 20.09.22, 06:53 AM
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