Saturday, September 24, 2011

From History to Histrionics.... More Reunion than Puja....

With the Kolkata skies getting murkier by every passing minute, I'll have to say we are in for a pretty wet Pujas this time around. I guess, this has been eternally my worst nightmare wherein I'd have to spend the entire Pujas indoors due to rains or some natural calamity or even for some personal misfortune. I'm sure this syndrome has haunted everybody before every Puja ever since the time we became conscious about the variety of merriment Puja brings to one and all. Thankfully, consciousness about such inscrutable fun arrived early in my life.... Right from the mid-nineties, we've seen almost every Puja marred by rains... sometimes intermittent, sometimes torrential but mostly uncertain... enough to instill doubt and skepticism in the minds of the general Puja enthusiast. Hence each year, fortnight before the Pujas the only sort of news I used to be tuned into was the friggin' weather forecast. Those were days when the Alipore Met Department's forecast during the Puja days on the mind-numbing Doordarshan 19.30 hrs News was probably the most awaited source of information for me. More often than not the information imparted by Alipore's band of Goldars and Debnaths was more erroneous and farcical than Pakistan Cricket Board's assessment of the Match Fixing scandal. And adding to our list of woes was the hapless drainage facilities of Kolkata which contributed even more adversely to the already wretched condition of roads, parks.... I have witnessed some Sarbojanins partially submerged for most part of the four days. The situation hasn't improved much over the years.

Ballygunge Durgabari Idol (2010)

The weather in one of those years was so inclement and demoralising that our group of high school mercenaries decided to move our assemblage to what we had till that point of time had only heard of, but not experienced. Yes, Ballygunge Durgabari was, and still is an experience. Some of us crib even today why Ballygunge Durgabari did not happen to us much earlier. There wasn't a plausible reason.... the only inference that I could draw was that it was located right opposite to our school and at least during Puja vacation none of us desired to venture anywhere close to school, hence Durgabari did not feature in our Puja itinerary. But as luck would have it, we ended up at Durgabari in the course of one of those relentless showers on an Ashtami evening in the middle of Shondhya-Arati more to find a refuge rather than a Puja bustle.... the scenes which followed will remain with me forever. I was truly mesmerised by the Ashtami puja and the ensuing Arati. Primarily, as I had never seen Arati from such close quarters and secondly, the collective chants of the people gathered there were somewhat similar to a Family Puja which I had never experienced before.
A Quaint Setting of a Family Puja,
Ballygunge Durgabari (2010)

For me, it gave a whole new dimension to Durga Pujas. The idol (image above) has always been traditional, the Pandal is just as minimalist as you can get, virtually no outdoor lighting... all these in a setting which has managed to connive best of both worlds.... a Barowari amidst an ambiance of a Family Puja. Since it is organised indoors, it retains the various Puja nuances throughout the length of the four days.... the rustic smell of the dhunuchi, the reverberation of the sound of dhaak, the aura of the ek-chala idol, the community bhog and quite obviously, the Sari clad stunners..... almost everything converts the environment into a surreal one. And thus the addas at Durgabari have become close to being legendary. To my own advantage, Durgabari is also considered an annual alumni congregation for South Pointers.... something that has not dwindled with passage of time which results in a sort of ownership with this Puja for us Pointers. Durgabari has been a silent onlooker to so many adolescent/maturing love stories, lasting friendships, lifelong alliances that one can safely say that it has left an indellible mark in many a lives. I, for one, would never give Durgabari a miss any year.

Maddox Square Pandal, quintessentially in the form of a Nat Mandir (2007)
If Durgabari sketches a significant epoch of my liaison with Pujas then Ballygunge Durga Puja Samity would definitely be a point of reference in various facets of my life, in entirety. A first read would raise many an eyebrow as to what or where this Puja exists.... Ballygunge Durga Puja Samity is the grand brouhaha that is observed annually at Maddox Square. For the past 15 years or so it has been, and will be for quite some time the epicenter of Kolkata Pujas. What started out in 1935 as a queer residential Puja, has now revolutionised the way Barowaris are being perceived as an event. 

Well sometimes the output becomes hopelessly drab,
but the essence beholds... Maddox Square Pandal (2009) 
Located strategically in the heart of South Kolkata, this quiet recreational square turns into a cauldron of activity through the duration of the festival. Every year, the footfall has multiplied disproportionately and yet the organisers have always had a method to this madness. I've been following this Puja for the past 16 years and despite the fact that the Puja has undergone manifold changes, the underlying essence has remained the same. Initially, Maddox Square became our Puja rendezvous when we were at the doorstep of leaving school. I still remember the faces of Abhra, Subho, Abhijit, Srijit, Avik, Amitava, Swarna and the rest of the Pointers' Batch of '94/'96 who formed the deadly posse which thronged Maddox Square on Ashtami and Nabami evenings primarily to check out the fairer sex. In those days, the wandering masses were limited till late evenings post which the elders of the locality with their families used to camp at the Mandap atrium to experience this puja as if it was happening in their own respective backyards.

The Super Embellished
Maddox Square Idol (2011)
The congregation of traditionally attired families added a very different spectrum to the image of this Puja which I think has kind of waned with the major influx of non-native crowd these days. Anyways, during my post graduation days, I happened to get introduced to a person named Arijit Basu who was a living evidence of a true Maddox Square aficionado by virtue of staying adjacent to it. It was he, who got me familiarised with the minute nuances of this Puja.... from the idol... to the Mandap... to the preparations... everything which probably I wouldn't have known otherwise. The Mandap has always been in the form of a Nat Mandir (Temple Courtyard), as seen in the snap above from 2007, which reciprocates the fundamental theme potrayed by the organisers ie. Durga Puja. The classic ek-chala Idol was earlier created by President's Medal winner, Late Srish Pal... currently carved by Nikhil Pal of Kalighat.

The timeless-ness of this Idol (snap below from 2010) charms me more than anything else.... year on year.... though, sometimes people do tend to overlook amidst other more frivolous attractions available here, but this is what actually makes this Puja roll on.... The "Daaker Saaj", hand-crafted by Krishnanagar artistes was earlier Silver in hue which was altered to Golden in its golden jubilee year in 1985.

Maddox Square Idol (2010)
This was also the year when this Puja won the inaugural Asian Paints Sharod Samman and even though nowadays the focus is on creativity and ingenuity, Maddox Square has always been a pioneer of "Shuddha Suchi Sustha Ruchi" (Artistic Excellence & Purity in Taste) in the words of eminent Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay. Apart from the Puja experience, Maddox Square has got me acquainted with the latest fashion crazes and evolution of the Bengali youth in general. The entire square during the four days gets tranformed into a huge ramp where girls and guys alike would strut in their new apparels adhering to the most up-to-date styles and trends. Well, I was a part of the large onlooking brigade who could just oggle at these contemporary fashionistas. Obviously like most other people, who've seen Maddox Square Puja from very close quarters, I too believe that Pujas have changed dynamically with a lot more money coming in resulting in a dour sense of professionalism which has encroached within the Puja organisers making it more of a corporate event than anything else. Four days of festivity has been stretched to well beyond a week of pandemonium. Our refuge at Maddox Square has undergone a makeover as well. Most of my friends have ventured out of Kolkata and I probably am the only one keeping vigil and visiting Maddox Square to find a glimpse of any of the "old hags". Believe you me, every year I find some familiar face amidst the hustle of the Maddox crowd. The Square is crammed with teen-agers and youngsters who've aptly filled the void left by us. In them I see images of our group close to a decade ago, in them I see all of you who miss Maddox Square. One thing which will certainly remain unchanged is the fact that Arijit Basu and Maddox Square will be my friends forever.

I guess that's what Durga Puja means to me. Its that time of the year where I try relive my past, our golden days of glory.... where there were different definitions for a lot of things..... deadlines did not refer to reports, it indicated the time by which I must be back at home; numbers did not signify targets, it denoted the number of pretty damsels noticed. Aah, those were the days.....  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Evolution of Barowaris and My Love Affair with Park Circus.....

A little less than three weeks to go before utter mayhem takes over Kolkata and although being 33, I still get those juvenile goosebumps when I see this autumnal conundrum completely taking over our 350 year young bustling metropolis. From what I've observed in the past 20 years or so, the spectacle has been swelling by leaps and bounds in terms of plain manifestation of Bengali ethos. Durga Puja has now become an institution by itself. The transition from a confined ritual to a cultural behemoth took ages, but it was obviously worth the wait.

My tryst with Durga Puja started early... during my junior school days, to be precise. My school was generous enough to offer a pretty lengthy mid-year vacation during the Pujas. Little was I aware then, that it wasn't a Puja vacation in actual sense of the term.... those were dark 30 days before the dreaded Half Yearly tests which used to be the most gruelling of exams... our school had designed it that way to give the poor kids a reality check before the end-of-year battle royale. To this day, though, this hasn't quite found a proper rationale from my end. The tests were even more gruelling as they came back to back with four days of Puja carnival. We hardly got any time to savour the hangover of Pujas. I've seen some of my lesser fortunate bookworms put in their hard strides even during the Puja days. Well, my fate wasn't that bad. For me, there was this leeway of "no studies" which I humbly earned by slogging my butt out till about Shasthi. This used to attract a lot of flak from my contemporaries studying in more posh Catholic schools who's Puja holidays were restricted to just a week or so. I did not mind much. I was winning at something, at least. It became the first instance in my life that I felt that Pujas were my days of redemption.

Ekdalia Evergreen Pandal, under construction (2007)
The route to my quaint South Kolkata school from where I used to stay at Park Circus took me through the hustling commercial market area of Gariahat. For people not familiar with Kolkata, Gariahat has been a Mecca for the middle class bargain hunter who at that point could not afford the plush Park Street or New Market but still had the taste and finances to support limited luxuries. This was also a locality which was home to Ekdalia Evergreen.... a Puja Committee which was almost like a benchmark of pomp of Kolkata pujas, courtesy huge budgets backed by a certain Political heavyweight.... the name of the Club was probably derived out of the politician's lively and effervescent countenance, or so I would wonder. In those days, the preparations of this Mandap began way before anybody else, thereby imparting the spirit of the festival pretty prematurely...
Ekdalia Evergreen Idol, by Sanatan Rudra Pal (2011)

The philosophy behind the plot was simple and consistent over a long period of time.... construct a soaring gigantic tower resembling some Indian temple or edifice and plaster the road with garish Chandannagar Lights... add to that Ramesh Pal's brilliant traditional idol and a giant chandelier adorning the interiors. Ekdalia Evergreen was a blockbuster every year.... a true testimony of how the modern Sarbojanin had evolved. The picture above, taken in 2007, is an apt example of how Ekdalia Evergreen mandaps were created keeping all the above features in mind. They've perfected the art of exhibitionism.... you would never dare to ignore them. I did not. In our adolescence, when our parents did not allow us to venture out during late evenings and nights, Ekdalia Evergreen was our first daytime Puja hangout. But with passage of time and the ever increasing turnout, we were almost shoveled out of here, never to return though Ekdalia Evergreen continues to be one of the most attended Pujas of Kolkata in terms of all authentic statistic. It is still the unheralded king of modern Barowaris.

Park Circus Beniapukur Pandal (2008)
Park Circus. The neighbourhood I grew up in. Located virtually at the heart of the city, the only drawback was that we were sometimes caught in the crossfire whenever there was any debate about the culturally rich, orthodox North and the new age, avant-garde South Kolkata. I will not venture into this ancient arguement either. Park Circus Maidan was like a sprawling oasis in our concrete jungle and this humongous green patch was the cynosure of pride for all the locals. It provided solace not only for sore eyes but also for thousands of residents of this locality in terms of a playground, joggers' track, uninhibited jaywalking, lovers' nook and various forms of entertainment round the calendar like circus, flower shows, multifarious exhibitions, etc. But the icing on the cake, understandably, was the Park Circus Beniapukur Sarbojanin Durgotsav. 

Park Circus Beniapukur Idol (2009)
This was the Puja, which has become almost like folklore to me, with all immediate predecessors of my family associated with this Puja committee in some nondescript role or the other.... because any thoroughbred Park Circus resident was decreed to be a part of it, hence they had no choice. The Idol I've grown up with.... the Durga image with which I've been associated with since time immemorial by virtue of staying right next doors... the shot above was in 2009 sculpted by the multiple National Awardee, octogenarian Ramesh Pal, it still is one of the finest images of Kolkata. Though this was peculiarly unlike the other Sarbojanins of the city where since absolutely no subscription was collected from the local residents, the funding was entirely accumulated from the proceeds of the Mela (Fair) that accompanied the festival and ran for around couple of months. So it was kind of the first sort of corporate Puja of the city where major emphasis was on garnering sponsorships rather than petty donations. The organisers realised very early that this Puja offered a unique platform for all those commercial bodies who deperately desired to attract eyeballs for their products. This practice has now become a norm for the modern day Committees.

Unfortunately, I've moved out of my beloved Park Circus but its shadow still looms large and no Durga Puja is complete without putting my foot on the Maidan. Ramesh Pal has been substituted by Sanatan Rudra Pal.... Delhi Chat House still fascinates my taste buds.... Mahashtami Anjalis will never be the same again, where Birendra Kishore Bhadra's chants wove a surreal ambiance.... 70 years have passed and Park Circus Puja has definitely carved a niche for itself, which according to me would surely remain a marquee Puja landmark for many years to come.

My Puja Parikrama commenced from Park Circus as it had provided me with the craving to see more... explore more... learn more.... and for me Park Circus Beniapukur Durga Puja has earned its rightful status as an annual pilgrimage. For the archetypal Durga Puja of Kolkata, it has traversed a long journey and has now ultimately developed into a Magnum Opus from mere Sarbojanins.....

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Politics of Pujas.....

I've been thinking about this for quite a while and thinking long and hard. What makes the Durga Pujas of Kolkata tick.... What triggers the whole pandemonium which keeps on growing bigger by every passing day in terms of grandeur, creativity and possibly for the only time in Poschim Bongo(!!!???!!), in terms of the economics involved.... How could such a battered race muster so much energy, spunk and vigour in that span of a week or so, which is again so outrageously absent in the remainder of the calendar..... I wonder. For me, growing up in the heart of Kolkata and almost adjacent to one of the most feted Sarbojanins of the city was in itself an eye-opener of sorts. The usually sullied neighborhood used to get its annual makeover during Autumn..... the filth on our lanes disappeared, the usually dilapidated election graffiti-ridden walls received a customary white-wash, few saplings got planted in a haste and all this in an era which was grossly less environmentally cognizant than what it is today..... these were just subtle sub-natural signs pointing towards the fact that Autumn was on the cards, and so was the Super Festival cum Carnival called Durga Puja. Its the homecoming of the Devi, back to Her roots, back to Her folks..... where She's the undisputed Diva, alongwith Her posse of kids.... She rules and by Her own terms.....!!!!! Boy, one cannot be dramatic enough about Her influence...
A Nuovo Durga Image on the Sriniketan-Bolpur Highway

In the early seventeenth century much before the advent of the British in this part of the world, Durga Puja was a sign of opulence and primarily an affluent household's ritual. The Pujas were restricted within the Zamindars' courtyards and the celebrations consciously did not involve their underprivileged subjects. Hence, for the lesser mortals Durga Puja remained a modest mere event which they could watch from well outside the Zamidars' manors. Yes, there were certain occasional benevolence shown by these otherwise megalomaniacs wherein these subjects could be a party to the Puja celebrations to the extent of just following the family and friends of their precolonial masters at the time of the immersion of the Goddess in the nearest river or waterbody. Well, that was it. Consequently, Durga Puja remained principally a private homage.... a far cry from what it is today.

Durga Puja received a serious facelift with the influx of the Queen's herd from the early nineteenth century. With the English slowly biting there way into the Indian heartland through some serious show of military strength, one thing became clear by every passing day that they were going to stay here for a very very long time. As we know well enough, the British had set their initial footsteps into India through Kolkata and Bengal due to its geographical advantage and moreover, since our good ol' city used to be the socio-economic hub of that period. With the ever increasing clout of the colonizers, a large part of the erstwhile Zamindars were forced into acquiescing their loyalties to the British.... some through armed assaults while others by the lure of bigger representative roles. So, it was now the British who ruled the roost and obviously, a growing number of Landlords started queing up to appease their exceedingly influential masters in order to be in their good books. And that's where I think the fate of Durga Pujas took a new turn.

Idol at Sovabazaar Rajbati (2007)
The turn of the century saw a riveting rivalry amongst the Bengal nobility in terms of one-upmanship..... and as much a parochial community as we are, I dare say Bengalis thrive on this behavioural trait. This show off circus ran across the state and across noble clans, obviously with a shrewd motive. It is about this time in Bengal's history that we saw a large number of wealthy aristocrats build mansions, palaces, parks, temples, etc. only to garner popular support through awe and not terror... through riches rather than forceful submission. And if they were successful in accomplishing that, they in turn would receive Her Majesty's blessings through bigger representation in terms of administrative roles. Hence, we witnessed a lot of cases where such "successful" despots where conferred upon the titles of "Raja"/"Chowdhury"/"Dewan" etc. by the British Lords. Although they were just customary epithets and would only translate into limited revenue earning portfolios for the Company exchequer, but for the common man these so called Rajas and Dewans commanded immense respect and regard. Ideally religeous festivals provided the only window of opportunity every year for these brandishing band of posh merchant familes to try and showcase their pomp and pageantry to the masses. Since by that time Durga Puja was already an established household event running across four days happening in a season which followed the post monsoon harvest, it became the most apt religeous excuse to fall back on. Here came the moment, when the closed doors of the nobility opened up for the commoners for those four days of Puja. It was an extravaganza for the hoi polloi for whom these four days were a chance to dine and get entertained at the behest of their lords. Here was an opportunity for them to live life without the fear of taxes, or henchmen, or even the Britishers. On the foreground it might have seemed like a festival of benevolence, involvement and tolerance but deep down it was still the Puja for the highest stratum of the social ladder. Durga Pujas, still had a fair distance to cover before becoming Community Pujas. Although I strongly feel that these Family Pujas actually bore the soul and essence of the true spirit of what this whopping festival has turned out to be. As these Family Pujas have been organised continuously for ages, they have conveyed the legacy of the rich Bengali culture down the generations. The Pujas of the Roy Chowdhury's of Barisha, Deb's of Shobhabazaar (Image Above), Ghosh's of Pathuriaghata, Seal's of Chorbagan, Srimani's of Sukia Street and Mallick's of Bhowanipore are some of the earliest and finest family pujas which have endured over centuries and yet are some of the biggest crowd-pullers even today. Well, we shall talk more about them on a later date....
The initiation of 20th century saw Bengal lend its strong hands to the nationalist struggle striving for Indian independence. And this movement was predominantly instigated by the rapidly burgeoning middle class, which was literate and ideological enough to realise the actual benefits of a free state. This was a period which underlined the need of acquiring people's support large enough to inculcate awareness of attaining autonomy under any circumstances. A need for a commune.... a need for a unified cause.... and Durga Puja celebrations struck the perfectly apposite chords to instigate just that. This was a time, when Durga Puja had to be dragged out of the courtyards and patios, to the open streets... to the community parks.... where it could be celebrated in unison devoid of any socio-economic barriers. Devi got a new lease of life, by virtue of having entire neighbourhood coming together to organise a community Puja.... Festival meant for one and all, cutting across all sections of the society. Durga Puja achieved the pedigree of a Carnival, people of all ages flocked together to give it shape and helped it evolve in every possible way. Over the years, with passage of time this Super Carnival has now attained a cult status. The Sarbojanin's... the Barowari's.... the Sangha's had finally arrived.