In Calcutta, one never ceases to be surprised. What this city, time and again, makes me realize, is that I should never take it for granted. On one of my photo tours in Kumartuli – the artisans’ colony, where many a beautiful clay idols are created day in and out – I was marveling at the beauty all around. Idols in their various stages of completion - all vying for the attention of the cameras that were making their way through the lanes - were bringing a smile on the faces of my guests and admiration for the artists. One is expecting this – the symphony of straw being tied, of it nearly taking the shape of the sinew of a ferocious lion biting onto Mahishasur’s arm, the dull, damp sound of clay being kneaded just to the right consistency and texture for that perfect finish on Ma Durga’s face. A splash of paint here, an eye being painted there – everything in that place connects me to my soul. Peaceful! And it appeals also to the guests who are walking with me. They are fascinated by what they see around, but are touched more by the rustic ease with which the artisans make them feel as one of their own – nearly half a world away from their home. They offer some chai, a creaky wooden bench, a place in their hearts. I never cease to fall in love with this place – over and over again.
Everything is as it is supposed to be – the idols, the people, and the wonderful, comforting smell of clay – just like on so many tours that I have conducted. Suddenly I hear a sound which seems alien there. It is not a chopper splicing into the bamboo or straw being tied or clay being shaped or anything else that I have heard earlier. It has a strange rhythm – nearly machine like. I peek into one of the windows. The inside is dark and all I see is a frail frame of a man working on some contraption. I smell plastic - hot, molten and suffocating. I can nearly feel my inside revolt to the smell. He goes on what he was doing, oblivious of someone at the window – every movement timed to perfection. As if his life depended on getting it right. Every time! I pause. I have never seen this little house before on this lane – and I have been walking through it for six, maybe more, years now. It measures about 8 square feet – maybe more, maybe less. I really don’t remember. Maybe I didn’t bother to see that. It really didn’t matter maybe. But from the sight of it, all that belonged to him was in that room – but all that mattered to him was the machine he was working at. It was dark and I didn’t really understand what he was doing. But I could smell the vile plastic – the cheap kind. I hate plastic and especially the one that smells like the one I could smell there. I felt I was killing a bit of myself with every breath I was taking. But there he was, working, right there from where the fumes were emanating without any safety – no mask, bare bodied with just a glove over his left hand.
I was very intrigued. I asked him what he was doing. Without even looking up, he replied: “Pordaar ring” – curtain rings. The plastic rings that one uses to hang a curtain on a curtain rod. Every time he was turning the levers with all his might he was magically conjuring up one shiny, black plastic ring which he would lift out of the cast and toss in a sack that was beside the machine. It would surely still be warm I think – because all the while I could smell the plastic – warm and sinister. No protection – that was the first thing that came to my mind. Those fumes could never be safe. What was his name, I asked him. He looked up at me for the first time. Kalipado he said. Maybe no one had ever asked him that. None of the thousands of photographers who have walked the lanes of Kumartuli have stopped by his shack I believe. I asked him if I could take some pictures. He looked at me for the second time. This time the gaze was longer. His eyes seeking an answer to a question he never really asked. He smiled. Yes, he said.
I struggled. Both because of the smell of plastic and him! This was surely not a way to live. But he didn’t really pause to think about that, ever, I think. He was working like a machine. Every single moment mattered to him. I blurted out something about low light and he promptly asked me if he should switch on a bulb. I checked myself quickly and said it was okay and that I am sorry for bothering him and delaying his work. He smiled back at me, never really stopping his practiced routine of gathering a handful of plastic grains, putting them in the mould, turning all those levers with all his might and tossing a shiny ring in the sack. Repeat! Repeat!! Repeat!!! I took some photos, showed him some, thanked him and moved on to my guests who were shooting a large idol of Krishna as a child – Baal Gopaal – plump, happy with a ladoo in his hand. Just a wall separating a very lean, over-worked, nearly starving Kalipado and the beautiful idol of Gopaal! So like Calcutta. The city – intimidating, noisy, dusty to the traveler skimming through it, but incredible, soulful, welcoming and enigmatic for anyone who wants to connect with her!
I really want to become old doing what I do.
- Manjit Singh Hoonjan, 9th April, 2014