AP PHOTOS: Kolkata artists paint, mold idols for Durga Puja

KOLKATA, India (AP) — Spirits are soaring in India’s “City of Joy” as tens of thousands of people jostle on Kolkata’s streets in celebration of “Durga Puja,” the most important festival of the Bengali community.

The five-day festival that began Saturday is marked by prayers to the Hindu goddess Durga, feasts, rejoicing, music, dance and drama marking the victory of good over evil. People visit richly illuminated and decorated community centers with idols of Durga and other goddesses worshipped by the Bengali community.

This year’s Durga Puja in West Bengal state in eastern India comes after two years of pandemic curbs on large gatherings and follows UNESCO’s recognition of Kolkata’s festival as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.’’

Artists began preparing for the festival months ago by making thousands of clay idols in Kumortuli, the oldest potters’ colony in Kolkata.

The art district has mushroomed in an unplanned way in congested narrow alleys and lanes on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. Studios dot the area with no concrete construction or proper doors. The artists use the space as their home-cum-studios with common facilities.

With their work growing in popularity, the artisans have introduced fiberglass idols and and export miniature idols of Durga to the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, Bahrain and other countries.

The work begins with a skeleton of bamboo and wood, which the artist methodically binds with paddy straw to give it a human shape. The artist then places clay over the human-shaped dolls.

The faces of the idols are molded or even handcrafted. The clay is collected from the Hooghly River and mixed with small hay pieces and wood dust collected from sawmills. The artists paint the idols in colors chosen by their customers.

The U.N. cultural agency last December included the Durga Puja in Kolkata on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Eric Falt, UNESCO director in New Delhi, said the inscription would encourage the communities that celebrate Durga Puja, including traditional craftspeople, organizers and visitors.

Kolkata was nicknamed “The City of Joy” after a 1985 novel by Dominique Lapierre with the same name that was adapted as a film by Roland Joffé in 1992. The theme centered on people’s joyous spirits overcoming hardships.

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