CNN Photos

Sculpting gods from clay

For centuries, artisans have been crafting statues of Hindu deities on the banks of the Hooghly River in Kolkata, India.

Italian photographer Albertina d'Urso recently visited the historic Kumartuli district in the West Bengal capital.

"I think they enjoy their work because they know the idols they create will be enjoyed by others, but most of all because it is creative and handmade work," she said. "It would not be the same if it was a modern factory."

The craftsmen start with a skeleton of wood and straw before applying coats of clay from the river. When it's dry, they add paint and other decorative elements. The entire process takes about a week, depending on the size of the sculpture.

Dozens of small studios line the narrow alleys in Kumartuli. They serve as both workplaces and homes for the artists. Many of them are carrying on the work that has been done by their families for generations.

“They are not rich, but it doesn’t look like they are missing something,” d’Urso said.

She stumbled across the pottery district while she was out exploring Kolkata in January. She ended up spending about a week-and-a-half watching the sculptors work.

Since her first trip to the country in 2003, d’Urso has preferred to work in India without a translator. She said it helps her get closer to the people she photographs.

"After a few days, everyone knew me and no one cared about me going in and out of his shop with a camera," she said.

Business for the idol-makers typically revolves around the major Hindu festivals, but they also take on smaller commissions. While most clients are local, some statues are shipped overseas.

Raised Catholic, d'Urso has developed an appreciation for Eastern religions. During her time in Kolkata, she witnessed Basant Panchami, an annual celebration that marks the coming of spring.

"Going to a Hindu festival as an outsider is like rafting in a river of people," she said. "You jump in and you will be taken by the current. You may not understand what they are doing and why they are doing it, but you will feel the energy."

Dedicated to the Divine Mother, the nine-day Navratri festival starts this year on Tuesday, October 16. Thousands of Hindus will worship elaborate idols that were carefully crafted in Kumartuli.

In the end, the clay statues resembling the goddess Durga will be submerged in water.

"They come back to where they belong," d'Urso said. "They came from the mud of the river, and they will dissolve and become mud again."

Brett Roegiers, CNN