“What was amazing was how people living in such squalid conditions can create such beautiful art”

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Unlike many of his peers in the film industry, FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) graduate Ranajit Ray is so low profile that you might miss him for the wall. But he has had the distinction of making very significant documentaries and films for Indian television channels and international production companies. His Ajopa Gacha was selected for screening at the Indian Panorama in 2001. His latest film Documentation on the Clay Image Makers of Kumartuli won the Rajat Kamal at the 62nd National Film Awards in 2014. This is the first documentary film that enters into the narrow corridors of clay idol makers whose craftsmanship, skill and artistry in image making can give the toughest competition to any sculptor and idol maker across the world. Ranajit Ray speaks to Shoma A. Chatterji about this film and his craft.

What was the trigger that set you off on this unusual journey?
Durga Puja is a part of the psyche of every Bengali whether he/she lives in Bengal or not. For years I roamed around the streets of Kolkata during Durga Pooja and actually felt the electric energy of the people. This made me wonder what is it that makes thousands of people from every religion, cast or creed come out on the streets to watch the Goddess in all her glory. Each idol makes us pause, muse and wonder about the magic till we move on to the next pandal. My childhood memories of Kumartuli were of dilapidated shanties where we went to fetch our Durga images very late into night. I had not visited them for a long time and wanted to know what it looks like now. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts came forward to produce the film.

Has the situation of their living conditions improved now?
Not really. Kumartuli is a narrow tract of cheap walls, tiled roofs, tin sheds and plastic awnings leading to narrower lanes. Their workshops are not only minute but also claustrophobic. Their living quarters adjoining their workshops are little better than shanties. The real work begins from June end to October end. The workshops are crammed with Gods racing against the weather on the assembly line. But their art is produced anonymously, sold anonymously and then cast into the river year after year. In spite of contributing in a big way to the largest festival in the world, the potters of Kumartuli continue to live in neglect and many of them, on the borders of penury because this is a seasonal festival, and though the festivals keep running till January-February when Saraswati Puja is celebrated, their living conditions are subjected to many promises that have not been kept.

The collective character of the Durga Puja held on a massive scale today did not exist earlier. What light can you throw on this?
This widespread and colossal celebration of Durga Puja did not exist in Bengal during the Muslim rule till it ended in 1757. In 1757, Lord Robert Clive and the East India Company won the first military victory for British arms on Indian soil at the Battle of Plassey defeating the Moghul Nawab. The story goes that members of the urban Hindu elite of Calcutta who supported the British decided to celebrate it with a Durga Puja. Clay images were made by the craftsmen of Krishnanagar most of who later migrated to Calcutta and settled in Kumartuli, of the Durga idol in her glory of triumph over the demon Mahisasura. The name Kumartuli is derived from kumore meaning potter which the craftsmen originally were and tuli meaning their small place of shelter. As Calcutta grew as a centre of trade and administration during the British rule, these potters by caste became the core settlers of Kumartuli or the Potters Quarters.

You had a consultant for the research. Right?
Right. Dr. Barun Mukherjee who is a renowned expert and scholar on folk art and culture, generously agreed to give us research support through leads which we began to follow up ourselves. What was amazing was how people living in such squalid conditions can create such beautiful art. There is no archival record about the history of Kumartuli barring a few references in old articles and published images that are outdated and done without adequate research. Along with my chief assistant Gautam Sharma, we began regular visits into the area meeting a cross-section of idol makers old and young, leaders and office bearers of their different organisations, permanent and migratory workers, skilled and unskilled workers and the few women who have stepped into the trade.

The Durga Puja also creates an ancillary industry. Did you explore this little known area of economics and artistry?
Yes, we did. We found pitch solar artists and makers of the idols’ ornaments out of thermocol. We met artists who were skilled in giving shape to the war weapons used by the different characters like Durga and Mahisasura, the craftsmen who specialise in making dak and zardozi ornaments and so on. We discovered that all the hair used for the Durga idol, her children, the lion and Mahisasura are processed from jute, and every single worker engaged in this occupation belong to the Muslim community which gives a different and secular dimension to the festival and the pooja. We also met artists known as chalchitra painters who paint the designs and motifs on the background of the idols. The key source of our research was the artisan community of Kumartuli and we cross-checked their responses with other idol makers to make our work authentic and honest.

As a documentary filmmaker, how did you prioritise the aesthetics of the film and the factual statement you are making through the film?
It is not a question of prioritisation, but of finding a balance between the two. I always wondered why facts will over burden the emotion, which is a common fault with most of the documentation projects. Simple documentation of the crafts makes the film a dry product.

How do you react to your own film? Would you have wanted it to be different in some way?
I usually don’t look back to see my film because it always gives me pain. I see so many mistakes in it. I have tried to do my best within the time frame of the film. There are many stories about Kumartuli which we had to leave out of the film because the time constraint of 52 minutes did not permit us to include these.

You have cinematographed the film yourself. Was that not too much of a responsibility?
Yes and no. Yes, because you sometimes miss the bigger frame where many other things worth capturing are happening. No, because it is easier for me to capture the moments first hand or else to explain it to my camera person and then capture may mean I would miss that valuable moment. I have used a second unit camera person at many places. But I do agree that it is a huge responsibility.

In what way do you think documentary films on folk arts and traditional practices can add to the body of knowledge and information about cultural practices?
Most of the folk forms and traditional practices are dying out due to market pressures. It is unfortunate that these practices are no longer sustainable. It is important to document them for the future generation. Moreover it is ingrained into the cultural ethos of the community. Abandoning all that is old and traditional is not a very good idea.

Anything else you might like to add?
I know a film cannot change the real problem the clay image makers are facing. But if my film can help them in any way to achieve their dream, I’ll be most happy.

Did your interaction with the idol makers enrich you as a human being?
Yes of course. They are the most humble people, always eager to co-operate with you. The experience is quite enriching for me and I continue to communicate with them even now.

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