Bappa Chakraborty, 52, has little to do with the military though the New Delhi cantonment has been his home for a month every year for the past two decades. There, with his army—a motley crew of artists, carpenters, and welders—Chakraborty prepares the tableaux (or floats as they are called locally) that roll down one of India’s most photographed street—Rajpath—that plays host to India’s Republic Day parade each year on 26 January. This time around, Chakraborty has about 400 workers and seven cooks, mostly from West Bengal, to work on the 12 tableaux he’s making.
The larger-than-life displays—on a carefully-camoflauged tractor-trailer—can eat up as much as 48 feet of road length. Chakraborty chooses his workers carefully—from Shantiniketan, the hub of all things artistic in the eastern state.
“It’s an unknown form... (with) which I can play around and fully express my creativity,” says Chakraborty, managing director of Adland Publicity Pvt. Ltd, when asked what has kept him at it nearly 18 years. However, he argues that ‘tableaux’, or what’s defined by the dictionary as a group of models or motionless figures representing a scene, is a misnomer for his creations. He says his works of art should be called “dimensional projection” as all the four sides are exposed for viewing and have to be created with that in mind. “We can’t create illusion like a backdrop or lights in this” like you could in a stage play to create depth, making it a greater challenge, he says.
The process of making the dimensional projection starts as early as May of the previous year with design houses such as Adland pitching their ideas to different state governments and departments. The state governments make a presentation of small replicas of the tableaux they have picked before an expert committee constituted by the ministry of defence, which makes a final list of 26 tableaux. The number has nothing to do with the day of the month Republic Day is celebrated though. This shortlisting means that not all 28 states or government departments get a chance.
The challenge in this form of art is to create an impression in 33 seconds, which is really the period that the display passes through the stretch where the country’s president and important guests sit, and also when television cameras focus on them. “It’s the crescendo, culmination of our creative thinking,” says Chakraborty, referring to those 33 seconds.
Each tableau is chosen based on a theme. For example, Indian Railways has chosen to highlight the role played by it in the freedom struggle, as it celebrates the sixtieth year of Independent India. It has a passenger coach standing on a platform, with Mahatma Gandhi interacting with his supporters.
Chakraborty’s competitors have an equally hard task, and some of them have been doing it for as long as he has.
The Karnataka tableau, which is being designed by Bangalore-based Sanjay Marketing and Publicity Services, will have a replica of the famous Hoysala temple architecture, which is described as “nectar in stone” for its intricate carvings. The display has been in the making for last 45 days with around 60 workers plugging away, says R. Nagaraj of Sanjay Marketing.
The cost of making each tableau depends on the complexity of designs. Nagaraj said his creation this year would cost around Rs20 lakh, whereas Adland says its creations cost between Rs8 lakh and Rs12 lakh.
Nagraj’s company has also been coming here for the last 25 years. He and Chakraborty say it has become sort of a tradition to compete and make tableaux every year. Over the years, the one thing that has changed about the displays is the time taken to make them, which has gone down by as much as 15 days, as pre-fabricated materials are increasingly being used to cobble each tableau together. The materials are a combination of wood, fibre-glass, thermocol and plaster of Paris.
And some of their workers have been coming here for almost as long as Nagraj or Chakraborty. Workers, who are housed in a military-style camp inside the cantonment, say it has become part of their life over the years. Wages are around 50% higher than what they would get elsewhere because this project requires them to be camped in once place, said Mohammad Shameen, a carpenter who has been part of the tableau-making process for the last 15 years.
The winners, chosen by three secret judges, are handed medals which have to be returned every year. Still, when a tableau flicks past the television screens, it’s hard to imagine it took nine months of planning and execution, two rounds of selection, and around 50 workers working at least a month to create it—all for 33 seconds of fame.
And what happens to the tableaux after the parade? They are given to respective state governments and institutions, which in turn sell them off as scrap.
Ready for D-day:
1. Adland Publicity managing director Bappa Chakraborty with the miniature version of the Indian Railways’ tableau highlighting the country’s freedom struggle. Behind him is the real tableau.
2. A worker with the Karnataka tableau, which shows off the intricate work characteristic of Hoysala temple architecture.
3. Workers, some of whom have been part of the tableau-making process for the last 15 years, at the military-style camp inside the New Delhi army cantonment.
4. A worker puts finishing touches on a representation of a Tropical Pitcher Plant, a carnivorous plant, part of the Meghalaya tableau.
Photographs by: Madhu Kapparath