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 D├ęcor 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!!!!