The Durga Puja zeitgeist

The Durga Puja zeitgeist

Some months ago, 64-year-old Sudip Chatterjee woke up one morning to a remarkable request. The local Durga Puja organizers wanted to paint and design the facade of The Breeze—Chatterjee’s house, built in 1937 near Kalighat in Kolkata, with balustrades and a pagoda-style clock tower. His response to the plea of the Badamtala Ashar Sangha Puja organizers was a determined “no". Further pleas were similarly turned down.

While Chatterjee resisted any change to his “heritage property", neighbouring houses were getting a coat of fresh paint and innovative ideas. Chatterjee finally gave in too; his three-storeyed house now has a new colourful look. “I realized that the bigger objective was art," says Chatterjee.

It’s dusk and the area around the pandal (a makeshift structure where the Durga deity is worshipped) seems charged with the spirit of the extraordinary. Children flit through open doors that are at the base of a gigantic representation of the sun, young girls stand in balconies framed by decorative designs, the ladies of the locality are huddled together before an intricate wall of art and the neighbourhood houses blend in tastefully with the pandal that is under construction. Here, everything and everyone seems to have become part of the grand puja canvas.


Behind the concept, and Chatterjee’s consent, is Sushanto Pal. A city boutique owner and costume and interior designer with a master’s degree from Kolkata’s Government College of Art and Craft (GCAC), Pal is a National Award winner who has worked with director Rituparno Ghosh on 10 of his films.

For the three months leading up to the four-day Durga Puja festival, which begins on 14 October, Pal assumes an altogether different identity—as a Durga Puja artist, he is responsible for the concept, design and execution of individual pujas.

The artist is part of the changing visual profile of Durga Puja in Kolkata, particularly over the last few years. Today’s Durga pujas no longer have the staid, unimaginative look of yesteryear. The professional involvement of trained artists and art students has seen them transform into discerning pieces of public art. While some of the biggest names in the Indian art circuit, such as Nirode Mazumdar, Paritosh Sen and Bikash Bhattacharjee, have sculpted or drawn Durga idols since the 1970s, the newer lot of artists have creative control over the entire puja arena: the pandal, the mandap and the idol, from the point of entry to the exit.

Their interpretation of the puja as thematic, site-specific art installations comes against the backdrop of an increasing inflow of corporate money into the festival through sponsorships and awards. This combination of factors has also seen a growing clamour for Durga Puja in Kolkata to be recognized as one the world’s largest exhibitions of public installation art.

This year, approximately 200 established artists and art college graduates will help in giving aesthetic interpretations to Durga Puja across the city, and through their individual efforts, infuse a carefully crafted artistic energy into the more than two centuries old community puja culture in Bengal.

“At art college, we were often told about the struggle of an artist. So far, my struggle has been to establish myself in the sphere of Durga Puja," says Bhabotosh Sutar, who graduated in Western painting from GCAC in 2000. At the Rajdanga Naba Uday Sangha puja, which Sutar is conceptualizing this year, craftsmen and junior artists are hard at work, creating a puja themed on Hindu spirituality. The work combines elements of sculpture, architecture, painting and Indian mythology.

All activity in the pandal arena revolves around Sutar. “What happens at art galleries is that I’ve earlier found my name erased so that viewers can’t access me directly and have to go through the art dealer. How many people go to galleries anyway? Here, over five days I’m assured of at least five lakh viewers," Sutar adds.

Since 2000, when he worked for the first time on a Durga Puja pandal, Sutar has come to occupy the top rung of contemporary Durga Puja artists—among them Sushanto Pal, Amar Sarkar, Rono Banerjee, Purnendu Dey, Prasanta Pal, Tarun Dey and Sanatan Dinda. They all have formal art education and a string of Durga Puja awards to their credit. Many of them belong to the category of artists whose fees for each Durga Puja assignment are in the 2-4 lakh range, depending on the scale of work. Some of them have multiple Puja assignments this year. Sutar and Sushanto Pal have three projects each.

They are among those who have taken over much of the business from the traditional artisan community, the Pals of Kumartuli, the hub of clay idol makers in Kolkata. For generations, the Pals—a large group of idol makers whose expertise in the craft has essentially been handed down from generation to generation—enjoyed an almost complete monopoly. No longer, though they continue to maintain a strong presence at the traditional puja pandals. And quite often, their expertise and experience in sculpting is used by artists when they are making the initial drawing of the deity.

The Durga idol the Pals would create on their own was almost standardized, says Sutar. Together with a roster of pandal decorators and electricians, Durga Puja, even a decade back, was quite often an experience in kitsch, glitz and conventionality. Rarely did the discourse throw up issues of art installations, deconstruction, exploration of folk art forms and theme-based craftsmanship.

All that is changing. In the Barisha Club’s puja arena, artist Tarun Dey effortlessly weaves in subjects such as expressionism, the Impressionist movement, Badal Sircar’s Third Theatre, and the limitation of proscenium theatre, while explaining the backdrop to his artworks. The concept of open theatre supports his current theme for the Barisha Club puja—an ode to all that is fertile and natural in a world where an ecological crisis is imminent. We are surrounded by a circular gallery where 15,000 clay pots have been closely cemented together, their gaping mouths facing the sky to catch the artist’s impression of rain. A thin fibre of transparent sheet forms the ceiling and mutes the sunlight filtering in. Some 25,000 white plastic balls used to keep fishing nets afloat are stuck to the transparent sheet ceiling like tufts of cumulous clouds. The deity, once installed, will sit in the middle of an amphitheatre of creativity.

“The art movement in Kolkata has steadily incorporated strong doses of postmodernism and Durga Puja has become an exposition of conceptual art," says Dey, who graduated in painting and sculpture from GCAC in 1980 and is heading a group of 30 trained artists and students of the Environmental Art Group, who have teamed up for the Barisha Club puja. This Kolkata-based art collective stresses on the study of natural science through art. “Artists are coming out of their studios and bringing all their ideas along," says Dey.

Of the 4,000 pujas in the city and its suburbs, around 1,000 are said to be theme-based—with issues ranging from the spiritual and environmental to historical and mythological. This provides ample scope for conceptualization, and the contribution of trained artists. A common aesthetic strain runs through the design of the outer pandal area, the mandap, the idol and lighting scheme. Usually, at least 150 of the theme pujas are strong contenders for awards from a battery of companies competing for maximum mileage from their Durga Puja award initiatives. This year, 40-odd companies, from multinationals to local electrical goods manufacturers, are in the fray. A far cry from the time when there was just one corporate award—the Asian Paints Sharad Samman, still considered the most prestigious.

Prize money for the best puja ranges between a modest 25,000 and 1.5 lakh, but multiple prizes can often assure organizers of fairly decent lump sums.

But it is the lure of instant recognition—and increase in corporate sponsorship in the following years—that has upped the stakes for puja committees. On an average, a big-budget theme puja spends 16-20 lakh—400-500% more than it would have spent earlier.

The four-day festival is now a 40 crore industry, says Mani Shankar Mukherjee, a senior corporate executive. He has authored many novels under the pseudonym of Shankar, and is a regular writer on Durga Puja. “This is just an estimate of the amount spent on the puja by organizers and sponsors. If you consider the money spent on many other puja paraphernalia, like buying clothes and travel, the amount will well exceed 100 crore," he adds.

One of India’s preeminent painters, Jogen Chowdhury, has watched the evolution of the contemporary Durga Puja and advises caution. Large-scale commercial interests, he warns, have reached what is essentially a religious festival. “Undoubtedly, the contribution of artists has made a difference to the puja and added an extra dimension. Also, sometimes in their zeal to create theme pujas, artists have gone overboard and their creations have clashed with our idea of Durga," says Chowdhury.

An alumnus of GCAC, Chowdhury had conceptualized the design of a Durga Puja in south Kolkata’s Selimpur a couple of years ago at the request of a relative. He has since “not found enough time" for other puja projects. “Much of what is happening now is driven by an award-getting attitude among organizers and hunger for publicity by corporates. Corporate money is not necessarily a bad thing, but the current trend, I think, is but a reflection of contemporary society where every aspect of life is being governed by business," Chowdhury says.

When it comes to the voluntary involvement of the top rung of India’s artistic fraternity, all roads invariably lead to the 83-year-old puja premises of Bakul Bagan Sarbojonin at Bhowanipur. From 1975, when the legendary artist Nirode Mazumdar created his vision of the Durga at Bakul Bagan, the puja has seen a continuous stream of luminaries working without a fee—Rathin Mitra, Paritosh Sen, Ramananda Bandyopadhyay, Shanu Lahiri, Sarbori Roychowdhury, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Shyamal Dutta Ray and Isha Mohammad.

For the senior artists, the stated agenda was to bring their art to the masses—but recent entrants can expect 75,000-1.5 lakh for their work. Quite often the beginners start with the designing of their local para (neighbourhood) pandal before their work is noticed and their talent tapped by bigger puja organizers.

Almost as testimony to the popular appeal of the contemporary Durga Puja, this year the Bakul Bagan puja theme and idol has been visualized by Union railway minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. For Tapati Guha-Thakurta, professor of history at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, and a well-known art historian, the graph of the Bakul Bagan puja has veered from “the sublime to the ridiculous".

But Guha-Thakurta believes the concept of theme pujas has been beneficial. Currently writing a book on the Durga Puja festival in contemporary Kolkata, she studied the evolution and spread of theme pujas since 2002, and says there has been an “enormous outburst of creativity". She stops short of labelling it as high art though.

“A lot of tastefulness is prevalent now compared to the flashy spirit that was rife earlier. Thanks to the influx of artists for whom Durga Puja has become a full-fledged vocation, it has truly become a spectatorial public art event, unlike any other festival in Indian cities. The worlds of contemporary art and the puja have overlapped," says Guha-Thakurta, the author of two books on the art of Bengal and India. There are some negatives. “Being awards- and sponsorship-driven, an artist who gets an award for a puja is automatically selected next year. The unsuccessful artist often gets shoddy treatment from organizers. These are fickle and ephemeral qualities for being considered as art. Good thing is that even the smallest theme puja can get an award," she says.

At the Ajeya Sanghati puja site near Tollygunje, artist Purnendu Dey, who did his master’s in painting from Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, recounts the instance when he unwittingly become part of a tacky “African theme" for a south Kolkata puja. And an occasion when another artist had to hurriedly redesign the idol’s costume after Nagaland government officials objected to the use of traditional Naga patterns on the idol’s dress. “Whatever theme one chooses, it shouldn’t clash with the idea of puja," Dey says, as artisans create uneven lines from acrylic sheets to go with Dey’s concept of achieving a lyrical whole for the Ajeya Sanghati puja.

Other artists such as Samir Aich, an established name in the gallery art circuit and a 1978 GCAC graduate, are all for breaking conventions. Seated on an Art Deco sofa in his studio and surrounded by large canvases of unfinished work, Aich details his contribution to artistic dissidence while conceptualizing puja assignments—a Durga idol broken along Cubist lines with uneven glass pieces on the floor reflecting the goddess’ image, Aich’s idea of seeing “Durga through destruction" during the Iraq war; a translucent and backlit fibreglass idol to highlight which the pandal was done up in the never-before-used taboo shade of black; a child’s impression of the goddess, among other talked-about creations.

“Why should our art be restricted within galleries? Durga Puja is as good an opportunity to bring it to the masses," he says.

For art students, it’s become a source of work.

Around 400 students graduate from the GCAC every year, says college principal and artist Dipali Bhattacharya, who has on two occasions been associated with the Bakul Bagan puja. Along with the three other established art education institutions—the Indian College of Arts and Draftsmanship, the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata and Santiniketan’s Kala Bhavan—the total number of art graduates every year is estimated to be around 1,000. Durga Puja has become an additional avenue of work for them, says Bhattacharya. “It can be public art, but it is not lesser art. I have been a judge for Durga Puja awards and have been amazed by the quality of work," she says.

Another convert is Laurent Fournier, a French national and architecture student who recently completed a thesis on “Durga Puja in Kolkata in relation to urban space" for his institution, École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville. Having overcome his initial impression of the festival being a waste of money in a poor country, Fournier was impressed by the structural design of pandals, and the physical and perceived space they occupy during the four days. “I have been captivated by the sheer creativity. And the spirit is unique to Kolkata. Unlike the carnival in Brazil and Europe, when people try to shed their otherwise disciplined and moral lives, during the Durga Puja I have found people trying to achieve a higher kind of aesthetics and a better life," he says.

At the Nalini Sarkar Street pandal, artist and art college graduate Sanatan Dinda is hard at work. He stands on a high platform and spray-paints the impressive figure of Durga with earthy shades.

Draw a straight line from the mandap and there is Dinda again, this time smiling benignly from a giant street hoarding put up by the puja organizers to cash in on Dinda’s new-found fame as a gallery artist. A smaller image of the goddess and logos of sponsors occupy the remaining half of the billboard. It could well be a snapshot moment of the Durga Puja zeitgeist.

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