The Kumartuli Bandha Ghat (jetty) is a rip roar of colours and activity. The narrow lanes leading to the banks of Hooghly, the rows of clothesline from which hang a variety of sarees, shirts and sundry and the closely knit hovels and shacks of artisans and potters that bustle with activities form an amazing collective of sight and sound.
At daybreak the common man sets out looking for a holy dip at Kumartuli Ghat, as do the general commuter for the jetty to catch the ferry service during the busy office hours. This is the God district. For a vast majority of idols that adorn the Bengali household emerge out of the tumbledown workshops that dot this stretch of Hooghly riverbed in North Kolkata.
A tramline with cobbled black stones cut right through the area almost forming a line of control beyond which lies the outer fringes of the biggest red light area of the city. I have often wondered what do the young girls with deep red lips and richly kohled eyes think of staring unabashedly from their doorways looking both inviting and helpless in presence of their Gods just across the road.
But this is also home to Naren Pal, his three brothers and two sons who are part of a buzzing community of potters who supply the most overwhelming catalyst to the spontaneous rendezvous the Bengalees take pride in and term it by the much benign name adda. They supply the bhar—the ubiquitous mud cups with the orange hue that the Kolkatans claim bring a richness to the taste of their tea—lemon, milk or masala– with its earthy smouldering taste.
Down one of these resplendent alleys flaking off from the crowded street, thick smoke rises, filling the air with the scent of burning hay and baked mud. Here Naren Pal and his tribe of bhar wallahs live and work, crafting simple chai (tea) cups and larger bhars for selling misti doi, lassi and anything sweet. But it is the tea cup that forms the bulk of their supply.
For Adda sprouts like wild berries in the city and no adda session is complete without a cup of hot tea. Though plastic and paper cups have made forays onto the tea stalls, the mud cups hold their position of pride as the prime bridge between the hot concoction and the talkative lips. And once the liquid is consumed, the cup becomes a makeshift ashtray, often a paper weight and at times a mud-pellet thrown at the closest bamboo staff or lamp-post for target practice. But in the end they return to the earth—dust to dust—crushed underfoot, the crunchiness completing the ritual of tea and adda.
They are found everywhere, clogging drains, holding up rainwater in street corners, bringing a dash of colour to the dull train tracks or forming a rectangular plot of intricate circles as they wait to dry. But for Naren, 50 something with a skin and bone body, they mean sustaining a family of eight.
Using two modest potter’s wheels, the family churns out hundreds of bhars of varying shapes and sizes and fire them in the kiln, a mound of mud constructed over a pit of burning wood and hay, till the flaming orange colour shines out. “It is a difficult job,” Naren said bending over the potter’s wheel, his fingers intricately shaping a lump of lifeless clay into a mud cup.
One of his grandsons has given up the potter’s life. He works at a primary school as a clerk. Naren does not know how long will this trade survive. His only hope is the love of the city dwellers for their bhars without which the stories lose their verve, the gossips taste bland and the excitement ebbs away. As long as the Bengali will love to break their bhars after a satisfying round of sips, the potters here will have a hope for continuing.
As I began to leave, I saw Naren stub out his bidi in the bhar seated just behind him. He barked out: “Ekta cha niye aye dekhi…bhare” (Get me a cup of tea).
Pictures by Sujay Malakar