Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Durga Puja Pandals - A Brouhaha of Gimmick and Serious Art

The inevitable juggernaut of life rolls on relentlessly and we, as props, merely try to evolve with passage of time. Some do it successfully and others like me are caught in a warp of reminiscence making an obtuse effort of clinging on to every transitory moment. I’ve been often engulfed in this abject state of nostalgia, and appreciatively I’ve managed to emerge as a more positive and assured individual through these reflective paroxysms. Durga Puja in Kolkata is one such piquant trigger in my life which arrives annually and pokes my wistful genes through numerous innuendos and allusions. Birendra Kishore Bhadra’s lilting Mahishasura Mardini (Annihilation of Buffalo Demon) chants still captivate me every Mahalaya dawn, probably the only daybreak I’m ever witness to considering the kind of doped sleepyhead that I am.  25 years ago, this was a routine imbibed by my parents typically emphasising that Durga Pujas would not commence spiritually if one did not hook on to the then radio recitals of this octogenarian narrator. Initially I quivered in contempt, failing to decipher an uncomplicated code where every year the entire Bengali kibbutz would wake up to this very baritone and hail the onset of Devi Pakkha, such that it almost became synonymous with the carnival itself. Bengalis have always been parochial about their customs and habits, and this was nothing dissimilar. In 1976, All India Radio having commissioned the Tollywood legend Uttam Kumar for the same recital, owing to absolutely lukewarm responses had to replace him immediately the next year, with Bhadra returning to the foil again. It has crooned on unchanged ever since, and provided us all with the grand opening act of Durga Pujas.


Born in 1978, a hefty part of my adolescence and youth had been exposed to a sort of transmutation amongst the Kolkata Puja organising fraternity primarily during end 80’s and 90’s. From traditional canopy-based pandals/mandaps, Puja committees gradually were seen to be moving to Structural Replicas like imitations of various Indian Temples, Shrines, Palaces etc. in an effort to exhibit something different from the ordinary and thereby attract the masses. The earliest harbingers of such Mandaps were the then usual
A Geometric Structural Design...
Babubagan Club (2013)
bigwigs namely College Square Sarbojanin, Ekdalia Evergreen Club, Sealdah Athletic Club, Sreebhumi Sporting & others who, year on year, routinely churned out some replicated colossal monument. Replicas ranged from Jagannath Temple at Puri to Kedarnath Temple at Kedar; from the lavish Amba Vilas Palace at Mysore to the Hazarduari Palace at Murshidabad…. Futile attempts were also made to recreate Taj Mahal (Agra), Red Fort (New Delhi) & Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Mumbai) principally to serve the taste of the ever enthusiastic travel buffs of Bengal. In all the above examples, sadly this duplication remained restricted to the façade and only the frontage of the pandal resembled the actual monument whereas the interiors still continued to be largely a disparity in décor and theme.


One of the initial experiments with Pandal Form... This Tent-shaped Pavilion
was a far cry from traditional Mandap Forms... Made primarily with Canes this
was one of Susanta Pal's unique structures... Naktala Udayan Sangha (2007)
Yeah, sometimes it goes all
ruefully wrong... This one, a
Lego Land Replica... Swapnar
Bagan Jubak Brindo (2009) 

I remember a few instances where such reproductions had actually caught the critics’ eye…. Lotus Temple (New Delhi) Replica by Santosh Mitra Square Sarbojanin in 1995 and Dilwara Jain Temple (Mount Abu) Replica by Jodhpur Park Sarbojanin in 2001 were two samples of structural simulations which have remained in my memory. Attempts were also made to create mock-ups of monuments from lands far and wide, beyond national boundaries. Even though some of those recreations managed to arouse public tumult by virtue of being out-of-the-box but most of them were typically forgettable and extremely lacklustre in terms of architecture and in art quotient. Be it the Egyptian Pyramids… the Babylonian Ziggurats, or even the more modern marvels like White House of Washington DC, St. Peter’s Basilica of Rome & Pashupati Nath Temple of Kathmandu…. each one of them were reconstructed albeit in a rehashed manner… People thronged these Mandaps due to mere inquisition instead of awe but ultimately these irrelevant pieces of exhibition remained very short-lived in the minds of the audience. Puja spectators were maturing and gradually starting to expect more from the organisers in terms of skill and creative aptitude instead of mundane rip offs.



Mandap right out of the pages of Arabian Nights...  33 Palli, Beleghata (2008)
There was also a phase where Sarbojanins resorted to Mandaps resembling incidents or even referential reconstruction of Hollywood Blockbusters. The Mandaps were created to represent real life events, ideally those which topical or newsworthy. In some cases, bad news became apparently good news for the organisers. In 1997, Santosh Mitra Square Sarbojanin had pulled the rug from under other Barowaris with its extraordinary display of the infamous Gaisal Train Tragedy, with blood-smeared bogies and bodies. Clearly, success is spelt as "innovation". A bit of imagination, a bit of artistic license, and one could end up with a pandal that will attract the biggest turnout.

The prototypical Bengali has always been a movie buff, and hence the influence of the tinsel town has always writ large on Kolkata Pujas. Durga images were often sculpted like contemporary Tollywood & Bollywood matinee idols. In the 1960’s when Suchitra Sen was the undisputed queen of Bengali filmdom, Lakshmi and Saraswati idols were known to have been modelled on her face.

A Giant Kadam Flower.... Santoshpur Triangular Park Sarbojanin (2012)
In the late 70’s & 80’s, artistes were asked to portray the “Hema Malini smile” on Durga, the “Amitabh Bachchan hairdo” on Kartik while the poor Asura remained a grotesque “Gabbar Singh” or “Shaakaal” look alike. Hollywood’s debut in Kolkata Pujas can be dated back to the time when one of the Clubs had imported the style of Durga-Demon combat from the west, by essaying a Tarzan-esque Asura swinging from vines and about to leap on Durga, sword in hand. Post Jurassic Park franchise in the 90’s, a lot of Clubs put up multitude forms of dinosaur tableaux to cash in on the global dino-mania. There was a point where it seemed T-Rexes were almost lumbering into puja pandals at every nook and corner of Kolkata. Gory sight!!! But nevertheless, there were countless takers and you could find the same trend continuing at

some Puja Pandal even today. 1998 saw Saltlake FD Block Sarbojanin erect a 150 ft long, 90 ft high replica of the Titanic, which easily swept the popularity charts for the year. Apart from the usual hype it induced, this was a major milestone for pujas in Saltlake, who before this were almost like making up the numbers. A few years later in 2007, the same Barowari came to limelight with the display of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle. There was enough mass hysteria around it and this ploy by the organisers paid off with lakhs of people swamping to witness this spectacle. The gimmick also gathered momentum just before the Pujas with JK Rowling and Penguin Books suing the Puja Organisers for copyright infringement. Obviously the matter was eventually resolved mutually and amicably through Delhi High Court’s intervention.

A Buddha Façade rendering Gouranga Kuilya's message of Peace.... Tridhara Sammelani (2012)
The turn of millennium also corroborated the advent of thematic displays and conceptual art forms. New methods of structural implementation of Pandals were experimented upon. Innovative shapes and dimensions were offered by theme-makers to give appearance to their inventive impressions.
One of the early exponents of Wood Carved
Installations... Chaltabagan Lohapatty (2006)
Durga Puja, even a decade back, was quite often an experience in conventionality. Rarely did the discourse throw up issues of art installations, deconstruction, exploration of folk art forms and theme-based craftsmanship. Durga Puja Mandaps no longer have the staid, dull look of yesteryears. Instead mandaps have now comfortably metamorphosed from canopy-based structures to site-specific installations. A brilliant example of such site-specific installation was undertaken in 2010 by Susanta Pal at Badamtala 
Site Specific Installation meets Street Art for the first
time in Kolkata... Susanta Pal's brilliant Sun God Wall
Motif was the cynosure of his theme Dugga Utsav....
Badamtala Aasharh Sangha (2010)
Aasharh Sangha. The theme was coined as “Dugga Utsav” wherein the entire locality was given a makeover. Residents had to flit through open doors that formed the base of a gigantic representation of the sun; balconies were framed by decorative motifs; walls were intricately painted (picture on the left) and the neighbourhood houses blend in tastefully with the pandal that is wedged cosily within a small clearing. Everything and everyone from the locality seemed to have become part of the grand puja canvas. Conclusively, the art movement in Kolkata has steadily incorporated strong doses of post modernism and Durga Puja has become an exposition of conceptual art.

Amongst the theme-based Pujas, the visualisers deal with issues ranging from the spiritual and environmental to historical and mythological. This provides ample scope for conceptualization, and results in a common aesthetic strain which embodies the design of the outer pandal area, the mandap, the idol and lighting scheme. But there have been cases of utter disaster as well where the theme or installation was so cryptic that it turned out to be an absolute farce. Distinguished German artist Gregor Schneider, who was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2001 for his installation work Totes Haus u r, designed the pandal shell of Ekdalia Evergreen in 2011. The ambitious project - "It's all Rheydt in Kolkata 2011" was made of plywood and plaster, with the pandal resembling a "re-constructed" German road. This abstract form of work which recreated a three-dimensional road using typical techniques and material failed to muster any sort of appreciation from the public primarily due to the fact that most of the audience could not understand Schneider’s presentation. And most importantly, there was hardly any connect between the Pandal with the spirit of Durga Puja. The public feedback was so disapproving that Ekdalia Evergreen had to return to its traditional ways in the following year. Hence, it can be decisively concluded that thematic displays have not always reaped dividends for Clubs.

A beautiful Prasanta Pal display based on the folk art of Gond Tribals of Madhya Pradesh, which bagged them Asian Paints Sharod Samman for the year.... Ultadanga Sangrami (2013)
That is not to say, however, that the making of Pandals can simply be fused with contemporary art, for there are clear variances between the dynamics of the two endeavours. For starters, the hybridity and impermanence of a theme pandal and its production by a professional artist do not
A Contemporary Style of Open Canopy Structure
potraying aboriginal Art form... Barisha Club (2011)
automatically make it synonymous with installation art, because unlike pandal-making, installation is a mode of representation in modern art created at a specific art-historical moment in the discourse of the avant-garde. Also, due to the mass nature of the festival, one's artistic freedom in designing a pandal is often consciously compromised by numerous factors, from ritual and iconographic stipulations to public taste. Contrary to one's studio work, therefore, choices and treatments of themes in this context have their limits. For instance, even though a female deity is the focal point of this annual event, it is hard to imagine images of female nudity, prostitution or pornography appearing in a pandal that addresses exploitation of women as its theme. Eventually, the role of the market is vastly different in the two spheres. The art market, which operates all year round, has hardly anything to do with this season-specific commissioning and appraisal of pandals.

I perceive Durga Pujas of Kolkata to be the world’s largest, most popular public art exhibition. And probably the only one that ends with the artworks being so methodically demolished and eliminated. Only a city of anarchists could produce such outrageous beauties, and then destroy it with such elation. That is what this bizarre city called Kolkata has been, and will be!!!