Inside a dimly lit tent, Khitol Rajbongshi was busy applying a fresh layer of clay on the idols of the goddess Durga. Hailing from Nadia district in West Bengal, Rajbongshi's address for three months is the makeshift tent erected in Kali Mandir in South Delhi's Chittaranjan Park.
"We are neck deep in work. Hardly a few days left for Durga Puja to begin. We need to complete our work by Panchami (September 25)," Rajbongshi, 57, said while he sipped his evening cup of tea.
Every year, some 1,500 km from Kolkata, a replica comes up of Kumartuli (the hub in the eastern metropolis where Durga idols are made) and artisans and craftsmen are flown in from West Bengal to create the idols for Durga Puja — the most anticipated festival for Bengalis.
Idols of different sizes and shapes, from 'ek-chala-thakur' (all idols on one platform) to the large traditional ones, or the trending theme-based idols — these artisans, with their magical touch, recreate the charisma of goddess Durga every year for New Delhi's large Bengali population.
"Making of the goddess is not an easy affair. It is very time-consuming. It takes lot of patience and mental strength as well as stamina. We have to deliver more than 50 orders and there is very little time left," said artisan Montu Pal as he remained engrossed in his work.
Pal, 55, from Nadia, has been making idols for more than 15 years. Learning the craft from his father, Pal said the craft of idol-making is the only thing he knows and is efficient at. Like him, Rajbongshi too has been into idol-making since his childhood and turned it into a profession after completing his schooling.
Although specialising in making traditional idols, Madhob, another artisan, said that they have started making themed ones too, like those back in Kolkata.
"Delhi is not behind in experimenting with idols. Earlier, in Delhi, it used to be simple but now we have to come up with different faces and structures of goddesses," Madhob pointed out.
Apart from the clay which is collected from the banks of the river Yamuna, the rest of the material — from clothes, ornaments and colours — is brought from Kolkata.
It's not an easy life for the artisans. Starting at around eight in the morning, their work continues till two in afternoon. Following a lunch break of three hours, they again resume work from five in the evening.
"There is no fixed time for stopping work. The closer it gets to Puja, the more hectic it gets," Pal added.
Sustaining in such an environment for a long becomes a little uncomfortable for the artisans. They, at times, find their freedom curtailed.
"It is no less than a jail here, just that there's no cage and no bars. There's hardly any freedom that we enjoy. Its like being a bonded labourer. We struggle a lot to adjust; we feel homesick. Back at home, we take breaks as per our wishes or work according to our convenience but here we have to follow a routine. But then, we cannot abandon our work," Pal explained.
For some, the work doesn't even end even after Durga Puja is over. Madhob said a few among will have to stay back till Kali Puja, for making idols of goddess Kali.
"We miss the pre-Puja fun and excitement in Bengal. By the time we reach home, already two days are gone," he lamented.
What then draws them to travel such a distance?
"We do it for money. Back in Bengal, there are too many artisans, there's competition; we get good money here. Or else, who would want to leave home and stay over here, away from the family? It is difficult but we try to remain engaged in work," Rajbongshi stated, while his voice choked a little.
"There's no outing or roaming around in the city. We don't leave our tents. That helps to save quite a good amount of money," Madhob noted.
Despite facing such hardships, these artisans are now well acquainted with the Delhi culture. Given the chance to work elsewhere, all of them said they prefer the national capital.
"I always prefer coming to Delhi rather than other cities. I am accustomed to staying here. People praise our work here, it gives a sense of achievement," Pal concluded.