Sunday, October 21, 2007

Durga Pujo - II

Legs aching due to hours and hours of 'pandel-hopping' on foot, eardrums throbbing with the way-above-65-decibels sound of the 'dhak', eyes watering from the billowing smoke of the burning 'dhuno' (incense), and heart heavy with the thought of Her imminent departure: this was my condition as I sat in my colony Pujo pandel during the Nabami (20th October) evening 'arati'. And yet I was immensely enjoying every moment of it.

This year I enjoyed Pujo a lot. My pandel-hopping started on Panchami itself, as I wrote in my previous post. On Shashthi morning I took my sister to see some of the pandels in North Kolkata. We visited Kumortuli, Kumortuli Park, Baghbazaar, Shovabazaar and the Shovabazaar Palace. Kumortuli had the best idols. Kumortuli Park was the worst, I dare say. They had worked upon an idea that nobody would comprehend, and implemented it in the most viewer-unfriendly fashion possible. Pushing through the crowds on tiny viewing balconies, you could just manage to look down into a huge dark cylindrical chamber with water below. The bronze coloured statue was placed below there. I deliberately used the word 'statue' rather than 'idol'. Ten goddesses with two hands each hardly compensate for one with ten hands. And where were Her children?

Baghbazar Sarbojonin had their typical traditional idol. One strange thing that happened was that I met the gentleman whom I had photographed taking photographs of the flooded streets a few weeks ago. We talked this time. He is indeed a photojournalist. The Shovabazaar Palace Pujo is celebrating its 250th year this year. It had the atmosphere of a typical home pujo. I took a lot of photographs at all the places.

The evening was devoted to Salt Lake. We walked and we walked until we could walk no more. AG Block, AB Block, BE Block (East) and Labony were good among the ones that we saw. BD had a green coloured idol bathed in green light and it looked positively odd. About the so-called "Harry Potter themed FD Block Pandel", well, the less we say the better. If Rowling saw what they had done with her characters, she would probably disown them. Dumbledore in muggle clothes! Gah! What will we see next?

On Saptami morning we left for Hooghly. The rest of my holidays were spent in my hometown. Here too, we walked a lot. The pandels worth mentioning are Hooghly Beguntala (better than anything I saw in Kolkata this year), Rathtala, 3 No. Gate, Chinsurah Akhanbazaar and Peyarabagan. The Peyarabagan idol was a magnificent affair completely made of wood. Again, I took a lot of photos which can be seen here.
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But the most time was spent in Mitrabagan, my locality. As I wrote before, it was almost like a home Pujo... my mother cooked the bhog everyday, we contributed flowers from our garden, when we did not like the music being played we took CDs from our house and played them instead. The best part of this Puja is the lack of the outside crowd. The whole colony ate bhog together on the Nabami afternoon. We spent the evenings in peace, sitting or standing at the pandel. Peace, of course, means amidst dhak-beats and dhuno fumes.

The days passed quickly... a bit too quickly. Soon I was standing in front of Ma Durga on the Dashami evening. She was about to be given a grand farewell by the ladies of the colony. I spent the last two Pujos at Hyderabad. Who knows where I'll be next year? I looked at her face closely, trying to take in every detail. I'll see her only in these memories for some time to come.

Since yesterday I'm back at work as usual. The Internet was slow, so I couldn't upload the photos earlier, and the post got delayed accordingly. I'll be busy this week visiting relatives' houses and touching their feet for Bijoya and earning sweets in the process. See you after that.

Ah yes, I wish all of my readers and their families a Very Shubho Bijoya!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Durga Pujo - I

This is insane. The whole city seems to have gone berserk.

Yesterday was Panchami, and Panchami is supposed to be the day when Durga Puja has hardly started. Many Puja pandels aren't even inaugurated by Panchami. So, I thought that if I went to see the Pandels in Kolkata late on the Panchami night, I would be able to avoid the crowds. By what I saw, however, it was evident that everyone else in Kolkata had the same idea. So when I reached Kasba Bosepukur at around 9:00 pm last night, there was a traffic jam that started two blocks before the Puja pandel.

Click to EnlargeEveryone in Kolkata seemed to be out at Bosepukur. On top of that there was a TV crew filming some roadside reality show there. The pandel itself was, er... a bit beyond my comprehension (like modern art). I didn't understand what they have intended to depict. I also didn't understand why people were religiously throwing coins into a decorative pool in the middle of the pandel. Anyway, after photographing the surprisingly small doll-like idol I proceeded on my way.

This year the artistic doll-like idols seem to be in fashion. Or it could be that I was out of Kolkata for so long that I did not know that these idols have been in fashion for some time. Salt Lake AD Block, where I stay, has one of them. It looks lovely though, as does their pandel. The idol at Jodhpur Park was also somewhere midway between traditional and artistic.

Speaking of Jodhpur Park, I reached there after 11:00 pm last night, and if anything, the crowd seemed to be several times the evening crowd at Bosepukur. There was already a queue for entering the tiny pandel (which is a lovely work of art) and some lights had broken due to crowd pressure. If this is the situation on Panchami around midnight I shudder to think what that place will look like on Saptami or Ashtami evening.

I didn't stay much longer after that. Walking was difficult due to the crowd, and buses were already very few, so I caught a cab and returned to Salt Lake around 12:30 am. Even the cab driver asked for extra money.

Today my sister is coming to Salt Lake and we plan to see a lot of pandels together. I have already seen a couple of them by myself and I really liked some ideas. For instance, the floating lights at AD block. I don't know whose idea it was, but that person should have been consulted by the FD Block Puja Committee before they attempted to make floating candles for their Hogwarts Castle. The much hyped Hogwarts Castle is also a magnificent pandel, but its beauty lies not in details but in the clever lighting that they have used. I'm sure during the day that pandel will look pretty ordinary apart from the fact that it is huge.

Tomorrow morning I'm leaving for Hooghly and I'll spend the rest of the Durga Puja there. I'll be back on Monday the 22nd with more details of Durga Puja of Kolkata and the suburbs. Till then take a look at the photos that I have already taken.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Click to EnlargeThat’s the name of the place in Bengali. Loosely, that can be translated as “Potters’ Alley”. In spite of what the name might suggest, the people living there are not heroes of wizarding tales. However, they are not mere muggles either.

They are wizards of a different kind. They are humans who shape gods.

Unless one visits this tiny lane in Northern Kolkata between Shovabazaar and Baghbazaar close to the river, one can never imagine that such a place could exist in the world. Or as the great Shibram Chakraborty would have put it, “You could have still believed it if you didn’t see it with your own eyes, but once you see it, it’s impossible to believe.” This unbelievability stems from the fact that the place seems to be extremely small for any decent work, and yet, hundreds of clay idols are made there throughout the year. Kumortuli is the nerve centre of the idol making industry in Kolkata.
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A typical studio in Kumortuli is, say, ten feet wide and twenty long (though some are longer) and ten feet high. Within each of these tiny studios you will find anywhere between five to ten full size Durga idols, not to mention the other gods and goddesses. They have to be kept so close to each other that their hands touch. They are so high that their heads are close to the ceiling and the artist has to climb on a stool or a small ladder to work on the face. The interiors are so cramped and dimly lit that a person like me would find it difficult to do anything there, let alone artistic work. Yet, these people are creating hundreds of clay idols inside these very rooms, many of which are larger than life and breathtakingly beautiful. And yes, most these 'rooms' are nothing but temporary shelters made of bamboo poles and polythene sheets.
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They can't look at their idols from a distance, and yet the idols are perfectly proportioned. They paint under dim bulbs, and yet it is impossible to find one flawed line in an idol. The details are amazing: the jewelry and garlands of Durga (wherever these are made of clay), the muscles of Mahishasura, the teeth of the lion, the markings on the snake. In some of the larger studios, they have even created a loft kind of place that serves as a second floor to keep even more idols.
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Kumortuli is also the home to other Puja related artisans. The idols have to be painted, dressed, and hair has to be attached. Ornaments and pandel decorations made of paper and pith and metal foil, or these days, of thermacole and plastic and fibreglass are also made here in Kumortuli. As I watched a man create a crown by patiently attaching small pieces of shiny plastic one by one on a stiff paper base, I wondered how much time it takes to create a single crown. And then there are thousands of them to be made. Clearly, the work goes on throughout the year.

"Did you make all of them inside, or did you put them in after making them outside?" I asked a man who was relaxing outside his studio which was packed with lovely idols. "Inside, of course! How can we make them outside?" he replied gruffly. I hastened to make amends, by saying that I can't understand how they could make such beautiful idols within such a confined space. "That's what our job is," was his smug reply. I can't blame him for getting irritated at some ignorant fool with a camera who asks him silly questions, especially when he is relaxing. All of them have to work very hard and yet find it difficult to make both ends meet. Most of them are quite accustomed to photographers and a few even enthusiastically encouraged me to take photos. One person also asked me if I was looking for an idol to buy.
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When I went there (September end) most of the idols had already taken shape and were either being given the final touches, or being painted. However, there were some in various stages of completion, ranging from just straw figures to unpainted headless bodies. The idols are made like this: first a frame is made with bamboo. Then the figures are given shape with straw. A layer of clay mixed with little straw pieces is then used to cover the straw. After this dries up, progressively smoother layers are added and cracks are filled up. The heads are made in dies, and then touched up after being attached to the bodies. Then comes painting. These days, many artists use spray paint for the base colours. Brush is used for the details. Then hair, mane, fur etc made from jute strands are added, and the gods and goddesses are dressed up with clothes and the ornaments. In some cases (like the one in the photo above left) the hair, clothes and ornaments are also made of clay. In this video below you can see a man making clay fingers using a technique that seems incredibly simple. I'm sure I couldn't make such realistic fingers even if I tried for years. (I know YouTube videos are blocked in many offices. This is for the people who can see it).

My time was short. I had to leave for Hooghly soon, so after spending about an hour and a half in Kumortuli, I left for the Shovabazaar ferry ghat with my sister. However, spending this time among these people was a humbling experience for a person who earns his salary by Ctrl+C-ing and Ctrl+V-ing the Internet. I felt myself echoing what my sister said: "We spent whole of our lives studying useless stuff, but learnt nothing worthwhile, like making figures out of clay."

[Update: You can view the photos that I took here. I am also including a link to an album by my friend Souvik who went to Kumortuli about a week after me and captured the idols at a more advanced state of completion.]