Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Discovery of Kolkata through eyes of a Juvenile Puja Follower

The charm of the old world lighting showcased at
Brindaban Matri Mandir (2011)
Nineties were looming. In keeping with the evolving times, I too, was gradually moving from my early teen adolescence to a more mature space… a transitional phase in my life where gabardines gave way to acid wash denims, Malgudi Days was replaced by the utterly hollow yet glam Superhit Muqabla, the Little Master Gavaskar made way for the Master Blaster Tendulkar… I’m sure it happened with many of my contemporaries as well. And this was also an era which saw our nation plunge into the economic liberalization mode, a move that marked the advent of multitude of brands in all forms of our lifestyle…. automobiles, fashion, media were the prime beneficiaries in this metamorphosis. For me, it was a sort of awakening to a new culture… a fresh creed… I was starting to feel that I was finally becoming a part of the global community…. getting to see, feel and encounter some of the most esteemed labels was rather a novelty for an avid booklover like me who had till then experienced them only through the pages of publications and magazines. The Nineties brought along with it huge foreign investments in various sectors of national economy that resulted in increased employment opportunities which led to higher aspirational levels and augmented consumerism… suddenly, India was turning into a sellers economy where even the established homegrown premium brands were facing a tough time meeting snowballing demands…. the Retail boom had finally caught up with us…. By then, Durga Puja had already corroborated itself as a pre-eminent stage for the masses not only to rejoice and celebrate but this short stretch in autumn also represented that time of the year where retail consumption is at its highest.

A Typical Ashtami Midnight Traffic on
Chittaranjan Avenue (2011)
To be very insensitive, my affinity towards Durga Puja as a festival catapulted four fold, when I realised during my early growing up days that this was a time when I got my annual quota of new apparels and accessories from my parents and close relatives, a custom which to this date is quite prevalent amongst Bengali friends and families. In those days, Puja shopping was an event in itself as families like ours would save up all year to splurge on giving its members and the household in general, a yearly makeover. Apart from the attires and accompaniments… the furnishings and upholstery also got replaced with the older ones getting phased out. Autumn ushered in a sense of newness and merriment. There was invariably a bucolic whiff in the air, an imminent sign of the Pujas being round the corner. Those days, with the dearth of malls in Kolkata, I would always accompany my parents to New Market on the weekend to get new clothing for us and our close relations. Shopping, then, wasn’t a one stop phenomenon. Especially with my Maa around, she would not feel even warmed up before haggling with at least a dozen shopkeepers…. in fact my first lessons in salesmanship were picked up as a mute bystander during these really strategic tête-à-têtes between Maa and the shopkeepers where both parties were hell-bent on not surrendering even an inch in this intense Battle of Bargain. Gariahat and New Market were her favorite battlegrounds. At the end of each gruesome verbal duel and after the product was finally purchased, all I could wonder was who won the day…. was it Maa who thought she had managed a steal or was it that perspiring, badgering and sometimes niggling merchant who perhaps thought he had succeeded in maintaining his profitability…. sadly, I haven’t found the fair answer till date…. I’ve realised that there are some questions in life which never get answered and they are better off unanswered in Kolkata’s own labyrinth of roads and markets which has a blithe philosophy of its own.

A Signature North Kolkata Puja Chandelier which forms
the cynosure of the Mandap Atrium... this 1000 lamp vintage
one shot at Kashi Bose Lane Sarbojanin (2009)
Pujas of Kolkata also started to bring forth newer representations in art forms bolstered by the sudden upsurge of marketing and advertising during the four days. Money started flowing in heaps and Puja committees gained exponentially from this. The corporate bodies were looking out for options in order to promote their wares and gradually Pujas started becoming a convenient vehicle for launching/publicizing/propagating their various campaigns. I personally felt that the artisans behind the scenes benefitted hugely out of this as committees were willing to pay them more so that they could also churn out award winning works which attracted maximum eyeballs thereby in turn enticing more corporates next year. For the cynics Pujas gradually were becoming more of commercial ventures rather than being religious and cultural expressions… for me, yes… economics obviously had a huge role in this transfiguration and I’m bloody glad about that.  

The serpentine lanes of North Kolkata are given ostentatious make overs
by the gifted craftsmen during Pujas.... this queer little lane was
decked-up with gorgeous wood carvings... the pandal was constructed
out of brown paper sheets and parchment wood to give it the wooden
effect.... created by one of my favorite visualisers, Sanatan Dinda, this
one depicted a tale of an imaginary ancient Durga temple....
Nalin Sarkar Street Sarbojanin (2006)
Make over of a serpentine North Kolkata By-lane with
Street Art on the roadside Walls which transforms the
entire ambience... Nimtala Sarbojanin (2007)
My initial Puja Parikramas or sorties started with my family. Almost every year on Saptami night, the Guha Roys would leave the Park Circus residence on a humble Ambassador for our 6 hour Ride of the Year. Nights in Kolkata have an identity of their own…. a mystic sense of quietude, street lights dotted like tired halogens on the forlorn traffic-less roads, street dwellers basking in their day-end sweat as the only signs of life in the otherwise snoozing existence… contradictorily during Durga Pujas, nights of Kolkata transform into a cauldron of energy with almost the whole city out on the streets, as if Puja in Kolkata had its own discord with life otherwise. Most of the house/apartment exteriors are adorned with cascading strands of electronic lights which quiver  at the faintest breeze making the roads look surreally illuminated. One of the most enduring memories of my early Pandal Hopping days was Chittaranjan Avenue, the most important arterial road of North Kolkata, which even at well-past midnight was a bustling thoroughfare with its brightly lit heritage mansions cordoning the honking traffic…. the sea of people queuing up at Mohammed Ali Park Sarbojanin, which was again the cynosure of North/Central Kolkata Pujas… I distinctly remember that we took about two hours to get inside the Pandal, where our whole family was whisked away by the inbound mob in no time and almost another couple of hours were spent to find our way out back to our parked vehicle as the exit took us around the serpentine lanes of vintage Kolkata.
Captivating!!!... that’s what I could term this handiwork… the primary
ingredient used was the bark of Udal tree which was crafted into this beauty..
the alley leading up to the main mandap demonstrated 13 festivals held in
 Bengal every year, while the mandap proudly boasted of a traditional
Naatmandir, all this in a 12 ft wide typical  North Kolkata lane
…. Pathuriaghata Paancher Palli (2006) 
The best part of the Puja nights in Kolkata is that even with the people who prefer to stay indoors, are mostly awake till the wee hours of the mornings…. some would have their respective family/friends coming over for a classical Adda session, while others would lounge on their balconies or by their windows and spend the night just watching the masses parade past….. all in all, indoor or outdoor, the city never slept… it was Kolkata’s very own Mardi Gras!!! 

The Pandal Wall almost camouflaging one of the adjacent
Houses of the northern part of the City from where an
enthusiast peeps through watching the masses go by...
Ahiritola Sarbojanin (2008) 
Strange but true, I was also introduced to Kolkata’s dark underbelly during one of the Puja nights. I can’t remember the exact year but it was one of those frenetic Saptami nights in early Nineties after a typical Mohammed Ali Park sojourn, when we were crawling past Liberty Cinema towards Sovabazar I noticed packs of women of various ages, unaesthetic in their flimsily showy attires, expectantly standing on the wayside. My inquisitiveness got over my naivety as I presented this embarrassing query before Maa about them. Maa, being the classical Bong mother tried to shoo the poser away by referring to them as professional dancers (??!!!). Well, obviously I wasn’t too amused by her answer at that particular moment but later on with some really vital contribution from few of my more learned and knowledgeable friends, I came to know the existence and whereabouts of Kolkata’s own Red Light district, better known as Sonagachhi. Being somebody from the southern part of the city, and since I wasn’t exposed to its northern neighbourhoods I used to almost wait for those Puja nights to catch a glimpse of those not so fortunate sections of our society… for whom Pujas perhaps did not mean much… it was business as usual…. the only significant difference was that during Puja nights the dangling lights and the strobes would hog the limelight from these women who plied their trade in those otherwise murky, obscure alleys.

Another example of a brilliant creation in an otherwise dinghy North Kolkata gully...
an excellent fusion of contemporary design and traditional handicraft was
showcased with close to 5000 cotton figurines made by craftsmen of rural Bengal...
the highlight being a 16 ft. tall model at the Mandap Gate.... treatment of multitude of
colours underlined the memorable experience....
Darpanarayan Tagore Street Sarbojanin (2008)
Our next stop was Bagbazar Sarbojanin, another behemoth in terms of Kolkata’s Puja tradition. The route, we used to take to reach Bagbazar was a bit roundabout intentionally, as we wanted to avoid the one-ways and tight traffic. My father made the driver follow Galiff Street so that we could park our vehicle behind the Bagbazar Puja venue and as a result take a short cut entry to the Pandal. This odd route, apart from being the faster option to reach Bagbazar had a couple distinct signature landmarks of Kolkata…. the Galiff Street Bird Market adjacent to the mammoth Tram Depot and the residence of the nineteenth century Bengali musician, poet, playwright, novelist, theatre director and actor Girish Chandra Ghosh. The playwright’s heritage residence on Bagbazar Street is situated bang on the middle of the road and sticks out like a sore thumb during the heavy traffic Puja nights, which for me was a sight of rare novelty. Even amidst the Puja hustle, this smallish building stands noiselessly like a roadblock as the sea of traffic flows past…. almost assuming the identity of the city itself…. mute witness to the spectacle called Durga Pujas. 

The Ek Chala Devi.... simple yet gorgeous... Brindaban Matri Mandir (2011)

The Bagbazar Sarbojanin idol has always been a sight to behold…. a towering Ek Chala structure, sculpted by Kartik Chandra Pal & Sons which is the same potter family who continue to create this idol right from the days of its initiation in 1919. From Bagbazar we usually turned southwards through Vivekananda Road, where we would take a quick stopover at Simla Byayam Samity which was again one of the veteran Puja committees of Kolkata. And the setting was typically very North Kolkata where the Puja was stationed on a small play square inside a tapering by-lane off the main road. The locality of Simulia (or Simla, as its colloquially called now) is draped in antiquity with the ancestral residence of Swami Vivekananda at a stone’s throw distance from where the Puja takes place. The aura of that locality itself would enthrall one and all, and the Simla Byayam Samity committee has toiled hard to maintain the austerity of the Pujas through the years.
The by-lanes are so narrow that most of the Pandals are almost enwrapped
by the adjoining Houses.... Nalin Sarkar Street Sarbojanin (2010)
We would generally take a detour from Vivekananda Road southwards, back to our Park Circus residence with the first rays of Ashtami sun trying to peep out. My parents would be snoozing at the back of the car, whereas I as a juvenile teen would do my own gibberish analysis on which Puja could have won my fantasy Best Puja award. Other than being a Puja Parikrama, this was an opportunity for the Guha Roys to bond, the memories of which I still proudly cherish… it was also a sort of scholastic tour of my beloved city…. one in which Durga Puja was just a backdrop to a much larger canvas. Kolkata, as a metropolis, captivated me by its every nook and corner, roads and lanes; and has continued to do just that till date…. and that’s the actual magic of this city.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Coming of Age of the Super Woman and the Advent of the Nuovo...

I have always believed that us, Bengalis have always flourished under situations largely alien and its almost a pre-conceived fancy that until you put an average Bengali under the cosh, he/she would hardly deliver the goods. Aah, the eternal lazy-heads and sleepy-bones that we effortlessly are... there's a befitting adage that instantly comes to my mind.... "put a Bengali out of Bengal..." which accentuates the generic Bengali prototype and their bizarre convention of outshining themselves almost every time in unfamiliar, virgin spaces of work, trade and even geography. Why, I continue to wonder..... and sadly, this has percolated to almost all facets of contemporary Bengali life. Well, the quintessential Bengali might continue to deride this belief by putting forth the rationale that any socio-economic progression is based on the doctrines of cultural evolution… and who could actually deny the fact that we Bengalis would like to believe that we are still the most culturally evolved beings on this planet. Call it culture…. call it tradition…. you might even call it philosophy…. any thoroughbred Bengali would have the last say….. that’s how the cookie crumbles here…. Arguably, in any form of cultural embodiment such as Art, Craft, Literature, Religious Philosophy, etc. Bengalis have actually managed to carve a niche for themselves…. in many a case they’ve been pioneers and in others they’ve been harbingers of progress and change.
Bengal's traditional Chalchitra Art was the primary thought behind the conceptualisation of this Puja,
embellished with ethnic Rice Milk Alpana all over the Mandap.... the bright usage of colours and the
uncluttered Mandap caught  my imagination.... this was an example of how Barowari Pujas were conducted
in the early days... Vivekananda Park Athletic Club, Haridevpur (2006)
Durga Puja has primarily been Bengali’s annual cultural manifestation….. an exhibition of the classical Hindu mythology….. also a subtle demonstration of the underlying avant-gardism which the Hindu mythology portrays…. celebration of the Good in the form of womanhood getting the better of the evil…. the commemoration of the real contemporary woman … from a daughter to a wife to a mother; from a doting friend to a tough taskmaster…. all characters rolled into one…. definitely qualities of a true Super Woman…. With political independence came freedom of expression and empowerment of masses although women had a slightly rougher and lengthier road en-route attaining social sovereignty. Durga Pujas also evolved from being tepid household episodes to grand community events. This grandeur endured formidably with the number of Barowaris increasing exponentially year on year across the geographies of Bengal. But even after developing into a mass product, Durga Puja as a brand reached a status of stagnancy and monotony due to a bevy of reasons…. a stunted economic growth, jittery socio-political environs and an obvious dearth of motivation due to an absolute lack of stimulus or incentive of any sort. So as far as Durga Pujas were concerned time almost stood still at an era of Bengal’s slothful sixties predictably syphoning out into an even more sluggish seventies.

Late sixties and the early seventies saw Pujas move into a hackneyed and insipid mode, there was hardly anything fresh any Puja organiser offered, no Barowari could muster anything new or innovative… and sadly, for the first time in many years the Puja crowds started waning. Pujas started becoming another of those occurrences in the life of a Bengali, which had already reached its ephemeral zenith and thereafter slowly but steadily was passing into a sorry state of regression. Puja-wise, a creative revolution beckoned, an inventive reform was sorely needed…. At this juncture, the prototypical Bengali gene awakened from its lethargic slumber and rose like a Phoenix from the imminent ashes… this marked the introduction of Thematic Pandals initially, and Idols thereafter. Although, how and what finally triggered this is not documented well enough and during my early days as a Puja enthusiast, I kept wondering why there was no appropriate historical records of what has turned out to be an integral part of Bengal’s popular culture and art. Maybe, we underrated ourselves like we always have done….

A replica of Jayanta Mukhopadhyay's Rural Bengal imagery which
was the first specimen of Thematic Display in Kolkata in 1972....
recreated at Ballygunge Purba Pally (2011)
So most of my dope is based on hearsay and some research, largely uncertified but in absence of accurate information that is where I could have begun my quest…. the first case of Theme Puja in Kolkata was recorded at Naktala in the autumn of 1972, commissioned by the then Art College graduate Jayanta Mukhopadhyay who put up a montage of a typical Puja in rural Bengal. Now in 2012, it might sound largely unimaginative but it came across as a unique novelty amongst the pedestrian-esque mandaps which resembled more like a makeshift bulwarked shamiyana. A makeover of the Devi’s abode was unseen and with the kind of limited resources and means, we can safely call Jayanta Mukhopadhyay the doyen of Kolkata’s much celebrated Theme Puja revolution. As a start it was definitely a modest one with most of the Puja organising fraternity raising eyebrows to what seemed to be a flash in the pan. But what it actually did was to present before the audience an alternative, which was different from usual conventions and yet displaying an art form of sorts.

A traditional Five Chala Idol, which was one of the first variations from
Ek Chala.... this one's sculpted by Sanatan Rudra Pal... Park Circus Beniapukur (2010)

A typical Ek Chala Idol worshipped in the early Sarbojanins
created by Kumartuli Artisans.... Salimpur Palli (2008)

Even though the implementation of themes got underway with Pandals, the gradual transformation found momentum with innovation slowly trickling in on Durga imagery too. Till about this time, sculpting of the Goddess was a monopoly with the artisans of Kumartuli…. things began to change with increasing number of amateur Art College graduates and even professionally established artistes beginning to display their skills through Idol modeling. Obviously there were deviations in the artistes’ depiction of the form of the Goddess, which in some cases were strikingly dissimilar to the traditional Ek Chaala form. These variations were sometimes creative portrayals whereas in other cases they were representations of the artiste’s adaptation of the myth in general.


Bhabatosh Sutar's expression of the Devi...
a sample of nuovo art... Abashar Club (2010)
In the early days, one of the Clubs which patronized a lot of these professional artistes was Bakulbagan Sarbojanin of Bhowanipore who every year would invite some of the best in the business to sculpt their image. This practice was rolled out from 1975, when the legendary artiste Nirode Mazumdar created his vision of the Durga and post that, this Puja has seen a multitude of luminaries exhibiting their skills viz. Rathin Mitra, Paritosh Sen, Ramananda Bandyopadhyay, Shanu Lahiri, Sarbori Roy Chowdhury, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Shyamal Dutta Ray and Isha Mohammad, to name a few. The simple fact that most of the aforesaid greats did not even charge a fee was a testimonial to Durga Puja being the best podium available for them to demonstrate their fine arts in front of the populace and it was significantly more in value than paltry monetary benefits. Professionally trained artistes seriously entering the fray was a key step towards transforming Pujas into an Art showcase.

I've always liked the smaller Puja Committees of the city
because of the improvisations they tend to induce due to
lack of space and resources... without compromising on
artistic and aesthetic values... I loved this representation of
the Devi with her children placed on her lap with the demon
being slain airborne.... a brilliant sculpture in a really
cramped set-up..... Nimtala Sarbojanin (2006)
Although the process of metamorphosis was gradual, the city switched on to acknowledge and recognise these thematic displays and accept them as works of art. Assessing purely by location, South Kolkata Pujas were the clear frontrunners as far as thematic or innovative presentations were concerned.  
Superlative Work of Contemporary Art... Devi suspended in mid air...
sculpted by Sanatan Dinda... Nalin Sarkar Street Sarbojanin (2011)
The organisers on the northern part of the city, on the other hand continued to shun the evolution for as long as they could. Change was looming… note worthily the audience embraced this evolution which meant crowds again began to swell…. footfall during the four Puja days was appreciably showing incremental growth. Simultaneous to the experimentations with Durga imagery, there were notable improvisations carried out on Mandap designs as well. At the nascent stages the organisers would opt for Mandaps modeled as replicas of various Indian temples/monuments… for the more global-minded we’ve even had instances of international structures/edifices constructed as pandals. Though, a very big share of such efforts were eyesores to say the least, there were enough instances where the final creation came across as a worthwhile imitation.

Most tall Mandaps were constructed as Replica
of some Indian Temple like the one seen here
at Kashi Base Lane Sarbojanin (2007)
Then arrived the autumn of 1985, when the trio comprising of Advertising pundits - Derek o’ Brien & Sumit Roy and late poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay conceived the idea of introducing an award to honor the best Pujas of Kolkata. These awards, facilitated and sponsored by the Home Décor giant Asian Paints, and christened as Asian Paints Sharad Shamman sought to reward committees organising the best Pujas annually and thereby showcasing the best artisans behind creating the Goddess and her provisional dwelling. The catchphrase for the awards was aptly coined by poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay as "Shuddha Suchi, Shustho Ruchi'r Shera Bachhai" which in layman’s words connoted "The Finest amongst the Creatively Proficient and Aesthetically Meaningful". This became the watchword for years to come and to this day these awards have been the benchmark for excellence during Pujas when the city literally gets converted into an Art gallery.

An Example of a simple conventional Temple-esque
Mandap... Park Circus Beniapukur (2009)
I personally think that these awards changed the dynamics of Pujas and provided the final spark which was required to take this festival into the next level. In the first few years, the awards were judged on the basis of all-round performance which took into consideration – Mandap, Image and overall ambience. Subsequently, more categories were added & some were tweaked to make the awards more objective and holistic. Each year Pujas were evaluated by a panel comprising of Bengal’s most distinguished individuals from the field of art and crafts. The patronization of Asian Paints, and association of renowned personalities led to substantial media exposure delivering the much needed hype which in turn drove more public to the Mandaps. Pujas were finally turning into something commercially viable… and even the business community took note of that. Corporate sponsorships flowed in, Pujas became an annual cynosure in terms of trade too…. But that facet I’d touch upon later.

The Pandal-Lighting Thematic Combo was first initiated by Mudiali Club,
which saw them bagging the Sharad Samman in 1988.... a glimpse of the
Mandap at Mudiali Club (2009)
The first few years of Sharad Samman were dominated by Adi Ballygunge Sarbojanin, a smallish Puja committee in the heart of South Kolkata, who bagged Sharad Samman consecutively for four years…. a record unmatched till date. In my humble opinion, I believed that in the first three years i.e. 1985-87, Adi Ballygunge was the only awardee who accomplished the authentic goals set for the awards, in terms of innovation and improvisation. The other awardees like Jodhpur Park Sarbojanin, Maddox Square, Bagbazar Sarbojanin, College Square, Shimla Bayam Samity, Vivekananda Sporting claimed the top honors on the basis of ambience, the general feel and tone of how the Pujas were conducted. All the aforementioned Pujas were super behemoths in their own rights where all had a kind of indigenous character ascribed to themselves which attracted the masses year on year thereby tilting the scales in their favour. Adi Ballygunge on the other hand was a complete greenhorn and had the gall of trialing with the unexpected. In 1985, they won the award by erecting a replica of the Dhaulagiri Temple of Orissa while 1986 saw them constructing a 95 ft. tall replica of the Pavapuri Jain Temple. What was more astonishing was that all these structures were built with extreme dexterity on a lane which was just 24 ft. in width. Add to that the gorgeous Durga image sculpted by the award-winning artisan Mohan Banshi Rudra Pal…. Adi Ballygunge was indeed a lovely concoction of the traditional and the nuovo.

Babubagan Club was another of the early trendsetters in Thematic
Displays and New Age Art.... a brilliant specimen of fresco work
from Rupchand Kundu... Babubagan Club (2011)
I clearly remember the 1988 Pujas where my mom got me first introduced to Adi Ballygunge Sarbojanin, when she toddled me down to this Puja on a sultry Nabami morning post the announcement of the Sharad Samman results on the leading dailies. Since this was located at a relatively walkable distance from my Park Circus residence, I almost presumed it to be another of my Para (neighbourhood) Pujas and almost started basking in personal glory before even having taken a look at it.
For me it was the first specimen of a Theme Puja….. the beige coloured Pandal was a fusion of the Lotus Temple in Delhi as the dome with a conventional temple base…. this was something exceptional, at least to my juvenile eyes…. and even standing on that fateful Nabami morning I could envisage that this concept of thematic displays and installations would now be the reference point for more and more committees to follow….. bigger, better and visually more attractive art was just round the corner….. super days for a Puja follower like me were awaiting in the years to come….. Amen!!!!