The Practice of Idol-Making in Kumartuli: Cultural Heritage, Spatial Transformation and Neoliberal Governance in Kolkata

Student thesis: Phd


Durga Puja is an annual cultural festival featuring a series of celebratory activities around hand-crafted idols and exhibits that take hold of Kolkata’s streets for ten days in September-October. The nomination of Kolkata’s Durga Puja in the 2020 UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list is testament to the significance of the festival and the communities crafting its exceptional idols. In Kolkata, the religious idols are sculpted of straw and clay in Kumartuli, a historic neighbourhood increasingly threatened by the city’s urban redevelopment agendas. This thesis investigates idol-making as a situated, relational, culturally embedded and caste-based practice. It examines the political economy of idol-making in the context of spatial restructuring and shifting governance. The thesis straddles sociology, human geography, and architecture. Focusing on idol-making as a practice, it examines how this is shaped by and has shaped Kumartuli. Building on qualitative research, including semi-structured interviews, visual documentation, mapping and participatory visual methods, the thesis reveals how idol-making has co-evolved with the spaces and places of Kumartuli. The empirical chapters expose how the Kumartuli-branded idol rose to global fame whilst Kumartuli transitioned from a fairly mixed-use neighbourhood to become a tourist attraction dominated by idol-making and its seasonal dynamics. However, despite the positive public sentiment and certain governmental actions, such as the plan to redevelop the area in 2007, Kumartuli is threatened by gentrification and disintegration. Failure to accommodate existing spatial practices appropriately triggered collective resistance and local political opposition to the redevelopment plans. However, shifting government policies have slowly been changing the character of the neighbourhood. The caste-homogenous neighbourhood is slowly being replaced by a commercial cluster of idol-making workshops, most of which are differentially shaped by wider relational geographies and growing consumer demands. At the same time, the socio-spatial infra systems continue to reach a breaking point. The thesis asks if Kolkata will succeed in acknowledging and catering to the needs of idol-makers and other marginalised creative communities embedded in inner-city slums. This thesis establishes the need for incorporating the place-based practices of such traditional crafts industries in the cultural policy domains.
Date of Award31 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorGraham Haughton (Supervisor) & Deljana Iossifova (Supervisor)


  • Idol-making practice
  • Cultural industry
  • Practice theory
  • Visual ethnography
  • Participatory photo-study

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