Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Durga Puja Pandals - A Brouhaha of Gimmick and Serious Art

The inevitable juggernaut of life rolls on relentlessly and we, as props, merely try to evolve with passage of time. Some do it successfully and others like me are caught in a warp of reminiscence making an obtuse effort of clinging on to every transitory moment. I’ve been often engulfed in this abject state of nostalgia, and appreciatively I’ve managed to emerge as a more positive and assured individual through these reflective paroxysms. Durga Puja in Kolkata is one such piquant trigger in my life which arrives annually and pokes my wistful genes through numerous innuendos and allusions. Birendra Kishore Bhadra’s lilting Mahishasura Mardini (Annihilation of Buffalo Demon) chants still captivate me every Mahalaya dawn, probably the only daybreak I’m ever witness to considering the kind of doped sleepyhead that I am.  25 years ago, this was a routine imbibed by my parents typically emphasising that Durga Pujas would not commence spiritually if one did not hook on to the then radio recitals of this octogenarian narrator. Initially I quivered in contempt, failing to decipher an uncomplicated code where every year the entire Bengali kibbutz would wake up to this very baritone and hail the onset of Devi Pakkha, such that it almost became synonymous with the carnival itself. Bengalis have always been parochial about their customs and habits, and this was nothing dissimilar. In 1976, All India Radio having commissioned the Tollywood legend Uttam Kumar for the same recital, owing to absolutely lukewarm responses had to replace him immediately the next year, with Bhadra returning to the foil again. It has crooned on unchanged ever since, and provided us all with the grand opening act of Durga Pujas.

Born in 1978, a hefty part of my adolescence and youth had been exposed to a sort of transmutation amongst the Kolkata Puja organising fraternity primarily during end 80’s and 90’s. From traditional canopy-based pandals/mandaps, Puja committees gradually were seen to be moving to Structural Replicas like imitations of various Indian Temples, Shrines, Palaces etc. in an effort to exhibit something different from the ordinary and thereby attract the masses. The earliest harbingers of such Mandaps were the then usual
A Geometric Structural Design...
Babubagan Club (2013)
bigwigs namely College Square Sarbojanin, Ekdalia Evergreen Club, Sealdah Athletic Club, Sreebhumi Sporting & others who, year on year, routinely churned out some replicated colossal monument. Replicas ranged from Jagannath Temple at Puri to Kedarnath Temple at Kedar; from the lavish Amba Vilas Palace at Mysore to the Hazarduari Palace at Murshidabad…. Futile attempts were also made to recreate Taj Mahal (Agra), Red Fort (New Delhi) & Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Mumbai) principally to serve the taste of the ever enthusiastic travel buffs of Bengal. In all the above examples, sadly this duplication remained restricted to the façade and only the frontage of the pandal resembled the actual monument whereas the interiors still continued to be largely a disparity in décor and theme.

One of the initial experiments with Pandal Form... This Tent-shaped Pavilion
was a far cry from traditional Mandap Forms... Made primarily with Canes this
was one of Susanta Pal's unique structures... Naktala Udayan Sangha (2007)
Yeah, sometimes it goes all
ruefully wrong... This one, a
Lego Land Replica... Swapnar
Bagan Jubak Brindo (2009) 

I remember a few instances where such reproductions had actually caught the critics’ eye…. Lotus Temple (New Delhi) Replica by Santosh Mitra Square Sarbojanin in 1995 and Dilwara Jain Temple (Mount Abu) Replica by Jodhpur Park Sarbojanin in 2001 were two samples of structural simulations which have remained in my memory. Attempts were also made to create mock-ups of monuments from lands far and wide, beyond national boundaries. Even though some of those recreations managed to arouse public tumult by virtue of being out-of-the-box but most of them were typically forgettable and extremely lacklustre in terms of architecture and in art quotient. Be it the Egyptian Pyramids… the Babylonian Ziggurats, or even the more modern marvels like White House of Washington DC, St. Peter’s Basilica of Rome & Pashupati Nath Temple of Kathmandu…. each one of them were reconstructed albeit in a rehashed manner… People thronged these Mandaps due to mere inquisition instead of awe but ultimately these irrelevant pieces of exhibition remained very short-lived in the minds of the audience. Puja spectators were maturing and gradually starting to expect more from the organisers in terms of skill and creative aptitude instead of mundane rip offs.

Mandap right out of the pages of Arabian Nights...  33 Palli, Beleghata (2008)
There was also a phase where Sarbojanins resorted to Mandaps resembling incidents or even referential reconstruction of Hollywood Blockbusters. The Mandaps were created to represent real life events, ideally those which topical or newsworthy. In some cases, bad news became apparently good news for the organisers. In 1997, Santosh Mitra Square Sarbojanin had pulled the rug from under other Barowaris with its extraordinary display of the infamous Gaisal Train Tragedy, with blood-smeared bogies and bodies. Clearly, success is spelt as "innovation". A bit of imagination, a bit of artistic license, and one could end up with a pandal that will attract the biggest turnout.

The prototypical Bengali has always been a movie buff, and hence the influence of the tinsel town has always writ large on Kolkata Pujas. Durga images were often sculpted like contemporary Tollywood & Bollywood matinee idols. In the 1960’s when Suchitra Sen was the undisputed queen of Bengali filmdom, Lakshmi and Saraswati idols were known to have been modelled on her face.

A Giant Kadam Flower.... Santoshpur Triangular Park Sarbojanin (2012)
In the late 70’s & 80’s, artistes were asked to portray the “Hema Malini smile” on Durga, the “Amitabh Bachchan hairdo” on Kartik while the poor Asura remained a grotesque “Gabbar Singh” or “Shaakaal” look alike. Hollywood’s debut in Kolkata Pujas can be dated back to the time when one of the Clubs had imported the style of Durga-Demon combat from the west, by essaying a Tarzan-esque Asura swinging from vines and about to leap on Durga, sword in hand. Post Jurassic Park franchise in the 90’s, a lot of Clubs put up multitude forms of dinosaur tableaux to cash in on the global dino-mania. There was a point where it seemed T-Rexes were almost lumbering into puja pandals at every nook and corner of Kolkata. Gory sight!!! But nevertheless, there were countless takers and you could find the same trend continuing at

some Puja Pandal even today. 1998 saw Saltlake FD Block Sarbojanin erect a 150 ft long, 90 ft high replica of the Titanic, which easily swept the popularity charts for the year. Apart from the usual hype it induced, this was a major milestone for pujas in Saltlake, who before this were almost like making up the numbers. A few years later in 2007, the same Barowari came to limelight with the display of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle. There was enough mass hysteria around it and this ploy by the organisers paid off with lakhs of people swamping to witness this spectacle. The gimmick also gathered momentum just before the Pujas with JK Rowling and Penguin Books suing the Puja Organisers for copyright infringement. Obviously the matter was eventually resolved mutually and amicably through Delhi High Court’s intervention.

A Buddha Façade rendering Gouranga Kuilya's message of Peace.... Tridhara Sammelani (2012)
The turn of millennium also corroborated the advent of thematic displays and conceptual art forms. New methods of structural implementation of Pandals were experimented upon. Innovative shapes and dimensions were offered by theme-makers to give appearance to their inventive impressions.
One of the early exponents of Wood Carved
Installations... Chaltabagan Lohapatty (2006)
Durga Puja, even a decade back, was quite often an experience in conventionality. Rarely did the discourse throw up issues of art installations, deconstruction, exploration of folk art forms and theme-based craftsmanship. Durga Puja Mandaps no longer have the staid, dull look of yesteryears. Instead mandaps have now comfortably metamorphosed from canopy-based structures to site-specific installations. A brilliant example of such site-specific installation was undertaken in 2010 by Susanta Pal at Badamtala 
Site Specific Installation meets Street Art for the first
time in Kolkata... Susanta Pal's brilliant Sun God Wall
Motif was the cynosure of his theme Dugga Utsav....
Badamtala Aasharh Sangha (2010)
Aasharh Sangha. The theme was coined as “Dugga Utsav” wherein the entire locality was given a makeover. Residents had to flit through open doors that formed the base of a gigantic representation of the sun; balconies were framed by decorative motifs; walls were intricately painted (picture on the left) and the neighbourhood houses blend in tastefully with the pandal that is wedged cosily within a small clearing. Everything and everyone from the locality seemed to have become part of the grand puja canvas. Conclusively, the art movement in Kolkata has steadily incorporated strong doses of post modernism and Durga Puja has become an exposition of conceptual art.

Amongst the theme-based Pujas, the visualisers deal with issues ranging from the spiritual and environmental to historical and mythological. This provides ample scope for conceptualization, and results in a common aesthetic strain which embodies the design of the outer pandal area, the mandap, the idol and lighting scheme. But there have been cases of utter disaster as well where the theme or installation was so cryptic that it turned out to be an absolute farce. Distinguished German artist Gregor Schneider, who was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2001 for his installation work Totes Haus u r, designed the pandal shell of Ekdalia Evergreen in 2011. The ambitious project - "It's all Rheydt in Kolkata 2011" was made of plywood and plaster, with the pandal resembling a "re-constructed" German road. This abstract form of work which recreated a three-dimensional road using typical techniques and material failed to muster any sort of appreciation from the public primarily due to the fact that most of the audience could not understand Schneider’s presentation. And most importantly, there was hardly any connect between the Pandal with the spirit of Durga Puja. The public feedback was so disapproving that Ekdalia Evergreen had to return to its traditional ways in the following year. Hence, it can be decisively concluded that thematic displays have not always reaped dividends for Clubs.

A beautiful Prasanta Pal display based on the folk art of Gond Tribals of Madhya Pradesh, which bagged them Asian Paints Sharod Samman for the year.... Ultadanga Sangrami (2013)
That is not to say, however, that the making of Pandals can simply be fused with contemporary art, for there are clear variances between the dynamics of the two endeavours. For starters, the hybridity and impermanence of a theme pandal and its production by a professional artist do not
A Contemporary Style of Open Canopy Structure
potraying aboriginal Art form... Barisha Club (2011)
automatically make it synonymous with installation art, because unlike pandal-making, installation is a mode of representation in modern art created at a specific art-historical moment in the discourse of the avant-garde. Also, due to the mass nature of the festival, one's artistic freedom in designing a pandal is often consciously compromised by numerous factors, from ritual and iconographic stipulations to public taste. Contrary to one's studio work, therefore, choices and treatments of themes in this context have their limits. For instance, even though a female deity is the focal point of this annual event, it is hard to imagine images of female nudity, prostitution or pornography appearing in a pandal that addresses exploitation of women as its theme. Eventually, the role of the market is vastly different in the two spheres. The art market, which operates all year round, has hardly anything to do with this season-specific commissioning and appraisal of pandals.

I perceive Durga Pujas of Kolkata to be the world’s largest, most popular public art exhibition. And probably the only one that ends with the artworks being so methodically demolished and eliminated. Only a city of anarchists could produce such outrageous beauties, and then destroy it with such elation. That is what this bizarre city called Kolkata has been, and will be!!!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Kumartuli – The Story of a Celestial Studio

Durga Puja in Kolkata, over the past few decades, has rightfully claimed its eminence as the single largest socio-cultural extravaganza in this part of the globe, where a festival merely does not impact a city’s entire populace but its impressions transcend way beyond city limits, both ethnically and economically. But at the end of the day, for any bystander or a non-Kolkatan, Durga Puja is still perceived as a four day ritual which celebrates the victory of a mythological Goddess over a demon king. That’s pretty much the summary. Yet, what makes it such a magnum opus is primarily a concoction of lengthy preparation, large scale budgets, top-notch art installations and an overwhelming public frenzy cutting across various social & economic strata…. something which makes this a truly community festival.

A Celestial Green Room... Kumartuli Potuapara
In Kolkata, Pujas have traversed more than two centuries…. evolved from being a private family function to a Sarbojanin (community affair)… moved from personal courtyards and patios to crossroads and parks… progressed from miniscule budgets to mammoth outlays… but many of the traditions, practices and most importantly, the underlying sensibilities have remained unaltered. About 85% of the Durga images are still sourced from the clay artisan locality better known to us as Kumartuli, which literally translates to Potter’s Ghetto. This one by one square km area belonging to Ward No.9 of Kolkata Municipal Corporation has remained the cynosure of all pre-Puja preparations for time immemorial, having been the home to almost 300-odd workshops run by idol-artiste families who deliver close to about 4000 Durga idols across the globe. No mean feat in terms of sheer statistics. The neighbourhood, in spite of its perceptively congested façade, has managed to endure through times and has given Kolkata some of its best idol artistes. Jiten Pal, Ramesh Pal, Kamini Ranjan Pal, Aloke Sen, Gopeshwar Pal are some of the most celebrated names of Kumartuli who have mesmerised generations with their superlative idol modelling.

Models in the Making.... Potter Studio, Kumartuli
The earliest band of potters came from upcountry Krishnanagar in Nadia district, who would arrive at the respective Zamindar’s mansion in Kolkata and camp there for couple of months before Pujas and create the clay idol at the Thakur Dalan (courtyard) itself. With the passage of time, the ever increasing popularity of Durga Pujas amongst the wealthy aristocratic community compelled these potters to gradually settle down near the banks of Hooghly on the central and northern fringes of the erstwhile Kolikata town. The Bengal Consultations, a 1707 AD journal, gives an account of the presence of ‘kumores’ or kumbhakaars. These artisans occupied 75 acres in Sutanuti. One of the initial mentions of Kumartuli can be traced to HEA Cotton’s “Calcutta: Old & New”. Here it has been documented that the renovated Fort William was positioned near the Hooghly river, almost at the heart of the prosperous Govindapur and the East India Company expended a part of the “restitution money” in rehabilitating the dwellers to settle in other parts of the town. It is also mentioned that John Holwell, a senior Company bureaucrat, under the supervision of the directors designated separate boroughs to the Company’s workmen namely, Aheeritollah (cowherds quarters), Colootollah (oil-sellers), Molunga (place of salt works), Suriparah (place of wine-sellers), and of course, Kumartuli (potters quarters). From here on, the potters got a place for themselves… a place where they could create masterpieces year on year … a place which was to attain cult status in the echelons of Kolkata’s contemporary cultural history.
Unfinished..... Potter Studio, Kumartuli

Even though it might seem to be a run-of-the-mill kind of a practice, making of a Durga idol itself entails a lengthy rigmarole of rituals, which the artisans have adhered to over the past couple of centuries. Durga Puja has been proclaimed to be the festival of royals, hence obviously the rituals involved are also grandiose and ornate. The entire process of the Puja is intricately detailed in Devipurana, Matsyapurana, Brihannadikeshwarpurana and Kalikapurana. Idol making is also governed by specific rituals. The fundamental one and also the most commonly followed, is that the constituents that are used to make the idol of goddess come from the holy river Ganga. There is also a bucket list for the types of earth to be procured, the most significant of which includes soil from a prostitute’s door. The reasoning for this is that men leave their good deeds at the doorstep of a sex-worker’s house thereby making the soil outside a store of virtues. This also symbolises the fact that Durga Puja is a carnival for one and all.

Draped.... Artisan Den, Kumartuli
The artisans carve Devi’s fingers with their deft hands while the toes are sculpted on dice and merged with the main body. The framework of the Protima (Idol) is a combination of wicker and wood trussed with hay on which the potters apply a smothering of clay. The final rendition of idol’s look and expression is finalised on the day of Mahalaya when the artiste paints the eye of the Devi. Gone are the days where the only sort of variation for the Durga image was “Ek Chala” pattern where Ma Durga, Goddess Laxmi and Saraswati, Lord Ganesh and Kartick share the same Chalchitro (backdrop). Late nineties onwards, the city experienced the dawn of a new era in image making and Puja presentation… the Theme Pujas. Pujas were staged as thematic displays through structural and conceptual exhibits in terms of not only Mandaps (pavilions) but also the Durga image. The image had to be in sync with the overall subject demonstrated through the theme. Hence, there was a demand for artisans who would not only take responsibility of image making but also for the entire pavilion and concept. Mohan Bnashi Rudra Pal, Pradip Rudra Pal and Sanatan Rudra Pal were some of the early crop of artistes who got into this mode and provided a completely new ideology for the younger artistes to emulate. Not only were the artisans getting a better value for their creativity but also it gave birth to a fresh set of what we know today as “Theme Makers”. “Some time ago, when the trend for theme Pujas gained popularity in Calcutta, I thought we could explore the overseas market better. To make our presence felt especially to the audience beyond Kolkata & West Bengal, we need to use modern technology and market ourselves better. In 2005, we created our own website,” says Prodyut Pal, one of the Kumartuli youths. Prodyut looks after marketing while his uncle and cousins make the idols. “We have eliminated middlemen. Now, the customers contact us directly and we negotiate online. I also keep mailing them pictures of the idols at various stages which they prefer,” he added. From a single online order in 2004, Prodyut’s family has now almost 25 orders from overseas and other states, which clearly indicates that Kumartuli is slowly but surely putting its label imprinted on cyber space.

Waiting in Anticipation.... A Peripherals Shop in the Kumartuli Locality
By the end of Mahalaya, the work of the potters of Kumartuli is almost over for the year. Devi is ready to move to the thousands of mandaps across the city which would be her provisional abode for the subsequent week before she again leaves for immersion, only to be back the following year. The by-lanes of Kumartuli bear a melancholy guise with vacant studios, some unsold idols and eager faces awaiting the advent of the next autumn when they would again get the opportunity of showcasing this masterful artwork. Most members of the Potters’ families have diversified skills in various other mediums such as, fibre glass, wood, metal, plaster of paris, concrete items, etc. They have to toil round the year on all types of handicraft materials as both the domestic and international markets for all these items are consistently flourishing. Sadly though, 80% of these potters do not have any commitments for remainder of the year except from August to November, which is the Durga Puja season. Rest of the year most of them are involved in very low skilled pursuits like rickshaw pullers, agrarian workhands, and other unskilled labour-oriented activities. Today, there is a drop in the worth of pottery for utility purposes. Instead of earthen jugs or containers people have started using metal or plastic due to their durability. However, demand of pottery for decorative purposes is still on the rise, as the intricate designs of Kumartuli artisans continue to be a subject of admiration thereby helping them to sustain economically beyond the Puja season.

Lingering Confinement.... Kumartuli
This year the potters have been really hurt hard by the price demon. A sharp rise in prices of raw materials has pegged them back and a mass migration of workers to other, more employee-friendly sectors has left them in shambles. The price of hay, used to stuff the idols, has shot also up from Rs.100 to Rs.180 per bundle. Paint prices have gone up by 20% on an average. Labourers have been leaving Kumartuli in multitudes for the past few years to work in the construction sector, making help extortionately pricey for the artisans. "A spike in Durga Pujas by Bengalis settled in other Indian states and overseas has led to a steep growth in demand for idol-makers," says Babu Pal, General Secretary of Kumartuli Mitishilpi Sanskrito Samity. The increased demand for idols has resulted in higher wages from Rs.250-350 to Rs.500-700 for the labourers. With raw material cost up by 30%, artistes are finding it impossible to control costs. Currently, idol prices vary from Rs.10,000 - Rs.100,000 depending on size and decoration.

Tagged and Ready to Roll...
Artisan Workshop, Kumartuli
Kumartuli is situated in Northern part of Kolkata very near to Bagbazar area. For first timers, you can reach Kumartuli by hiring a cab or any public transport and it takes 25 to 30 minutes from Sealdah railway station. Several buses depart from Sealdah and Howrah and also from other places from Kolkata. But my prescription is to take a tour on the heritage tramways which starts from Esplanade terminus and wiggles its way past BBD Bag (Dalhousie Square), Writer's Building, the General Post Office, the Tank Square and the St. Andrews Church. Further it moves northwards and enters the Chitpur Road where it passes through Jorasanko and finally the Kumartuli area. Here you could easily hop off, and explore the numerous artiste studios lined up along the serpentine Banamali Sarkar Street.

The Long Awaited Journey from Kumartuli to the Temporary Abode at some Kolkata Neighbourhood

This colony of idol makers has endured a couple of hundred years and has survived numerous hurdles, both social and economic to carve a niche for itself. The artistes have managed to become an integral part of the popular public art exhibitions which Durga Pujas have now developed into. Durga Pujas have metamorphosed and so have the idol making art form. From “Ek Chala” to the currently more extravagant showpieces, Kumartuli has been a witness to everything and yet there is a sense of neglect for these talented craftsmen. But they are determined not to succumb to the diverse set of impediments they have to face each year and that is probably the ultimate advertisement for such a unique community. Kumartuli will continue to entertain in its own arty ways, and carry on the legacy in years to come.