AJOY PAL’S STUDIO, RANCHI, JHARKHAND, INDIA.
Life of a sculptor.
The historic sculptor of West Bengal, India, more commonly known as the murtikarpali or idol maker, continues to shares a deep bond with the soil of his birth land. Even though in present times his importance in the hierarchy of creativity has been eclipsed by sculptors dabbling in modern art, and his presence is mostly acknowledged only during festivities.
The sculptor Pal had once paid rent for a lucrative piece of real estate located at the heart of a bustling market near the main road that had been good for his business and easily accessible to his clients. He had struggled there for a good many years to build his reputation as an artist. Set up his shop to display his prized earthen creations and entertain his clients.
But plots near the main road can be both expensive and a valuable piece of property in any city, attracting wealthier tenants and sometimes the involvement of the local land mafia, and one fine day Pal, a reputed artist but none the less a simple artist who had emerged out of India’s large population of artisans struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis, had found himself uncomfortably trapped in a situation that as time went by had gradually become more of a hindrance and a burden he earnestly felt he most certainly could do without.
So he had done what average tenants blessed with a nomad’s lifestyle normally do, when faced with circumstances not to their liking, and searched for a new base of operation. Till he had landed up on a small and barren stretch of land that fortunately for him at the time had sat vacant, somewhere behind a maze of deserted back lanes with dead ends guarded by stray dogs and connecting narrow walkways blocked by parked automobiles that made squeezing past quite a test of physical dexterity.
Yet, a place that had been affordable for his pocket, spacious to display his ware and above all had come with the opportunity to begin afresh without having to rebuilt his clientele from scratch in another city, specially if he propped a series of sign boards at corners to help his old and new clients reach his doorstep.
Pal’s new accommodation had been no less than a slum dwelling with peeling paint that hugged the corner of a curving back lane but one he had eventually purchased and turned into his home. Adding in a bamboo and tarpaulin awning to shelter a confusion of plastic chairs, beddings, pots and vehicle spare parts that littered the large courtyard in front on almost all days.
A residence that on this warm and sunny winter afternoon saw him clad in a traditional chequered Bengali Lungi and a singlet, sitting cross legged on the floor, sharing a meal with a troop of artisans while softly conversing about the day’s work in between mouthfuls – a few feet away from his two pets, a dog and a cat, who he affectionately called his two brothers.
Like many people of Bengali origin, specially proper residents of West Bengal, India, who prefer a midday break due to the humid heat of the afternoon that makes one drowsy or see it quite natural to give in to the dip of the Circadian cycle that reduces the human body’s level of alertness during these hours, Pal had arranged his work schedule on practical lines to start at 8:00 a.m. in the morning, flow straight down till 1:00 p.m. in the afternoon then after a three hour siesta resume at 4:00 p.m. and end at 8:00 p.m. in the evening.
On this day, however, as his fellow artisans turned in for a bit of rest after their simple meal of fish and rice, served by his wife moments ago, Pal found himself seated on one of the few plastic chairs that graced his courtyard with no apparent sense for decor or style, talking business with a group of prospective clients and a discourse that oscillated like a pendulum over prices and delivery.
All this while, separated by a low brick wall and a heavy iron gate, his studio at the rear remained deserted and quiet after a hectic day shift that had seen artisans pounding mounds of earth and water into clay and wrestling with concentration and freely oozing beads of sweat to create bamboo fixtures and chiseling details.
Likewise, the warm afternoon sun that bathed the small open ground, revealed empty buckets and evaporating puddles where the same artisans had recently washed the mud of their skin prior to their meal, barely an odd hour ago, next to large shadows cast by tents made out of bamboo poles holding up cheap tarpaulin covers of bright yellow, green and blue shades or shiny tin roofs.
Storage sheds that housed, rows upon rows of silent inhabitants with expressive earthen faces that neither moved nor spoke but in essence were the topic of the moving conversation Pal was having out in front with his buyers – neatly arranged collections of freshly made sculptures, destined to grace the coming festivities, entrances of institutions or homes of patrons.
In West Bengal and cities with major Bengali populations like Ranchi, festivals like the Saraswati Puja and the more popular Durgostava are lucrative time for the common sculptor. The festivals let them express their creativity, win prizes and above all earn much money.
Hailing from the village of Patuligram in Jirat district, West Bengal, India, Pal had shifted to Ranchi in 1983, following his maternal uncle’s footsteps who had been settled in the area since 1962 and had occasionally seen him visiting from the 1970s, that picked up pace after his elder sister had got wed in 1972.
At the time Ranchi had been very much a part of the Indian state of Bihar and a small town not even remotely close to being identified as the city that it is today.
Her population had largely been a mix of ancestral Bengalis, Mundas, Shaotals and Kurukhs who had lived side by side for many centuries on the Chota Nagpur Plateau and equally considered themselves the children of the land.
Her houses less of the modern buildings that one finds today and more of colonial era bungalows and traditional eastern huts with blackened red earthen ware tiles sloping down slanting roofs locally known as Khapras, cluttered both sides of a road that saw very less automobiles – with almost everyone preferring to commute by bicycle, the bicycle rickshaw that still transports passengers for low fares or by simply walking the distance.
Having stayed in Ranchi for over 31 years, Pal is as sentimental about the city as most other citizens who take a keen pride in revealing the city’s history that started way back as a small village, then became a part of the British Bengal Presidency and finally the capital of the state of Jharkhand on the 15th of November, 2000.
Thinking about the past, particularly of Ranchi’s ancient bond with the Bengali community, settled in the region since before the 18th century, submerges him in an overpowering wave of nostalgia, and his mind finding itself suddenly unanchored from the present, comfortably floats back over the decades to the creation of the Geetanjali.
The collection of poems that had won Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet, the Nobel prize for literature in 1913 and made him the first non European to have received the prestigious honor – a part of which, is believed, to have been composed on the gently sloping hill that stands today in the city as Tagore Hill (see Farbound.Net snippet: Home of poets and playwrights). And a trip down memory lane, that gradually comes to a halt on to the top of the Pahari Mandir (see Farbound.Net snippet: 468 steps to the hangman’s noose).
Where one in the 80s could have easily spotted the historic gallows that witnessed the execution of freedom fighters in the mid 18th century. Most notably of Bisra Munda, a heroic figure still remembered in the city, who had been executed a few years prior to the Great Indian Mutinity of 1857.
Ranchi had gradually transformed from a small village into a town and then a burgeoning city boasting of multi ethnic groups, which Pal, like most of the city’s older residents, had been fortunate enough to have seen and lived through.
Born into a family of hereditary idol makers in West Bengal, India, Pal practically inherited the art, playing with mud and water as a child and later learning, watching and helping his father.
Sculpting for Pal wasn’t an art he had been inspired to pick up as a student in school or acquired as an apprentice working and learning from some master sculptor. Like many idol makers in West Bengal, it was a skill that he virtually acquired growing up in a family which as far as he could remember were sculptors just as the generations that had preceded them – with no other alternate course of earning a living other than with the skills of their forefathers.
Hereditary artisans who had once thrived on the patronage of kings and rich landowners, but as the years sped by and the times changed, found their admires coming more and more from ranks of common people, especially where cultural arts and traditions were greatly cherished.
Festivities in Ranchi’s observes Pal with some satisfaction, after the conversation with his clients had ended in a mutual agreement, had greatly improved since he first took up residence in the early 80s. If in those initial years, only the residents of West Bengal had reserved great sentiments for popular Bengali festivities, celebrating the occasions with intense fervor and extravagance.
Now each Bengali neighborhood in the city of Ranchi had followed suite. Hiring talented sculptors to produce creative idols that could also win prizes and sprucing up the massive tents to resemble enormous temples and palaces, furnished with lights and decorations to be more dazzling.
Letting his mind drift freely once more, between the present and the past, Pal remembered with some pride the time when rival neighborhoods had brought in reputed talents from Calcutta, a city famous for creative sculpting, yet how in the end his creations had won the day, and though many people remained unaware or cared less, it was him who had first led the city out of its orthodox perception of idols into its new found passion for more eloquent and creative representations.
Clients who once hesitated on deviating from fixed norms had gradually given away to newer ideas. They had slowly begun to make less and less changes to the crude drawings of divinities and statues, he had created on paper to discuss shapes and forms prior to actually making the sculptures.
Exchanging his relaxing outfit of a Lungi and singlet with a formal shirt and dark grey trousers as the bright afternoon sun gradually gives away to mellower hues, Pal nonchalantly walks into his studio at the rear to examine the row of sculptures that stand silent testament to the years of struggle he had invested to build his reputation as an artist since he had first opened business – and a period of scanty living that after settling rent and expenses had left him with a meager ten odd rupees to add to his savings for a very long time.
Hereditary idol makers like Pal, typically have it tougher than new age sculptors privileged enough to attract patrons with displays in modern art galleries and making worthwhile fortunes – a fact that Pal himself acknowledges reflecting on the enormous scope there is today for sculptors with formal education who deal in modern art with the additionally benefit of earning by teaching in art schools. He recalls an ex student of his who had been fortunate enough to teach sculpting at the Bengal Union Club at Ranchi, Jharkhand (see Farbound.Net snippet: They don’t play Billiards like this anymore.) and had done quite well for himself as an artist – and who occasionally supplies him new projects.
Those less fortunate than Pal sell sculptures of everything from divinities to flower pots on roadsides with a varying degree of luck that wavers on a day to day basis, and though the festivities does definitely improve their chances of earning, the competition to attract customers is fierce and overwhelming with only a few finally getting to make a name for themselves.
Most migrate from rural and obscure villages to the cities, struggling to bring in investment capital for procuring adequate amount of raw materials to begin business with very few Government initiatives to support their craft. Their workshops are almost always shoddy, cramped, damp and a mess of materials requiring them to work squatting or cross legged on the ground.
Among their numbers, Pal is certainly way better off having acquired both the reputation and the clientele. But he still does feel the heat of the competition and at age 50 continues to struggle balancing expenses with income, and continuously bringing in new business through a network of contacts, sources and patrons.
During Bengali festivals it is not uncommon for expatriate Bengali communities living in other parts of the world to hire talented sculptures for creating idols and having them transported to their new homes for celebrations.
Though the large number of neatly arranged creative pieces with price tags inside their storage sheds, agreeably support Pal’s words his reputation has grown not only in the city but, as he further adds, in distant places that harbor thriving Bengali communities – with his sculptures having made their way overseas to Germany, London and the U.S., for communal festivals under a written contract binding him to make on the spot repairs if per chance the idols were damaged during transportation. And an arrangement that would have seen him being flown in and out of India at his client’s expense.
His production costs however have continued to be high, affected by the occasional rise in price of raw materials. Besides the annual 1,00,000 Pal pays as rent for the small ground which houses his studio and storage sheds, and in addition to the wages of the artisans who reside with, work with him and eat with him. Each year Pal incurs considerable costs in transportation for the love he reserves for the soil of West Bengal, which he considers to be the best for making idols.
A deep connection with ancestral tradition that each year witnesses him import massive quantities of a special type of soil, which is more commonly known as Aetel Mati and excavated at Kadam, a district in West Bengal India before being ferried down to the city of Calcutta by boats (one as a sculptor he refers to as Duthi mati).
Along with copious amounts of earth found on the alluvial banks of the Ganges such as Poli and Balu mati. Base materials he considered essential for creating idols – although as an artist he also makes use of a wide variety of materials and soils for making clay including fibers, liquid chemicals, and a powder like substance made out of finely grinded glass particles, once available only in Australia.
The hired hands who work with Pal mostly hail from his own village of Patuligram or nearabouts in West Bengal, India. Brought in to triple production and ease the work pressure that increases more in the months that precede the beginning of the festivities. Nearly all of them dress much like Pal. Sporting singlets and the traditional Lungi folded up to their knees when working.
Bathe out in the storage yard at the back. Sleep under the awning stretched over the courtyard during the night. And engage in all kinds of chores from mixing the different types of earth for creating the sculptures, putting in place Bamboo fixtures, making much needed repairs to the storage sheds that houses their bread winners, and ultimately using their bare hands and Bamboo chisels (known as the Cherai in their native language of Bengali) to sculpt out fine details of the human anatomy for their sculptures.
Returning back home to their villages once a year along with Pal to bring in supplies and raw materials for future projects – a once seasonal work, Pal says, now continues practically through out the year as clients regularly approach him to either buy or commission sculptures of different kinds to grace their homes, institutions or local celebrations.
Touching 50 in 2016, Pal has a wife and a son – who he does not goad to pick up the chisel as he himself had to as a kid. Stating frankly, “What I want does not count, the decision is ultimately his.”