It is 1am, but the Shiv Mandir para (neighbourhood) in Kolkata is hopping. Shorts-clad young men named Deb and Dickie are working alongside about 20 artisans who are erecting what seems to be a gigantic bamboo stage set, but is in fact a homage to Ma Durga. Tall tribal musicians made of bamboo are hoisted upright as five men anchor them to the ground. About eight bamboo musicians stand at the entrance to the pandal, serenading a multi-hued peacock made by sticking coloured wrapping paper on circle-cut bamboo. Can you imagine staple-gunning red, yellow and blue wrapping paper cut in small circles over bamboo that has been fashioned to resemble a peacock’s tail? That’s what these artisans did over the last three months.
The man in charge, artist Subrata Banerjee, walks around, cigarette in hand, smiling at our compliments. He’s done the Suruchi Sangha pandal too, he says, and used the theme of Kashmir. Inside the pandal, on a red-oxide floor, white alpona designs are being drawn under the watchful eye of the club’s general secretary, Partho Ghosh. The volunteers have day jobs—they run cable companies, work in the tea industry and teach in colleges. Every now and then, they sit in cane chairs beside the pandal, and have—what else—an adda. Yet, they have assembled here, night after night, for the last three months, erecting a pandal that will open on Sunday to a mass of humanity that will dwarf the carnival at Rio.
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“For us, Durga Puja is over on the 30th,” they tell me. “After that, we plan for next year.” Planning involves collecting money from the neighbourhood, finding sponsors, hiring the right artisan group, building the idols and accoutrements—off-site at first and then on-site, vying for the prizes that are on offer, and then pulling it all together days before Durga Puja officially opens on what Bengalis call Shasthi, which is on Sunday. There are more prizes than pandals these days, laughs my friend Ghoshi (who didn’t want to be named). Some say Rs 500 crore is at play in the market during Durga Puja in Kolkata.
How much did it cost to put up the pandal at Shiv Mandir? “Rs 12 lakh,” says a man called Indranil. For the whole thing? We look up and around. It is like Arabian Nights meets Rajinikanth’s set. Dim lighting, lovely polished floor, elegant Durga. We are sceptical. “How much will bamboo and wrapping paper cost?” Indranil insists. Ghoshi and I bet that Shiv Mandir will win a few awards. At Mudiali, another para, about 50 people are hard at work. Ma Durga is tress-less. Her long black locks are being washed and blow-dried nearby, an artisan tells us. Another is tying a red glittering dhoti for Lord Ganesh. Ma Durga’s sari and make-up are done but her family is being ministered by a few artisans. There are giant pillars with intricate drawings all around, each one different from the other. A policewoman sits swatting flies outside. Why she’s keeping watch, I don’t know. I have never felt this safe in a neighbourhood after midnight.
The 66 Palli has created a chess set made of coir. They have wrapped the coir rope in tight circles to create the bishop, king, queen and pawns, all of whom lead up to Ma Durga, who is covered, while men paint her surroundings. It is subtle and very elegant. Last year, they won an award for the safest para. Others compete for the eco-friendliness, recyclable materials, sustainable, creative (of course), traditional, safe, and pretty much every calibration you can think of to rate human endeavour.
Badamtala is hopping. There is music. Women are chewing paan and drawing designs. Men shave wood for last-minute adjustments. In a nearby gali (lane), the entire pandal is made of what seems like paper. But it cannot be, for it rained last week. A broken fort has been erected, the entire thing made of thermocol.
The Dhirendranath Ghosh Road pandal is covered with grass. I am not kidding you. The entire building is a deep verdant green. The entrance has an agricultural theme. There are carved-wood scenes of farmers sowing seeds. Inside, lipstick is being painted on Ma Durga by four lungi-clad, bare-torsoed men. Nandan Park is way behind. Their Durga hasn’t even arrived. And so it goes, lane after lane, till my head spins.
All the pandals have colour, intricate designs, stupendous sets and a Ma Durga. They use topical themes, says Ghoshi. In the past, paras have woven current news—the twin towers, saving tigers, the Taj Mahal hotel, cricket World Cup victories—into their pandals. We speculate on this year’s themes.
“Bin Laden,” shouts Ghoshi as we bounce over the Howrah Bridge, simply because they insist a first-time visitor has to see it. “Bin Laden as an asur (demon). Definitely.” “Anna Hazare,” shouts his wife. “Anna Hazare praying to Ma Durga along with Kiran Bedi and (Arvind) Kejriwal.”
“What about Mamata (Banerjee)?” I ask. “Mamata celebrating her win by vanquishing the demons. If Hema Malini can become Durga, why not Mamata?” We ponder the idea of Mamata as Durga as we turn around and ride back over the bridge because the pandals are on this side. Mamata as Durga? Doubtful.
The pandals take a lot of creative licence, says Rakhi Sarkar, the force behind the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art. It is just after noon. We are in her car, driving towards the Ekdalia Evergreen Club, where a German artist, Gregor Schneider, is creating the pandal. “Kolkata has become a temporary museum,” says Sarkar as we drive through the by-lanes, all of which seem to have a pandal. “It is as if the city is filled with installation art. There are concepts, visual imagery, and the paras take a lot of creative licence in how they depict the images.”
Ekdalia Evergreen has taken a fairly large creative leap and is in the local news because of it. Schneider has created a pandal based on his grandmother’s house. There is a road going straight up, a staircase going sideways and segments of a room. When we arrive, Schneider is out to lunch but the club’s general secretary, a Sikh, escorts us around. How does he think Kolkata will take the German’s installation, I ask him. “We are in an anxious moment because we cannot predict whether the people will like it,” he says. “We have to make them understand it. Because, you know, the German brain is a bit different from Kolkata people.”
Religion meets art: German artist Gregor Schneider’s road-themed pandal for the Ekdalia Evergreen Durga Puja radically interprets the concept of a pandal as an artwork. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
His comment defines the question I have been mulling since I arrived in Kolkata: How does tradition evolve? The Durga Puja celebrations epitomize the best of Indian festivals. They bring the community together; allowing people to take time off to celebrate and for creativity to flourish. Or do they? I saw dozens of pandals over three days. But I saw nothing that blew my mind in the way installation art can. Most pandals were extraordinarily artistic, meticulously executed, and used materials creatively—rope to create a chess set, for example. But there was no huge differentiator in terms of content and creation. They were, at the end of the day, just pandals. Except the German’s. He was trying new things. He was creating a vertical road. This is my question: Is Ekdalia Evergreen to be lauded for taking such a brave approach to an ancient tradition? Or is it a foolish attempt at change just for the sake of it? Taali ya gaali (brickbats or bouquets)? What is the verdict?
Some of my Kolkata friends think that Ekdalia Evergreen’s pandal will “bomb” because they are taking such a radical approach. Evolved art connoisseurs such as the Sarkar sisters who run the Centre of International Modern Art in Kolkata can appreciate such an attempt. “Only in Kolkata will you not have an agitation because a German artist is doing a pandal,” says Pratiti Sarkar. It’s true.
Ekdalia Evergreen’s model could be taken so much further. In a creative city like Kolkata, the pandals can be a way for collaborations to happen. I can see fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee or Anamika Khanna designing a pandal—locals both. How about if local artist Shreyasi Chatterjee, who stitches on canvas, designs a pandal? Artist Sumitro Basak says they do get involved. But not in any significant way. The thing that I am not clear about is whether getting a Sabyasachi or a Schneider involved in the making of a pandal is a good thing or not. Personally—given my taste for radical installation art, the more cutting-edge the better—I would love it. I think getting big-name artists to design the pandals would transform the artistic landscape of the city. It would be a game changer and show artisans what can be done. It wouldn’t be easy; it would take years of gaalis from the locals before a smattering of applause would begin.
It would need a visionary director of pandals, if such an office exists, to make it happen. But it would—and I know I sound impossibly arrogant here—lift a city’s creative sensibilities from the realm of tradition and connect it with what’s happening on the global art scene. And it can only be done in a city like Kolkata, with its highly honed instinct and appreciation for beauty. But should it be done? Should artistic traditions evolve by consensus or should they be jump-started by visionaries? Should a pandal go from year to year through communal give-and-take, artistic and otherwise, or should an Anamika Khanna or Aparna Sen take over the making of it?
Actor Parambrata Chatterjee would fall into the “don’t mess with tradition” camp. I meet him at a director’s adda (more on that in another column), and like a movie star, he lights up the room as he enters. Two pegs down and we are friends. “Bengalis are the sixth most spread out race all over the world,” he tells me. Only in Bengal will a male movie star give me gyan (educate me) on human migration patterns. “This festival connects people all over the globe, somewhat like Ganesh Chaturthi in Maharasthra, but much much bigger. More like Mardi Gras. Bengalis of every religion and community come together to make the pandals. The artisans painting the Goddess might happen to be Muslim.” Why mess with it, is what he leaves unsaid.
It is this passion that Durga Puja evokes that is the biggest obstacle to any wholesale redesign of the pandals. I might want a Paresh Maity pandal or a Rituparno Ghosh designed pandal, but for that, I have to get past how much every Bengali is invested in this. It isn’t a myth. I saw it with my own eyes.
Around 4am, Ghoshi has a crisis on his hands. We are still pandal-hopping in his Toyota Innova, but there is a problem in his para in Salt Lake. They don’t have a sponsor for the entrance gate and they want Ghoshi to sponsor it. A heated discussion ensues in Bengali. Ghoshi tells them he will sponsor the gate but he doesn’t want his fledgling company’s name on it.
The marketing and communication strategy for his firm is being done by Ogilvy in Mumbai, he pleads. We have a plan and deliverables. We can’t put our company name on Ma Durga’s pandal at first shot. The ad guys will walk out if we supersede their communication.
The pandal organizers are adamant. We already have made a space for the sponsor at the entrance gate. We can’t leave it blank.
We are standing on the side of a road beside the high court that serves the best street food in Kolkata. Stately white buildings glow in the dark.
In the distance, the Hooghly or Ganga river (call it what you like) flows through the City of Joy. At that moment, as I watch artisans painstakingly draw Ma Durga’s eyes in black, and my friend Ghoshi argue over sponsor names in Salt Lake, there is no place on earth I’d rather be.
Shoba Narayan thinks Kolkata has the sexiest taxis in all of India. And Bengalis drink superb Darjeeling tea. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org