Walking cautiously along the narrow lanes of Kumartuli, the traditional sculpting hub and potters' lane in north Kolkata, one can easily locate the few women idol makers who have carved a niche for themselves in a world hitherto dominated by men.
Popular female idol-maker Chaina Pal, who had to tackle "sceptical customers" in the past, recently visited China to showcase her work (two of her idols are displayed in a Chinese museum). Mala Pal, who has a similar story, is now a favourite for her miniature idols.
"I loved visiting my father's studio as a child, but he never encouraged me as a female was rarely seen in Kumartuli. Later, when he fell ill I could actually fill the gap as my elder brothers were busy doing their jobs. At the age of 14, I took charge of the workshop after he passed away," Chaina, who now runs another studio in Baghbazar with eight helpers, told IANS.
Explaining her initial hardship, she said: "It was difficult as I did not know the entire process of idol-making, but my sheer love for the art helped me to learn it quickly."
There has been no turning back for the little girl who took some time to win the confidence of customers.
Chaina has earned the title "Dashabhuja" (a reference to Goddess Durga, who has ten hands) for efficiently managing her workshop, cooking and taking care of her 95-year-old mother.
Sharing her experience of making her path-breaking work, the "Ardhanarishwar Durga idol", Chaina said: "I made it on request of the transgender community in 2015. A few people didn't like it, but I do not care. I believe everyone has the right to worship the goddess. I haven't heard about anyone else making such a figurine."
She upholds her family's tradition by only making the "sabeki ek-chala-thakur" (traditional Durga idols on a single platform) along with her family of Lord Ganesha, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Saraswati.
Mala Pal broke stereotypes by not paying heed to "what people said" and joined in 1985. However, after her father's death, the 15-year-old girl was encouraged by her brother, Gobinda Pal.
Pointing to a golden polished idol, the specialist said: "I make detachable miniature idols of both types -- traditional 'Banglar Mukh' with large drawn eyes and also the modern 'Art' patterns. They are popular in Europe, as also in Malaysia, Australia and Canada -- and US cities like Chicago -- where Pujas are held."
The lack of space is clearly evident in the studio, lined with small and medium sized idols.
Dreaming of better work conditions, Mala said: "Though I have received recognition and rewards, I have got no other assistance from the state government. On their request, I organise workshops in government colleges and earn some extra money. Students come here at times, but this place is not sufficient to accommodate them."
"Moreover, the toilets are not proper for them. A better space is definitely desirable," added the woman who also makes beautiful terracotta jewellery.
Shaping the clay and etching the shapes needs dexterous fingers, but creating the base of huge idols using wood and the basic structure with bamboo needs immense strength.
Mala's father did not want his daughter to join in due to this very reason.
Speaking on the same lines, Chaina, who rarely takes a break, said: "I wouldn't ask others to take up idol-making as it requires hard labour. It is true that for a woman it is too much, but if a person truly loves the art and is ready to sacrifice everything else, she can make a mark."
(Binita Das can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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