Up the Hooghly past the cremation grounds lay a small, inspiring district called Kumartuli. The entire quarter is filled with sculpting ateliers. Primarily constructing figures of the pantheon of Hindu gods, various ateliers specialize in creating either bamboo skeletons, straw flesh, clay skin or the final painted veneer. The level of artistry is exceptional for a collection of straw-people.
Though many of the figures are mass-produced duplicates—stall after stall of evil, tangle-armed Kali, the matron goddess of Kolkata—some of the ateliers display incredible skill that rivals the best bronzes. Likenesses of local heroes and larger-than-life commemorative figures are meticulously crafted from the greenish-gray clay delivered by the boatload from the nearby ghat.
These devotional statues are primarily intended for the post-monsoon festivals where they inhabit pop-up shrines throughout the streets, ultimately to be sacrificially rendered to the Hooghly. Near the river’s edge by the train tracks a strange collection of bedraggled, used-up figures disintegrate slowly under the sun, evoking a god’s graveyard.
A city that affronts the senses and disrobes the traveler of his comforts, I spent much of my time in Kolkata longing for escape. However, as I left for my next destination in a bumper-car taxi, I felt myself charmed and challenged by its story. I promised myself to return.