Tag Archives: USIEF

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.

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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.”

Kumartuli – the first visit

On the morning of my second day in India, I had the great fortune to make my first trip to Kumartuli, which is a neighborhood of image-makers that is located slightly north of the center of Kolkata. Leading the way was the delightful Partha Dey, a Kolkata native and visual artist who was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Iowa a few years ago.

Our first stop was at the Shovabazar Rajbari (raj=king, bari=house) to meet Dilipda, a friend of Partha’s and the well-known sculptor who was currently in the process of creating the Durga  sculptural tableaux for the annual Shovabazar Rajbari’s Durga Puja celebrations.   He had already created his figures through the first stage of rough clay and straw formation, so we made arrangements for me to come back when Dilipda would begin his next stage of work.

Next we wandered through the main area of Kumartuli, with narrow streets such as this one,

typical kumartuli street/alley
lined with the workshops of many image-makers. Some workshops are tiny spaces, some are so narrow that we marveled at how the sculptors can gain any sort of perspective on the figures as they work! Look at the size of some these sculptures!

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In the time before I left for India, I had been concerned that I was arriving so close to the date of the celebrations that all of the images being made for Durga Puja would be so far underway that I would miss the chance to witness the whole process. Happily, these concerns were unfounded! Images were in every state of progress.

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The foundation of each image is built using split bamboo as a support structure, to which basic forms of straw wrapped with jute are added to make the rough figure.  Then a first layer of clay mixed with straw for strength, is added to the straw figure.  Once this dries, a second layer of smooth clay (in Kumartuli, this clay is taken from the banks of the Hooghly river) is added to the image to allow for more  refinement and detailing.  The photo below depicts this difference between clay/straw and smooth clay layers in two Ganesha images.


Workshops are everywhere, in houses, shops, street side, and even right next to the train tracks.



So at this point, some may ask, ”Who is Durga?”  And, “Why is all of this work being done on her behalf?”  IMG_1555

As described by Nilima Chitgopekar in The Book of Durga, “Myths associated with her (Durga’s) origin name her as Shakti—the female manifestation of cosmic energy—created by the fusion of the fierce energies of all the male gods and stronger than their combined strength.  She is the scourge of demons, as she is protectress of the realms of gods and humans.  Her anger is terrifying, her lust for victory in war overwhelming, on the battlefield she is merciless, even savage.  Yet she may just as easily transform into the consort of Shiva, daughter of the mountains, sister of the gods, or mother of her four children and of all mankind.”

I’m excited to learn more in the coming weeks before Durga Puja.


Welcome to the Dusty Clay Diaries.

My name is Cynthia Siegel, and I’m currently writing this blog from Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

So what’s the fuss about? In the fall of 2011, I participated in an artist’s residency at Sanskriti Kendra in Delhi, India. Through the Sanskriti Foundation’s Museum of Terracotta, I was introduced to a vast diversity of traditional Indian techniques and processes in working with clay. I became extremely interested in the clay sculptural traditions in which the completed artworks are intentionally left unfired. Often these works are made collaboratively in conjunction with religious festivals, and at the ending ceremonies they are submerged into a nearby river. The sculptures are intended to commemorate the cyclicality of life, to promote healing, to absorb negative energies, and/or to refresh the family or village community life.

These traditions are different than anything I have experienced before, and as a contemporary figurative sculptor, I felt myself drawn to the ethereal, fragile nature of these sculptural processes, and to the idea that after completion, these works are honored, appreciated, and subsequently restored to the earth. There is an enormous amount of creative labor expended to create these works, combined with the expectation of the works’ impermanence.

I became so curious about this image-making process that I applied for, and received, the Fulbright-Nehru Award that is funding this fabulous opportunity to live in India, in which I can learn about the image-makers of West Bengal, as well as create my own artwork and become involved in Kolkata’s contemporary arts scene.

My adventures continue…..