Kumartuli is both a neighbourhood in its own right and, in this book, a fieldwork site. As a place, Kumartuli is a combined residential and commercial neighbourhood. All the protagonists of this book work here, and some also have their homes here. In this chapter, I present Kumartuli as the site of research, both physically and through the Kumars working there and their oral histories. Going back to sei samay ‘those days’, of the contemporary Kumars’ precursors is a long journey. The main aim of this chapter– after presenting the site, the people and their work – is to bring together some of the many histories of the Kumars: their group's origin, the beginning of the Kumbhakars’ work as image makers, their establishment in Kolkata and Kumartuli and their first 150 years of making murtis for the Kolkata pujas. It is difficult, if not to say outright impossible, to exactly pinpoint the timespan covered by this section; however the stories will end roughly with the Kumars who started to work as fulltime murti makers in Kolkata in the early decades of the twentieth century.
And the beginning? Where to begin is always difficult to decide when one sets out to describe the historical lines of development giving rise to the contemporary conditions of a society. There is always a new ‘before’, an earlier incident leading up to something relevant to the present- day situation; not to forget the competitive element of being able to date something earlier than others, the ‘idol of origins’ (Bloch 1954 ). The Kumars themselves operate with several beginnings. They have their creation stories concerning the very first Kumar and the beginning of pottery as an occupation. Then there are the stories concerning the beginning of their work as image- makers and the creation of Kumartuli as the hub of clay murti making.
I have approached the beginning by introducing several departures concerning the history of the Kumars of Kumartuli. I begin with stories of the emergence of Kumars, and then move on to the establishment of Kolkata and her Kumartuli. The lives of the first Kumartuli Kumars are briefly described before I outline the contemporary world of the Kumars.
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