The image of Durga at an atrist's studio in Guwahati..Photo:SUBHAMOY BHATTACHARJEE

Following the Assam government’s “nod’ on the Durga Puja celebration with safety measures, the city artisans are now facing the biggest hurdle to accomplish the last minute idol-orders of the Durga Puja committees in Guwahati.

“At this short notice, without a proper helping hand, we are in a fix to meet our commitments. We feel very sorry, our hands are tight to respond to every order of Durga idol,” said Kanchan Pal, a third-generation artist among the clay artisan’s running their studios for generations at Pandu Bara Bazar area in Guwahati.

Taking a Durga idol order for the reputed studios is always a matter of prestige to deliver the best.

And that needs time and adequate manpower. But this time both are absent to respond to every puja Committee’s call.

This is the harsh reality among the popular idol-makers of Guwahati city.

 Why city artisans’ are in a fix with Durga Idol orders? 

In big festivals like Durga Puja, the city artisans have a tradition of hiring professional artists as support hands from North Bengal for the idol-making during every season.

This traditional arrangement which has been prevailing for generations has come to a standstill with the imposition of the lockdown in March 2020.

Most of the West Bengal artists went back home, got engaged in various activities for livelihood if not idol-making in the native places and hardly anybody returned to work in the studios of Assam in the season.

Also allegedly bargaining for a higher “Contract amount” for the remuneration as a short notice call is not practically possible to deal with by the local clay artisans of Assam.

“Despite several calls, none of our co-artists from Bengal, who have a decade-old relationship, turned up to work in our studios this year for Durga idol making.  So, we have to restrict our deals to a certain limit. Because with minimum permanent artist strength from Assam, we have to try to deliver the best,” added Kanchan Pal.

Normally, around 300 or more North Bengal artisans and helpers are invited to work in different studios of Assam. But the Covid-19 aftermath has closed all the windows of hope this year.

The “No show” of the co-artisans from Bengal has developed a fear psychosis among the senior city artists cum studio owners of failing their commitments to puja committees.

For the last two years, the clay artisans of the state have been facing the biggest ever challenge due to the Covid-19 pandemic which has brought a hand to mouth situation before many artists of the city.

The socio-economic condition of the clay artisans who belong to a marginalized class, somehow overcome the two hurdles of the Covid-19 crisis till now depending on their bank balance and fixed deposits only.

Durga Puja being the biggest festival in eastern India normally brings prosperity to every household of the artisans with the beginning of their full-time engagement as idol-makers for a few months till Diwali to save a handsome earning as well for the year to support their families and run the business. But the dilemma of Covid-19 has snatched all hopes.

 “Durga” idol at a short notice:

It’s just four weeks before the artisans for the idol-making now. Within this short span, lord Biswakarma idol-making is also scheduled in the calendar which takes one week. But many such puja committees who have performed “Ghat Puja” or minimum rituals due to Covid-19 restrictions last year have come back with the regular features of planning to worship the mother goddess.

But, with very limited artists’ strength, without the colleagues of the neighbourhood of West Bengal, the city studio owners are still reluctant to take any order which they may not deliver on time as many of them are unable to start the clay structure work of Durga yet.

“Now, with the Covid-19 SOP, the size of idols has reduced and that has affected our work. With the bare minimum income, we are unable to accommodate North Bengal artisans with a fair contract amount, because there is a challenge at every step. If within this short span of production, suddenly a lockdown is imposed, where do we stand, who will bear the loss?” asked Anita Pal, wife of Late Sankar Pal, a studio owner of Pandu.

She has also alleged that being from the marginalised community; the clay artisans were never recognised or supported by the Assam government as “Silpi” (Artist).

She hopes that the present Chief Minister, who is also an MLA of her constituency (Jalukbari LAC), will seriously look into the matter and extend his helping hand for the revival of this noble industry.

Fear of losing old relations, but hands are tight:

During lockdown 2020, the puja committees performed the rituals with minimum arrangements. They followed the SOP from size of the Idol to pandal design to people’s assembly etc. for the safety of the people.

“Though we have booked the support staff and artists from North Bengal, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought dark days for us. In my workshop, I have none from the neighbouring state to help in Durga idol production. Hence with this short notice and limited strength, I feel sad that we are unable to meet the present demand of Durga idols this year,” said Nirmal Pal, a seasoned artisan of the Bishnupur area of Guwahati.

The SOP for this year’s Durga Puja is yet to be announced by the Assam government. But following the Assam Chief Minister’s recent message on performing puja with safety, the puja committees are rushing to the studios to book their idol orders at the last minute.

But in reality, with the last minute unavoidable bookings for Durga-idol, the city clay artisans are under tremendous pressure to honour their old relations in this high time of Durgotsav 2021.

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