As one walks past the dinghy bylanes of Kumartuli, the hub of the artisans of West Bengal, one can't help but notice the idols of Goddess Durga half completed and covered as she is preparing for her arrival in next 36 days.
But Syamshree Pal, 55 years, is spending sleepless nights not only completing the orders he has in hand but thinking how will he able to finish them on time, as Kumartuli is hit with severe labour shortage this year.
He needs the labourers most as his children are not interested in pursuing this career and walk on his footsteps. His 26 year old son, is a pharmaceutical marketing executive. Though it is his family business and the nuances of craftmanship has been passed on to him through last three generations and after him the business will vanish from the family.
Shyamshree says, "I have been working as an artisan since i remember but i did not want my son to get into this business as it does not pay at all. It becomes difficult to run the family also there are a lot hardships in this business. We live in shabby homes , we are awake the whole night to complete these idols and it also has health hazards as we work with mirrors used in paints."
Also this year, most of the artisans have not been able to take big orders fearing non-completion of projects as labour shortage grips Kumartuli. Some potters have hauled projects as they look for labours.
Shyamshree continues, "I have hired four labours and I pay them Rs 1000 per day including food and shelter, whereas last year we had paid an average Rs 350 per day. Most of the laborers dont come since they get 100 day jobs with NREGS and some go to Mumbai and South where they get paid more. So it becomes to difficult for us to hire people."
With 42 idols for completion Shyamshree has a long way before he can sigh in relief.
The story is same for every artisan in this area. Every artisan is now paying anything between Rs 700-Rs 1000 per day as wages as compared to Rs 350-400 last year, a jump of 133- 150 per cent.
Nimai Chandra Pal, President, Kumartuli Mritshilpi Samiti, had joined his father straight out of college and learnt the tricks of the trade by watching his father and uncles at the workshop.
Nimai says, "Due to labour trouble the production is getting hampered seriously and the labour shortage is of around 40 per cent. Infact we have not been able to take more orders and we have already started refusing customers. We are worried whether artisans would be able to finish the existing orders in hand. If last year someone was making 35 idols this year he has only 20 projects. "
If only the fear of meeting the deadline wasn't enough the artisans are faced with contraction in margins in their business.
Last year artisans of Kumartuli had dispatched orders of 4000 idols which is slated to come down by minimum 20 per cent this year, vouch artisans.
Nimai adds, " At this point we can not give exact numbers but the production shortage number will be significant."
And to add to the list of existing woes of the artisans is the increase in raw material prices and their inability to pass it on to the end consumers.
Raw materials like bamboo, mirror, paints cost, shola (pit)has increased by 30 per cent as compared to last year.
The president further explains, "Nobody is trying to adjust the increase in prices that we are facing due to increase in raw material etc, for example if an idol was sold for Rs 20,000 last year it should be selling at Rs 26,000 this year, but the prices at which we are forced to sell is around Rs 22,000-24,000. so rest of the difference has to be borne by us."
As margin contraction dents the euphoria and excitement of the artisans of Kumartuli, those craftsmen who used to make big money by selling idols to over seas clients are facing trouble too. For a change, the mahisasur in the form of financial crisis is obstructing the sales of the idols of the Goddess of Power, Durga and it is unlikely that Durga will win this time.
Montu Pal, secretary, Kumartuli Mritshilpi Samiti, says, "This year I am supplying only 2 idols overseas one to cambridge and the other to Australia. Every year I sell more but this year orders are less. This year the margins have come down by 15-20 per cent."
Idols which travel overseas fetch anything starting from Rs 1.5 lakhs to Rs 2 lakhs. also with middle men in the bay, margins are squeezing further.
Montu adds, " Foreigners would not come to such places, the bylanes are narrow and unkempt, we can not expect them to come here and walk around see our work and then place orders. Very few people get direct orders most of them have to get it from middle men for these international orders. With business not so robust this year, and middle men not cutting their margins, it is really a challenging one this year."
As Mintu leaves hurriedly, with 30 idols to complete, including a 52 feet high fibre glass Maa Durga Idol which would adron FD Block in Salt lake, a first in India, this year Durga Puja hoppers will have lesser pandals to queue.
And I walk past the lanes looking at every corner selling puja materials, after all maa ashbey baritey (Durga will come home)