Saturday, August 29, 2015

Durga Puja Razzies - Artistry of a Different Kind: Best of Bloopers of Last 10 Years

Kolkata is a young city. A little less than 350 yrs in existence, this young megapolis is evolving at a breakneck speed. The City has not only expanded geographically but it has mutated in terms of its ethnicity and cultural philosophies. Kolkatans penchant for art has been one of the most enduring stories. From the late 19th century, Bengal School of Art was one of the pioneering Gharanas of painting & sculpture which rose as an avant garde form of expression for the Indian nationalist movement. From the Old Bengal School of Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose; to the slightly later day artistes like Ramkinkar Baij, Jamini Roy & Pradosh Dasgupta; from the post-independence luminaries namely Paritosh Sen, Ganesh Pyne, Ganesh Haloi, Prakash Karmakar & Jogen Chowdhury to the current bunch of established artistes such as Shuvaprasanna, Suhas Roy, Sameer Aich & Paresh Maity. Even today West Bengal continues to produce talents who are successfully carrying forward the rich legacy of Bengal School of Art.

A variety of organising clubs across the city have over the years patronised eminent artistes by giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their craft during Durga Puja. This obviously was a digression from the convention where the images were predominantly sourced from the idol-makers of Kumartuli or many such smaller pottery barns (Potuapara or Potter’s Ghetto) scattered across various nooks of Kolkata, eg. Kalighat Potuapara; Ultadanga Potuapara; Jadavpur Potuapara, etc. During the mid 70’s, few clubs actually dared to break the monotony and started commissioning Durga Images from some of the upcoming and even established sculptors & painters. This was also a phase marred by a severe socio-political turmoil in Bengal. A background to this period could be traced back to the socio-economic disarticulation due to numerous issues and their repercussions like the famine, post-war military presence of the allied forces in the city of Kolkata, communal unrests in Bengal and in the bordering East Pakistan subsequently leading to a huge influx of the Hindu community crossing into West Bengal, and so on. All these would have a significant impact during the 70’s. End of the 60’s and through the 70’s there was a scenario of political transition. The Naxalite movement and its related violence, the economic situation and the stress generated thereby, as well as the imposition of Emergency with its features of censorship of public expression and media (dailies, magazines etc) engendered the ground for protest movements. Amongst the artists of the 60’s & 70’s, noteworthy sections were art school graduates, mostly in their twenties. Whilst these emerging contenders imparted a strong disapproval for the existing status of visual arts, they also did not have an absolute clarity about a convincing alternative in graphic expression to be able to communicate a developed semantic composition.

A Paresh Maity Creation
for Bakulbagan Sarbojanin (2014)
Coming back to the Pujas, in the light of such grim socio-political circumstances this detour in terms of Durga Puja image making was in itself a brusque statement for the lackeys who trolled in a facade of standard practice. Some of the Clubs took the lead in orchestrating what was more like art-house imagery and display, a parenthesis from the hackneyed… much similar to the Parallel Cinema movement which also originated out of Bengal in the 1950’s providing an entirely new paradigm to the Movie-watching audience. One such club was Bakulbagan Sarbojanin, a clear pioneer in assigning established professional artistes to make their idols and marquee. Some of the renowned names who have worked at Bakulbagan Sarbojainin include Wasim Kapoor, Deepali Bhattacharjee, Nirode Majumdar, Isa Mohammad, Bikas Bhattacharjee, Rathin Mitra, Shanu Lahiri, Mira Mukherjee, Gour Mohan Pahari, Sarbori Roy Chowdhury, Paritosh Sen and Shuvaprasanna. Even in 2014, Bakulbagan Sarbojanin had commissioned the very illustrious and distinguished Paresh Maity to make their idol (See Pic) which re-establishes their humble yet consistent patronage towards meaningful artwork.

Over a period of the last 50 years, there has been a wide array of exceptional Puja artworks which have bedecked the roads, alleyways and commons of Kolkata. Much has been deliberated, analysed and scrutinised about these brilliant creations, some of which have unquestionably gone into the folklore of contemporary Puja history of the city. On the other end of the spectrum there have been instances where creativities have gone to the extent of questioning the sensibility and taste of the discerning audiences, and obviously fell way short of both public acceptance and endorsement. This piece would dig into such discretely abstract samples which ended up being howlers and generated a sense of faux pass in the minds of the spectators. Many of these gaffes, have strayed out of top-of-the-mind public recall, although most of them had infused a lot of curiosity and attention. This listicle tries to register 11 of the best bloopers in last 10 years. The list is in random order and in no specific sequence or rank.....

Repulsion Quotient – 95%

Ekdalia Evergreen (2011) Mandap Facade similar to a giant discoloured Matchbox
Celebrated German artiste Gregor Schneider designed the Theme for the club as a part of a Indo-German collaboration Infinite Opportunities by Goethe-Institut, India. In his design, named It’s all Rheydt - Kolkata 2011” many elements of his signature work 'Haus u r' were exhibited along with rudiments typical of Kolkata. Schneider was born in Rheydt (pronounced – ‘right’), a borough of Mönchengladbach, located in North-western Germany. Made of plywood and plaster, the pandal resembled a three dimensional "re-constructed" room. Incidentally, the pandal was based on Schneider’s grandmother’s house with a road going straight up, a staircase going sideways and sections of a room. Well, the objective of the installation was novel but the execution was nowhere near to its envisioned form. The club which generally drew record crowds, could only muster a sorry patch of ignominy. The club, as expected went back to its traditional practices from the very next year.

Repulsion Quotient – 85% 

The Halsibagan Sarbojanin (2014) Barbie!!!
Well, there are themes/displays which are unfortunately so abstract and hypothetical that they are beyond comprehension of lesser mortals like me. This one fails to reach anywhere close to my petty brain cells. The interior of the Mandap was crankily lit up in murky blue to the extent of obscurity. There was also a hint of 3D-ness added to the interiors for no credible reason due to the usage of azure lights on plastic sheets. As per the Club Banners, the theme was meant to display "Dawsh Mahabidya Dharini" (Source of Eternal Knowledge). It ended up being almost like an amateurish Craft Project Blooper where I could just notice a Barbie, at best!!!!

Repulsion Quotient – 80% 

Kalitala Sporting (2007) Pandal and the Grotesque Coconut Chandelier
The importance of Palm trees and Coconuts has been immense in Hinduism and Indian cultural history. Usages of various elements of Palm tree and Coconuts have always been an integral part of most of the Puja rituals across India. These are known factoids. The problem is when a Club decides to make a pandal out of Coconuts. Hundreds of coconut shells were used in doing up the Pandal façade. The colour tone of the Pandal was kept palpably parrot green in sync with its callow ingredient. Even the chandelier was grotesquely devised with coconut shells (See Pic). Well, a really gory décor is what they could execute which obviously was pretty hard to swallow.

Natun Pally Pradeep Sangha (2012)
Repulsion Quotient – 85% 

Natun Pally Pradeep Sangha (2012) Mandap Complex resembling a Alien Neighbourhood
This Club located at the eastern fringes of the city was one of the top draws till some time ago when it had bagged the prestigious Asian Paints Sharad Samman thrice consecutively between 2006 and 2008. For some reason, I hadn’t been able to visit this Puja before 2012 but due to its mounting reputation, I had made up my mind to cover this Puja that year. Alas, there was sheer disappointment awaiting me when I reached this place. “Joy of Creation” was the underlying premise of Bandhan Raha’s theme, the Pandal designed with a plethora of unrecycled daily household objects. If the concept sounded thought provoking enough, the implementation was a far cry from being anything interesting. In fact, the end product was somewhat spooky and veering on the lines of being disconcerting. The Devi was seated in a unique shaped altar which looked similar to alien vegetation with creepy danglers on its edges. At the middle of the Mandap was a tall centerpiece that resembled an overgrown, unkempt mushroom. I wonder what the theme maker wanted to convey through this extremely tasteless creativity. Certainly a fiasco through inventiveness!!!

Repulsion Quotient – 80%

The Dominatrix Devi at Monotosh Smriti Sangha (2014)
This choice is purely on the basis of bizarre imagery. In my 20 odd years of Puja Parikramas, I’ve been witness to a lot of weird idols but none as dramatic and yet whacky as this one, which I sincerely believed the 2015 Puja Razzies (if there was one!!) should have been befittingly conferred upon. I haven't yet encountered a more anti-climactic image.... the Asura mounting high like a juvenile Ninja... the “Cowgirl”-ish Devi lassoing in the Mahishasura (Buffalo Demon), in more of a gyrating posture, than anything else..... the dominatrix style snake-resembling-a-whip…. and not to forget, the Lion and Buffalo up to something less cosmic!!!!.... and all this after the caption of the Puja Committee read as “Aamra Shaabeki” (We are Traditional)!!!!

Repulsion Quotient – 90% 

Hilarious Lego Land at Jodhpur Park (2010)
Another Bandhan Raha entry on the list. I’m sure most of us have some cherished childhood memories about our tryst with building blocks called Lego Bricks. The earliest recollections date back to my 5th birthday where I had received these Lego bricks as a gift from one of my cousin uncles. Back in those days, childhood was devoid of gadgets or gizmos rampant in today’s world and we had to make do with a variety of indoor games. Lego was one of the most preferred kids’ recreations as it was both fun and functionally educational. The blocks came in multitude of bright colours something which also appealed to the little wannabe engineers. But when you transpose those Lego blocks into creating a Puja Pandal then there’s certainly a sense of iffy-ness attached to it. But there was also a sense of expectation as this marked a comeback for one of the best visualisers of the early 2000’s, Bandhan Raha who gave Kolkata the famous Earthen Pots Pandal of Bosepukur Sitala Mandir in 2001. The fact that I had braved persistent rains to visit this utter load of codswallop will continue haunting me forever. Sincerely, it was such a bad display that even the kids did not find it amusing. Thematically, this was probably the worst kind of display I’ve come across in recent years.

Repulsion Quotient – 90% 

Weaver Bird Nest at Badamtala Aashadh Sangha (2009)
When the Club commissioned acclaimed Filmmaker/Cinematographer Goutam Ghose, director of award winning movies like Paar (Hindi); Antarjali Jatra, Padma Nadir Majhi, Abaar Aranye (Bengali), there would understandably be a clout of expectation for all those who wanted to see more talent from Tollywood Movie fraternity lending their creative faculties to Durga Pujas which is the biggest public art exhibition of current times. As a theme, he had chosen “Nature” and although environment themes have been done to death this is somewhat of a safe bet nowadays. The execution was a bit of a watershed. The pandal was structured in the form of a Weaver Bird’s nest while the Devi inside was depicted as an Earth Mother with birds flying off from her hands to attack the Asura (Demon). The representation of the deity in such an unusual form was probably a profound political statement of underdevelopment and struggle of natives from the tribal hinterlands. The Asura had an innate resemblance to a British officer of the Raj also reminiscent of the tussles prevalent in pre-independent India. All in all, far too many issues embroiled together to distaste the concoction.

Repulsion Quotient – 85%

An Alien Spaceship at Behala Club (2013)
The theme undertaken by the club was “BEEJ THEKE PRAN, PRAN THEKE CHETONA”, based on Germination of a Fruit. The artist tried to portray a fruit which had just ripened and came bursting out thereby spreading its seeds. Germination is the process by which plants, fungi and bacteria emerge from seeds, which implies anything expanding into greater being from a small existence. According to the Hinduism Devi Durga is the source of life. The bursting of the fruit could be deduced as Devi Durga distributing fresh life amongst her believers. The main Altar was given the shape of a large fruit with the Devi installed in its core. The approach to the main Mandap there were various unfinished faces of the Devi that were gradually taking the actual shape of Devi Durga. Again conceptually, it had the mettle but at the end of the day Pujas exhibit visual art and regrettably, the final product was not a visual treat. To the naked eye, the Mandap looked like an Alien Ship with the unfinished faces just adding bewilderment to confusion.     
Repulsion Quotient – 80% 

The Gory "Tasher Desh" Tableau at Bhowanipore Swadhin Sangha (2012)
Rabindranath Tagore has been etched in Bengali culture since time immemorial and will remain that way forever. At various occasions, Clubs have taken references of Tagore in their themes and presentations. But none, as tacky and gory as this one. An attempt to recreate “Tasher Desh” (Kingdom of Cards), one of Tagore's most famous dance operas, a unique genre he had developed influenced by Western opera. This one was discretely inspired by Carroll’s classic, Alice in Wonderland. A Tagore bust welcomed the audience at the entrance and that was where I think Tagore’s subjective relevance with the Club’s theme ended. The approach to the main altar was peppered with life size, overtly gaudy models depicting characters from the Play. The main Mandap was a botched structure of with Cards painted all over. The images of Durga and her family was essentially a charade of Card imagery which made them even more visually calamitous. I almost died laughing seeing the Anglo-Saxon tunic clad guy above Durga (which was plausibly our good ol’ Shiva!!). The Devi also had a touch of Renaissance about her with the medieval European cloak hardly complementing the more sub-continental veil. A comic relief for the Puja audiences….

Repulsion Quotient – 85%

This is almost tending to being Scary.... Naktala Bhratri Milan Sangha (2010) 
Kolkata Pujas have always been influenced both advertently and passively by Moviedom. Many Barowaris have tried to mimic Cinematic themes and characters through their Mandaps and Imagery.  Right from the ‘60s when Saraswati-s were modelled similar to the erstwhile Screen Diva Suchitra Sen or Laxmi-s as Hema Malini, to the ‘70s where most of the Kartick-s were facsimiles of leading Bollywood/Tollywood stars. The Asura also had his share of the spoils with most of them fashioned as popular Bollywood villains like Gabbar and Shaakal. ‘90s saw the Jurassic Park phenomenon touch our shores with numerous Puja Committees resorting to Dino-based Themes. With the advent of the new millennium, the audience was treated to a replica of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts which also had queer distinction of getting into a copyright infringement suit with Warner Brothers Studios. Almost every year we get to see some theme or the other borrowed from Bollywood or Tollywood flicks and most of them are successful in stirring some sort of public interest. TASHAN (2008) was a burning example of an apology of a script resulting in an extremely regressive cinema which is fondly remembered for only one plausible reason - Kareena Kapoor’s Size Zero stature, something that she sashayed around during the entire length and breadth of this movie. Well these organisers went ahead and took imitation to a new level or nadir if I can call it, as this 11 ft tall Size Zero Kareena-esque idol stole the headlines for obviously all the wrong reasons. This ludicrously inexplicable deity in the name of creativity was not even worth a dime.

Repulsion Quotient – 85%

Mali World Heritage Site Revisited, although not much memorably... Kalitala Sporting (2008)
An encore for this Club on this list, and no I don’t have any clandestine motive behind it. After the 2007 massacre with Coconuts (mentioned earlier), the Club decided to go from local to really distant shores. The marquee of the Kalitala Sporting Club in the eastern pockets of Kolkata was inspired by an ancient architecture of Bandiagara in the West African state of Mali, one of the world heritage sites, built by the Dogon tribe. The pandal was developed with Plaster-of-Paris & Jute with numerous life-size murals splashed all over like junkies. Some of those motifs were pretty abysmal mainly due to their shambolic and juvenile craft quotient. It’s the same reason why I feel its extremely difficult to portray overseas art forms as the artisans employed are local ones and most of the times they do not have an inkling of an idea of what they are trying to replicate. Most of the times they are handed over images downloaded from the internet and they artworks are reproduced in isolation that result in low craftsmanship and often have no sync with the underlining essence of Pujas. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Exhibition of Native Indian Crafts - An Art Connoisseur's Delight

A wait for most of us is like a corollary to hope. As an oxymoron, often end of wait not only results in fructification of hope but also it coincides with the climax of a story post which there is nothing to wait for. It is rather the end of a tunnel wherein a new hope, a new story or a new wait restarts. As the noted American novelist, Sharon Creech eloquently expressed in her book Absolutely Normal Chaos - “Then I thought, boy, isn't that just typical? You wait, and wait, and wait for something, and then when it happens, you feel sad.” It’s a similar kind of emotion with Durga Puja every year for us Kolkatans. The wait starts right after the idols are carried out of the Pandals for immersion. The mind literally succumbs to its latent juvenility and starts calculating the number of days left for the Devi to return to Her backyard next year. Its identical with everyone in Kolkata. This can easily be termed as Kolkata’s annual anticipatory sentiment. Yes, Kolkata has its own other yearly landmarks like the Christmas-New Year Week Bash, the Book Fair, the soccer derby between the arch-rivals East Bengal & Mohun Bagan but none can emulate the spectacle of Durga Pujas. It is by far the El Clásico of Kolkata. The festival encompasses one and all, and hence this anticipation runs across gender, age and socio-economic strata. This is what gives this festival a holistic tone, a universal flavour and an endemic following. 

As we’ve discussed in my earlier blogs, Durga Puja in Kolkata has definitely become the largest exhibition of popular temporary street art in the world. India, as a nation, can boast of being an extraordinary blend of innumerable traditions, philosophies, ethnicities, etc which a lot of Puja organisers have taken advantage of and, over the years, patronised various Indian aboriginal art forms. They have regularly showcased diverse architecture and art works influenced by multiple cultures from various states of India. One can classify these influences broadly into two categories – Pure Structural Replicas and Conceptual Designing based on several native Art Forms. Genetically, Bengalis have always been a travel-friendly community but only a limited few could actually visit the innumerable landmarks which lay beyond their state boundaries. By recreating such sights & attractions the Clubs touched a chord with all those who did not have the means to travel and experience these wonders at their original whereabouts. Dreary localities of Kolkata metamorphose into provisional facsimiles of distant landmarks and/or even landscapes. A tiny clearing near James Long Sarani in Behala in 2009 mutated into a Jagdamba Devi Temple Complex of the Garhwal Himalayas; in 2008 a queer space near Ultadanga was rechristened into an Amba Mata Temple Complex; a small ground in Putiary was transformed into a Kathputli (String Puppet Theatre) Village native to Rajasthan in 2010; a square at Kasba in 2012 was masterfully converted into an Andhra Pradesh settlement displaying their indigenous Kalamkari Art and Kondapalli Toys; and then there was the Truck Art of the North West Frontier provinces which got showcased in Hatibagan in 2013. The aforesaid specimens are just some of the very few cases where artworks of distant lands have been displayed by various clubs. In this piece, I’ll try and present an assortment of some of the best presentations demonstrating artworks and illustrations from across the length and breadth of our own diverse nation which renders a spectrum of varied cultures.

The deluge of experimenting with different forms of Indian art somewhat started in the later part of 90’s and early 2000’s and ever since numerous specimens of not only common but also forgotten and often overlooked art legacies have been displayed by the organisers to add perspective and merit to this spectacle. The experiments with art forms have become more authentic, detailed and sometimes really complex which take more than 3-4 months to give shape. Bona fide artisans are being employed by Clubs who are imported from native locations to try and add to the legitimacy of the artworks created, thereby sky-rocketing the budgets. But the Barowaris have been particularly bullish about continuing to patronise diverse cultural forms and till now we’ve been fortunate enough to witness some fine samples of creativity from distant corners of India, which otherwise would have certainly remained in obscurity from the eyes of the ever appreciative mass.

Following are some of the handpicked specimens of Indian art varieties…. some lesser known, some popular…. which have been exhibited by various Clubs of Kolkata over the past few years….

Mitali (2008)

Kantha is the predominantly the most popular form of embroidery practiced by the rural women of Bengal & Odisha. This Kantha work was portrayed with a nice twist where the motifs were woven and stitched on a Jute Base.  Loved the colours used and the intricacy of the image (top middle) here, depicting Chhinnomawsta (The Beheaded).... Wonderfully Hand-crafted....

Hatibagan Nabin Pally (2013)

Truck Painting and decorating has emerged as a vivacious form of modern folk art in India. Introduced in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the practice has its prevalence in the North Western states of Punjab & Haryana. Each truck is hand crafted using paint and vinyl by skilled artisans. Trucks are vividly embellished with art and symbols that are found to be common across most commercial vehicles. Amidst the eternal trans-border anarchy, Gopal Poddar portrayed this very aesthetically and having always loved kitsch I adored this form of kitschy art form.

Vivekananda Park Athletic Club, Haridevpur (2006)

Alpana, the form of Rangoli practiced in Bengal, is a natural representation of the artistic sensibility of the people. Practiced usually by the womenfolk of the state, this domesticated art form represents an amalgamation of past and contemporary designs. Alpana Art Patterns was the primary thought behind the conceptualisation of this Puja, embellished with ethnic Rice Milk Chaalchitra Art all over the Mandap.... the bright usage of colours and the uncluttered Mandap caught my imagination....

Dum Dum Park Bharat Chakra (2009)

Cane and Bamboo Craft is a huge cottage industry which serve livelihood for a substantial tribal population of Bihar, Bengal & Odisha. Bamboo split lengthways is made pliable and mad einto baskets of different shapes and sizes in accordance with its usage. Deriving extensively from these Cane baskets (Jhuri in Bengali) woven by artisans of Tamluk in Midnapore, this Puja committee brought together religion and folklore under one roof.... a super work of traditional yet simple art.

Ultadanga Sangrami (2013)

The Gond community is Madhya Pradesh & Chhattisgarh’s largest tribes and their art is an expression of their everyday quest for life. Gond Art resonates with the belief that "viewing good image begets good luck". This integral credence led the Gonds to decorating their houses and the floors with traditional tattoos and motifs subsequently transposing onto paper and canvas. Language of the soul is expressed in the brilliant hues of Gond Art. A beautiful Prasanta Pal display based on this folk art bagged them Asian Paints Shaarod Samman for the year.

Lalabagan Jubak Brinda (2011)

The waning art of Shellac Dolls of Bengal was displayed beautifully by the creative duo of Anirban Das & Parimal Pal. They were typically found in Midnapore & Birbhum districts made by a class of Hindu artisans called Nuri-s. Shortage of raw materials compelled the Nuri’s to look for other employment when Rabindranath Tagore patronised this art at Shantiniketan and saved it from passing into oblivion. The themes of these brightly coloured dolls included the famed Wheat Crusher (Gawmpeshani), the Horse Rider (Ghowrshawar) and a variety of fruits.

Kankurgachhi Jubak Brinda (2014)

A reconstruction of a state festival which resonated brilliantly not only the local art but the surrounding cultural extravaganza as well. An excellent reprise of Odisha’s Rath Yatra. Impressive Wood Carvings. Outstanding Detailing. Coming of Age of Conceptualiser, Anirban Das. Deserved Winner of Asian Paints Sharad Samman.

Abasar Sarbojanin (2008)

Godna (or Godhna) Art is one of the most pioneering yet little known art forms which comprises of permanent ornamentation of the female body with tattoos and is believed to be an adaptation of primitive art. In its current form, Godna images are practised by a handful of women of Jamgala, a village in Sarguja in Chhattisgarh. This art form was brought to life by a brilliant display through Murals and Wall Art. The simplicity of the displays and their effortless amalgamation with the sense of festivity were definitely sights to behold.

Bosepukur Talbagan (2012)

Kalamkari  Art, Kondapalli toys, metal ware of Pembarthi  of Andhra Pradesh were used to decorate the Pandal. Kalamkari art is unique in its use of colour as a medium to portray mythological characters from Ramayana and Puranas. Kondapalli toys are quite pre- dominant in the world of handicraft. Nimble fingered artisans carve with aplomb, as characters emerge and evolve from light soft wood. Pembarthi metal craft is famed worldwide for its unmatched Brassware tradition.  

Pally Unnayan Samity, Paschim Putiary (2010)

Kathputli Dance is a very popular version of string puppetry in Rajasthan. The marionettes are made entirely from wood covered with cotton cloth and tied with a metal wire which acts as string that passes from the top of the puppet to be manipulated by the skilful puppeteers. This colourful presentation was depicted masterfully with Kathputli imagery and frescos all over the Pandal.

Tridhara (2014)

The unique masks of Sikkim, mostly made of wood, cannot be thought of as works of art alone. They serve multiple functions, expressing a variety of human emotions, as well as representing deities, birds, animals, demons in their various moods. In popular culture, masks are known to conceal — the Mount Kanchendzonga, Mahakala and the Garuda or Eagle — which have created a sacred place for themselves in Sikkimese history and culture. President’s Awardee Gouranga Kuilya presented a gaudy display of this quaint art form that won the all-round appreciation of the masses.