The Bengali craftsmen of Banaras gear up for Durga Puja
The Bengali Tola in Varanasi is abuzz with anticipation as artisans put finishing touches to idols of Maa Durga. This locality came into being more than a 100 years ago when elderly people from Bengal came to Varanasi to spend their last days.
Ankit Rathore 27 Sep 2022 6:44 AM GMT
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Maa Durga is getting finishing touches as artisans in Bengali Tola in Varanasi make her look as beautiful as they can. This area is popularly known as Mini Kolkata, as there are any number of Bengali families living there for years.
A sense of anticipation and excitement fills the air as artisans shape, colour and embellish the figures of Goddess Durga and her companions Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh, and Kartik.
"We hope we will never again have to go through the kind of hardships we did during the COVID pandemic," Gopal Chandra De, who makes Durga statues, told Gaon Connection.
De is the third generation artisan of a family from Devnathpura in Bengali Tola. De said he did not have words to describe the misery of the craftspeople in the area during the pandemic. But, this year, things have looked up, he said.
Durga Puja is being celebrated from October 1 to October 5, and beautiful pandals are being set up for the annual festivities. Artisans have once again found employment.
"I have been helping make the murtis for the past six years. In between for the two years of the pandemic I had no work at all," Saurabh Sarkar, who is also from Bengali Tola, told Gaon Connection. "I am grateful to Maa Durga that I found work this year," he added. Sarkar, who is a helper to the main craftsman, said he earned about Rs 600 a day for his work.
The principle craftsmen get paid Rs 1,200 a day for their work while their helpers and assistants are paid Rs 600.
The Bengalis of Banaras
The Bengali Tola came into being more than a 100 years ago when elderly people from Bengal came to Varanasi to spend their last days, and their near and dear ones also came along with them, said Devashis Das, who heads a Bengali social organisation in Varanasi.
"Gradually a community of Bengalis settled in this area that came to be known as Bengali tola," Das told Gaon Connection. Tola means hamlet. "Community pujas were started in Varanasi by the Bengalis in 1922," he added.
It is said that one Lalit Mohan Sen who worked in the court of the King of Kashi enabled the Bengali community to start holding the pujas in the city. The Durga Puja became an integral part of Varanasi with its citizens embracing the Bengali community and celebrating the goddess along with it.
Over the years, the appearance of the Durga murtis have changed. "Earlier, Durga's eyes would be fierce looking and her garments, jewellery etc., were all fashioned out of mud. Only the weapons she carried were bought from the bazaar," Devashish Das explained.
The figures of the goddesses would be no more than three or four feet, and the complexion would be yellowish while that of the asura would be green. In the 70s and 80s the complexion of the goddesses changed to an orangish hue and that of the Asur became light pink.
"Also, the garments, jewellery, accessories that were originally made of mud, now came to be bought separately and added to the image," Das added.
"But the tradition of making the idols will not continue for long if the government does not help us out. It is becoming increasingly difficult to live with what we earn from this," said Saurabh Sarkar.
"While we are happy and excited to welcome Maa Durga in our midst again, we are also greatly worried at the way prices of everything are skyrocketing. It will surely have an adverse impact on our livelihoods," he worried.
Need financial assistance
"This year, there has been considerable anticipation amongst people for a grand puja celebration. However, clubs and committees that celebrate the pujas are not showing much inclination to spend a little more on the murtis," craftsman Gopal Chandra De rued.
According to De, the focus is all on decorations and elaborate puja pandals, and not on the figures of the goddess. "They want to buy the murtis at the same rate they had bought them for two years ago," De said.
According to the craftsman, the cost of living had gone up, yet, they were forced to sell the goddesses they created at 10 to 15 per cent less than what they should ideally get. "This is perhaps why this year there have been orders for only 23 statues whereas it is usually 32 or so that are made," De pointed out.
"The prices of everything have gone up, but if we ask for more money for the murtis people do not want to buy them," he added.
"Each murti used to sell for Rs 12,000. And this year too there has been no raise and it is going for the same amount," helper Saurabh Sarkar said.
But, the craftsmen of Varanasi are happy that this year they can welcome Maa Durga with all fanfare and seek her blessings.