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Kolkata’s Durga Pujas As Expressions of Artistic Freedom……

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Jawhar Sircar : (Member, Rajya Sabha.) 14th. October 2021. The Durga pujas of Kolkata have often been called ‘the city’s great carnival’, which it surely is, but it is also the best occasion to publicly showcase the unorthodox creative spirit of the city. From crafting the image in every possible material to styling the image in any pose that the ‘theme’ demands; from the unique designs of the pandals to the mesmerising lighting — all aspects turn into fountains for imagination and experimentation to gush out.

Talking of materials in which Durga images are made, well, good old Gangetic clay remains the favourite of the highly skilled idol makers of Kumartoli. But almost everything else has also been tried out — papier macho, bamboo splints, nuts, seeds, beads, fabrics of all types, jute, flax, hemp, hay, paper, cardboard, wood, plastics, glass, ceramics, fibre-glass, shells, beads, razor blades, screws nuts, bolts — whew!
In fact, any substance that can be given shape to and can wow the viewers with its novelty or audacity. Experimentation is not confined to styles, poses, gestures. Even the dress of the idols range from the usual silk or cotton to velvet, crepes of different fabrics, tinsel, plated gold and silver, husks, jute, paper, matchsticks, broken glass — in fact, any substance that imagination could conceive.
The imagery of the goddess attacking the demon that the scriptures enjoin is also subjected to radical experimentation. Thus Durga and her family could well appear in stylishly tattered jeans while the demon just rocks on.
From film stars to national heroes, from the politician to the ugly profiteer — the folk artists and clay-modellers have used all possible ‘models’ of the deities and the villain.
It is a common practice to arrange for a small regular image placed before the larger artistic creation so that prayers are directed to it while the much-larger ‘artistic creations’ are only for public display.
Almost all the three thousand pujas are jealously different from each other. All the world heritage sites from all over the universe have been recreated with exactness in Kolkata by using humble materials like cloth, fibre, paper and board. Even the illiterate of the city know what each looks like — unlike, say, educated Americans.
This year, a replica of Dubai’s Burj tower has been erected but it’s laser lights are so perfect that airplane pilots were being misled and hence this show had to be stopped. In recent years, one could walk through Bahubali’s overawing Mahishmati palace, shake hands with Mowgli and his Jungle Book friends or even take a guided tour of the Ajanta Caves.
A couple of years ago, a theme pandal focussed on global warning simulated a tornado that whooshed around quite eerily. Its setting had 8000 kilograms of glass crafted by the artisans who camped from the ‘glass town’ of Firozabad in UP. The water display alone had some 2400 kilograms of glass.
The entire mega-city of Kolkata metamorphoses into something that is a cross between an indigenous ‘Disneyland’ and a spirited Latin American fiesta, as billions of tiny multi-coloured lights transform a struggling city into a dreamland. ‘Art installations’ on such a scale by so many untrained artists are difficult to match anywhere else in this country or abroad.
The Bengalis, who are not known for their ’energee’ suddenly draw large doses of vigour from some hidden reservoir of zeal, to give shape to their fertile and unbound creativity.
One can, of course, not join millions who trudge from pandal to pandal in this tropical temperature, and see it all on television in the cool comfort of one’s own home. But, then, one cannot really enjoy the highly skilful dances of women who balance two or more hot earthen pots with smoking husk, camphor and amber and dance before the goddess.
A recent study by the British Council reveals that “the total economic worth of the creative activities involved in Durga Puja festival is about ₹32,377 crore and the festival contributes 2.58% of West Bengal’s GDP.” In addition, several hundred thousand people get gainful employment as well — some during the season and quite a few almost throughout the year.
Durga pujas of Kolkata are, thus, serious business as piety, gaiety and commerce come together. It is also the most appropriate occasion to see how the city of joy soars high on the wings of human spirit.

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