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.