Tag Archives: clay images

The Goddess of Knowledge

Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music and art, and is the daughter of Lord Shiva and Ma Durga.   In West Bengal, Saraswati is revered by schools and universities, because of the belief that she endows the worshipper with speech, wisdom and learning.

Saraswati Puja takes place this year in later January, so preparations of clay images at Kumartuli began in late December.   The energy at Kumartuli is much quieter than the frenzied activity of Durga Puja preparations, but there were a group of artisans in the neighborhood who were making some spectacular images!

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This image is 10-12 feet tall.
This image is about 14 feet tall.


Saraswati is either accompanied by or seated on a swan, and is dressed in white for purity.  In the images made at Kumartuli, she is mostly depicted with two hands that play a stringed instrument called the veena.  In the images where she has four hands, the other two hands will hold a rosary and a book.

Tiny Saraswati images.
Pair of life sized Saraswati figures placed as if conversing.



Saraswati is also a prominent figure in Buddhist iconography – the consort of Manjushri.   Her early history is as a river goddess, and I saw a number of figures adorned with flowing, watery imagery.


Dilip Pal and his assistants were working on eleven commissioned Saraswati images during this time, ranging from two to four feet tall. The floor of Dilipda’s studio at the Shovabazar Rajbari was blanketed with straw, as assistant Netal Pal bent and wrapped and compressed the straw into voluptuous female forms.

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Small Saraswati pandal in the Kumartuli neighborhood.



In December I was very busy with a project called ELEMENTS. ELEMENTS was an experimental art installation for children in Kolkata, the first of its kind in India, and for the kids it was a thrilling sensory experience. Created by Ruchira Das of ThinkArts, this multimedia project melded puppetry, motion-activated laser and sound, and clay.  When I met Ruchira, she knew that she wanted to include clay in the project, but was still looking for ideas of what to do and for an artist to make it happen.  After my months of observing the processes at Kumartuli, the maker in me leapt into action and I suggested that we draw upon Kumartuli for inspiration and create straw figures for the children to cover with clay.   Ruchira agreed, and I happily became part of the project.  I decided that these straw, jute, and bamboo figures would be life-sized children; my reasoning was that I wanted the children to be able to relate directly to the forms as reflections of themselves.

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Working in straw is seriously fun!  And the camaraderie of  our diverse group made the experience even more enjoyable.  Here are the figures the night before the installation opened, with just a hint of clay to get the children started.

Elements process view 2

The children at play, more than 150 kids participated!

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And by the end of the event, the figures were transformed.  For me there’s a poetry to these cracking layers of clay, unselfconsciously (maybe even  gleefully?) slathered onto the straw forms.  I love them.

Elements final result view 2

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Given the success of this installation, Ruchira Das plans to have another ELEMENTS event in Kolkata very soon, and is also working on taking the ThinkArts project to other cities such as Delhi and Bangalore.”

A Dentist to Lions

Dilipda is preparing no less than five images for Jagadhatri  Puja, which is celebrated throughout West Bengal and parts of Odissa about one week after Kali Puja (late October to early November) and exactly one month after Durga Puja.

The courtyard outside of Dilip Pal’s Kumartuli studio, where he prepares images for Jagadhatri Puja.

Jagadhatri is considered to be a calm incarnation of Durga.  She is known as the “Holder of the World,” and it is believed that if Jagadhatri is not there,  the world will fall down!   The origins of Jagadhatri Puja are unclear.  One account is that the puja was founded by Sarada Devi, the wife of Ramakrishna.  Jagadhatri celebrations are observed today with great joy in Ramakrishna missions around the world.

Dilip Pal working on a Jagadhatri image at his Kumartuli studio, Kolkata

Today, Dilipda is amusing himself by repeatedly telling me that he is “The Dentist To Lions,”  as he finely sculpts each feline’s memorable dentition.  In researching Jagadhatri’s history and observing the images of many Kumartuli workshops,  I saw reference to both lions and tigers.



Priest performing rites at Jagadhatri Puja
Jagadhatri  image



In addition to being accompanied by a lion/tiger, the three-eyed Jagadhatri is described as being the color of the morning sun.  She holds a conch and a bow in her two left hands and a chakra and a five-headed arrow in her two right hands.




Kumartuli artisan at work on Jagadhatri image

Some of the Jagadhatri images depict the lion stepping upon the elephant demon, Karindrasura, who represents human pride/power.  According to Sri Ramakrishna, “Jagadhatri arises in the heart of a person, who can control the frantic elephant called mind.”

Straw Jagadhatri images-in-process at nighttime, Kumartuli.