Being Women

Durga Puja: The Finest Art In Display At 7 Pandals

Art is transient, but its impact is permanent; it hurts your conscience but heals it too; it instigates you to act and inspires you to excel....

My demure mother turns into a feisty teen when it comes to pandal hopping during Durga Puja. So much so that neither the corrosive cancer nor the fearful footfall at the venues can dampen her determination to partake in the frenzy that the festival fosters.

But the execution of the act with a mercurial septuagenarian was getting more difficult with each passing year. I, being her only companion in this annual undertaking of hers, kept thinking of means, even manipulative ones, to back up her aesthete aspirations.

Then one day, literally on my lap, fell a newspaper with an advertisement that seemed to be the perfect solution to my problems. UNESCO was presenting a Preview Show of Durga Puja Art 2023, which would span over 5 days between October 11 and October 15. It would be a curated event of the tour of selected pandals and their art installations before they were opened up to the masses. To attend it, tickets had to be purchased, which would entitle one to get a sneak peek into the choicest festive art that Kolkata has to offer.

Here it is worth mentioning that Durga Puja of Kolkata has been inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2021. Interestingly, the festival impacts the local economy in a much more influential manner than we imagine and offers opportunities to the underprivileged and needy.

Without rambling further, let me share with you the experience.

Flashing the trump card in one hand and holding my mother’s arm in another, I entered the first pandal with elan and excitement. But when I walked out of the last art space (that’s what I would like to call it), I was humbled and full of heart. I had experienced, even if for a while, what Joseph Campbell once said…

“The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.”

Starting the journey closer home, Beliaghata 33 No Palli Bashi Brinda was the first pandal to remind me of the illuminating power of art. Named Sailarti, it brings out the painful lament of mountains due to the relentless pressure they have been subjected to for ages. The Kailash Mountain, it is believed, is the abode of Maa Durga, and it is as if humans are committing a heinous crime against her by destroying the balance of this physical feature, which at present verges on collapse and catastrophe.

In a similar vein but with a distinct message was Barisha Club, the pandal showcasing the theme of Bhanga Gora or destruction, paving the way for creation in the natural cycle of things. However, havoc through human hatred and jealousy in the mortal world is condemned. Creation through camaraderie is what the radiant Durga demands as a deadly darkness threatens to engulf her.

After a good deal of pondering, the much-needed ease and entertainment came in the form of Behala Nutan Dal. It was indeed a one-of-a-kind presentation. Phuchka, also known as gol gappa or panipuri, was the theme of this pujo. Not only were Durga and her children sitting inside a giant phuchka shell, but the whole pandal was aesthetically adorned with it. For a phuchka-fanatic like myself, this was Sworgo (Heaven on Earth). Any guesses as to who tasted this snack first? Lord Krishna Himself! So, next time, gorge on phuchkas without any guilt whatsoever.

Another visual delight was Dumdum Park Bharat Chakra. It had resplendent puppets everywhere, including the Goddess herself. Unlike the outward show, the inner intent was deep and directed. Bhranti, or man’s illusion of being the most powerful self and pulling the strings the way he wants, was the profound theme it projected. But alas! “We are all puppets in the hands of fate and seldom see the strings,” as Charles W. Chesnutt had aptly expressed.

Emboldened by the illusion of ascendency, man keeps climbing up the steps of life, which is reflected in the thematic installations of Je Jekhane Dariye by Chetla Agrani. He is bloated with hubris and haste and is oblivious to his inhumanity as he pushes down anyone who comes his way. However, Durga residing within an eagle is perhaps symbolic of her love for mankind and the promise of her protection.

A pujo that completely threw me off guard was Arjunpur Amra Sabai Club, where the exclusivity of Durga intermingled with the commonality of the masses to create a future of equality and oneness. The theme is an amalgamation of a couple of thoughtful pieces: on one side, I heard conversations amidst congestion, a hallmark of common life; on another, there was a clay and straw Durga with two hands and her children looking up to her, perhaps a representative of the commoners; in the middle, two statue heads were banging intermittently to signify the strife that torments every individual. The Goddess will, therefore, enable the creation of an egalitarian society bereft of class and conflict.

I was struck dumb after I stepped out of the heart-wrenchingly dramatic presentation of Kashi Bose Lane, which screamed out the message, Chai Na Hote Uma! The atrocious reality of girl-child trafficking was the theme of this hellhole. One disturbing installation after another was placed, only to create outrage towards this act of barbarity.

A girl’s head and hands are visible through a stifling gunny bag; tapestries of gentlemen carrying umbrellas; a rotating disc with girls, whose pelvic areas had been replaced by apples, standing on them while repulsive tongues stuck out and vultures perched around; and a solitary girl with two mirrors in front of her, two bridal beds on both sides and cages all around, enclosing clay heads of girls and Durga too.

The most poignant demonstration was the Goddess herself with a life-like child bride at her feet, which reminded me of the Kumari pujo ritual. Right above her was another girl child leaping out of the trauma of a bed towards the freedom of a blue sky!

Art is transient, but its impact is permanent; it hurts your conscience but heals it too; it instigates you to act and inspires you to excel; and finally, it levels you to the base but liberates you from yourself. So, if you are an art aficionado, Kolkata is the place to be during Durga Puja, and till then, I’ll leave you with more visuals to muse on…


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