Young Khsonish Pal is from Krishnanagar, Mohua Moitra’s constituency. His modest studio is in a thin lane in Kumartuli in North Calcutta. He has done his Bachelors in Philosophy from a Kolkata college followed by a special course in graphics. He is an artist, a sculptor and a graphics professional, and he is a man of few words. He refuses to open up as he concentrates on his work. “No one knows who will win. Dada or Didi…” he says. “There seems no ‘hawa’ – no wave, this time.”
He speaks softly, even while he gives finishing touches with subtle movements of his brush on a statue of Annapurna which follows ‘Poila Boishakh’, the auspicious Bengali ‘Shubho Noboborsho’ (New Year) this month. His father was Haaru Pal and his grandfather was Bhuvan Mohan Pal, both artists and sculptors – their humble nameplate stands outside his equally humble shack cum studio in Kumartuli, the hub of artists, sculptures and potters, internationally famous for its statues, especially those of goddesses like Durga and Kali during the festive months.
Khsonish Pal is a specialist of small statues. He is proud of a particular Annapurna statue hidden in a corner in the lane. His tiny studio is just a working space, like a small tent, with a ceiling fan, an ancient and small television, a computer at the back, food and kitchen utensils, clothes, clay, colours and mud, and incomplete statues of various kinds. Where do you sleep? Is it not hot here, does the fan work? “Yes,” he smiles. “Even the TV works. I work and sleep here.”
He seems content in his work but a faint trace of angst emerges as he opens up after a long time. Was it bad during the lockdown for the artists? And after? With no festivals or public celebrations?
“Yes, it was both bad and good. Nothing great. The Durga pujas did happen but there were no crowd. There were few orders, but we managed. The truth is in any case many of us just about manage. It is not easy to be an artist in this world and money trickles in little and late.”
So, no politics, is it? He is reluctant. People here say that Didi has really helped during the lockdown, especially the local Trinamool Congress MLA Dr Shashi Panja? Do you agree?
Then he speaks out. He says, clearly and with great lucidity, “I do not know who will win. However, I must not run away from the truth. My sister had a baby recently. Her entire hospital expenses were free. Not one rupee was charged. This is unprecedented. I have never ever heard of such a thing. My sister and family had a good experience. We have to accept that this was because of Didi.”
Most of the humble art studios are still struggling and a certain eerie silence envelops the lane, even as Corona looms large in its second deadly wave. An elderly shopkeeper, who sells ornaments and dresses for goddesses and gods, and for Bengali weddings, is relaxing in his quiet shop, leaning on a cushion, smoking a cigarette. He seems stoic and detached, and, as usual, initially, reluctant to talk. There is no business and all is quiet in his shop.
“How are we surviving? Well, our savings are dipping. Business is down,” he says.
So, did the state government help?
“The state government did its best. Food, medicine and other help was provided to the poor and others on a regular basis during the lockdown. The other schemes helped girls in school and higher education, government hospitals were free. It is the government in Delhi which has betrayed us, and destroyed us, first, with demonitisation and GST, and then this draconian lockdown with no notice. Now they are pumping in crores to win Bengal, even while we have no money or business. Did they ever show their faces here during the lockdown, these leaders from Gujarat and their followers in Bengal?”
He takes a long drag on his cigarette. “Look at Narendra Modi. He tells the people to clap, to make sound with the utensils, to fight Corono. Is this rational behavior, you tell me? BJP leader here, Dilip Ghosh, says that one can make gold out of cow’s milk. What can you say about such people… All their policies are wrong. They have destroyed the country. Now, they are selling all our pubic assets. They will end up selling the country!”
He is also deeply offended, like large sections of women and men in Bengal, at Modi taunting Mamata Banerjee in a rally: “Didi… O.. Didi…” He says it out aloud, and others agree, that this kind of behavior has not been displayed by any prime minister in the history of post-independence India.
Another shopkeeper joins in. “They are dangerous for Bengal. They want to divide us into Hindus and Muslims, they want communal polarization. Bengal lives in peace, we live a shared co-existence, and there is no communal tension here. But all they want is to divide us.”
He continues: “Didi will win, surely. But, who knows what they will do with the EVMs? They just cannot be trusted. They are capable of doing anything. The question is if they try to snatch a fake victory out of defeat by cheating – will Bengal accept it? Will Bengal behave like UP and Gujarat?”
Ronno is the young manager of an ornaments shop which also sells dresses for gods and goddesses. His mother runs a fast food outlet in the neighbourhood across the street. He is a die-hard Didi supporter. “We had a difficult time during lockdown but Didi helped us. People were given food, medicine, all kinds of help, even financial help. We want peace. We want brotherhood. Didi and Shashidi (the MLA) has helped us a lot. People even got free fish during the lockdown, even prawns. We want Didi back. These people from Gujarat have no clue about the culture of Bengal.”
Another local in Kumartuli shares the unanimous opinion. “Not in the three decades plus of Left rule did we see so much development. Look at the cleanliness here. There is water and electricity. Shashidi is accessible all the time, even in a medical, personal or financial crisis. What has the BJP done for us? Nothing?”
Artists in the various studios, some with huge Durga and Mahishasur statues still being crafted, are hoping that this festive season will be different. They are waiting, working, fingers crossed.
There are tiny small-scale units in the by-lanes. The owner of a small Sandow Genji (Baniyan) unit where his entire family works – “to save money on labour” – with an annual turn-over of just about Rs 1 lakh, says it is has been hard, but they have been able to cope with a lot of help from the state government and the local MLA. “Food, medicine, other needs were provided when there was not even one vehicle moving on the streets and everything was shut. Not only the poor, all of us were given relief. Shashidi was personally there, and with voluntary organizations and local groups of craftsmen, she was able to create an effective and efficient network of daily relief. I tell you she will win from here and she will do much better work in her third term as MLA. We want Didi back.”