The Durga Pujo of Kolkata – Where Art meets Devotion

The city of Kolkata, gets all decked up like a bride during the 5 days of Durga puja. The elaborate pandals, the lip smaking food, music and fairs, its an experience one must indulge atleas once in their lifetime.

My instagram handle is now home to more posts with Throwback hashtag than anything else. Nobody imagined the COVID pandemic to be this bad for this long, that even the annual celebration of Durga Puja (a.k.a. Navratri) will be marred. But as luck would have it, here we are, still confined to our homes, bound to observe this year’s festivity on TV and feel nostalgic about yesteryears. So, just like our media houses, here I am, writing a throwback post to tap into that nostalgia. A throwback of my Durga Puja escapades of 2019 in Kolkata.

It was my first experience of Durga pujo (puja simply doesn’t have the same ring to it) in the city that goes all out to showcase the creativity of its artists and dazzle with its larger then life pandals that crop up everywhere in the city. Pandals are temporary structures set up to venerate gods and goddess, which usually are made up of a creative combination of bamboo, fabric, Styrofoam and lights.

Here I will try to give a glimpse of what I saw on my pandal hopping of 2019. It won’t be the same in future, as pandals and theme keep changing. It however will provide you with a vision of the scale at which the celebrations take plqce and what to expect when you can finally take that journry. This is not a ranking, rather these were the pandals that I found interesting for various reasons; among the ones I visited. Yes, I couldn’t visit all of them.

Table of the Pandals in focus:
1. The Introspective Pandal.
2. The Kolkata Pandal
3. The Bamboo Pandal.
4. The Nostalgic Pandal.
5. The Out Of The Box Pandal.
6. The Wacky One
7. Bling! Bling! All that matters is Gold

The Introspective Pandal :

In Kolkata, there is no perfect time for pandal hopping, I started from the morning and continued till late night. The pandal at Dum Dum Park was my very first of 2019, and that did set up the mood for rest of my tour.

I reached Dum Dum Park at around 11 AM, and saw a huge globe placed at the end of a lake. It was intriguing, why would anyone make a pandal out of a globe? This was my very first encounter with the theme based pandal design, that Kolkata has so readily embraced. As I neared the entry, I finally realized what was on display there.

The pandal of Dum Dum Park

The pandal tries to showcase how unabated development as turned the earth into a concrete jungle. It was trying to showcase, in its own unique way what the earth would be in the year 2091. There were small boxes placed on a concave surface on top of the globe. These boxes were depicting buildings and the sheer number of those, have increased so much that they were now ready to engulf earth.  

Buildings depicted by boxes, ready to engulf Earth

A structure depicting a bent spine can also be seen on the globe, which basically showcases that even the spine of earth has bent completely trying to cope with the pressures of modernization. You may consider it depressing but this is a fact that cannot be denied.

The bent spine of Earth

With lots of questions in my mind, I entered the pandal to witness depiction of a fictitious story. An ancient temple, on the verge of being torn down to make way for an apartment. A board in Bengali saying, “this is the last puja of this temple and post Dasami, the temple will be demolished.”

The inside of the pandal

The look of an underconstrution apartment all around, with the small temple like structure in the middle definitly pushed the point home. The whole design had such deep thought being put in and executed so well. It was a great depiction of the hunger that humans have for expansion, which is much bigger than beliefs and respect for their own heritage.

With a heavy heart I left the pandal asking myself, what is the cost we will have to pay for our ever expanding desire for more. This just showed how art can make you think, and just how deep some of these artists were ready to go. Kolkata just bowled me over in the first ball of the innings.

The Kolkata pandal:

My cab dropped me at the Ballygunge crossing, after walking for 100 odd meters I saw rows after rows of white shirts hanging from really high wires. The road underneath those shirts, lead to a structure, which had a mashup of totally unrelated objects. The only thing that was giving a pandal vive was the gigantic white face that adorned the entry, else it looked like an experiment that made no sense.

Rows of hanging shirts leading up to the miss mash pandal
The pandal of Samaj Sebi Shongho – Ballygunge

Metal roofs, suit cases, door grills, windows and cycles, all found a place in this structure. It was like someone just went crazy and welded anything and everything he could land his hands on to form a shape. It looked chaotic, but when I observed it with patience, I realized that the artist had spent a huge amount to time in placing all these elements so as to form a cohesive design.

The theme of this pandal as per the organisers, Samaj Sebi Shangho, was ‘inclusion’. Basicaly they were highlighting the life of labourers and small shopkeepers who build our society but never really get their due credit. Hence this pandal was depicting there lifestyle, how they live, travel and shop.

Setup of a typical saloon inside the pandal

The interior was far more artistic and had to be one of the best pieces of art from scrap I have ever seen. Barber shop, tea stalls, jewellery shop, turned over oil canisters, everything found a place inside that pandal, designed and fit into that small space with utmost dexterity. There were design of homes in the first level, and in one of those I saw a woman combing the hair of a child. Pretty sure that was a video, but the execution was flawless.

Depiction of a home with the reflection of a mother combing the hair of her daughter.
The mother and daughter as seen on the mirror.

I managed to capture a video of the same, so you can enjoy it and appreciate the designer.

The dingy saloon on the corner of a street, the jewelry shop that looked more creepy then appealing, finding some use for any kind of scrap. In my childhood, I used to visit Kolkata during summer vacations, and it so happened that we used to stay in a neighborhood which consisted of all such quirks. So, for me, since then all these were what defined Kolkata. This pandal encapsulated it beautifully.

The Bamboo Pandal:

Bamboo, Bamboo all around. This pandal belonging to Ballygaunge Cultural Association was all art work made out of bamboo. The wood as carved into various shapes, some were simple cylinders and some others were intricate designs representing human and animals.

The open pandal of Ballygunge Cultural Association

It was a testament of how great our artisans are. This simply can’t be described in words and has to be seen to be believed. Representation of tribal folks, motifs of fish, storks hanging from the top and a fan with two sets of blades, one rotating clockwise while another anti clock wise. All were placed meticulously to form an overwhelming array of beauty.

I was both happy and disappointed that I was there in the day and not at night. Happy because I could stand there longer to soak in all the artistry that had gone in, disappointed because I couldn’t experience the place with all the lights turned on. Coming in the night however would mean you need to keep walking with the crowd and won’t get the chance to stand and acknowledge the art for a longer duration.

The fan with couter rotating blades & stork puppets that appear flying

The Nostalgic Pandal:

Before the digital revolution hit us, letters used to be regarded as the only means of long distance communication. Everything from job offers to invitation cards, from greeting cards wishing ‘happy new year’ to a letter from a random relative congratulating someone for something, all of those relied on the post office, post man and letter boxes.

With time, the importance of such things have reduced as most of these now a days are done over wattsapp. None of these new age technology however can replace the joy/anxiousness of opening a sealed envelope.

The pandal of Chetla Agroni, decided to pay tribute to those good old days, when life ran with slower pace, and socializing meant actually meeting people. Thousands of letter boxes dotted the pandal, with names of random people written on them. A post box and a hand pulled rickshaw also found place on the pandal forefront. The higher ends of the pandal represing a colourful city.

A huge pupet you see in the picture below is playing the “pied pipper”, who is driving out mice from the city. The mice here are computer mouse, which basically signifies that the piper is driving out the aggressive modern technology and returning us back to the slow paced days of the past.

The pandal of Chetla Agroni
Driving out the mice

The artists however had pulled all their creativity while designing the interior of the pandal. Every inch of it was a time capsule, taking me back to my childhood. First up is a ceiling filled with pendulums, followed by a wall adorned with typewriters, hand fans, wall clocks, landline phones, transistor radio and my favourite 90s memory, the tape cassetes.

All our nostalgic memories, pasted on the wall.

The walls in the inner sanctum were decorated with wall art depicting the heritage of Kolkata, starting from trams to the howrah bridge. From hand pulled carts to horse carriages, all found a place, framed beautifully within circular wodden frames.

Once one has recovered from this nostalgia, they are again transported to an even older era. A Colonial bed, hand pulled ceiling fan, a gramophone and a grand piano welcome the visitors into the inner sanctum.

Wall art depicting heritage of Kolkata
The bed with a hand pulled ceilingfan

Then atlast comes the ceiling of the inner sactum, under which the deity of goddess durga presided. The ceiling was a three dimensional map of roads, bridges and homes with lights peeking through the windows. It was the map of Kolkata, upside down.

If you take a closer look, you will be able to find the Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial. I could have never thought lights peeking through the small windows on boxes would look so aesthetic and pleasing.

Maa Durga and the ceiling with a 3D map of Kolkata
Look carefully, you will find the howrah bridge in the left side top corner.

The out of the box pandal:

Do me a favour; take a look at this picture. What do you think is those decorative dangly lines are made of? Give a wild guess.

Took the guess? Now let me reveal it to you. Those are made of safety pins. Yes, safety pins, millions of them, of all sizes, interconnected to form chains. These chains dotted the whole pandal.

Safety pins

Someone had this weird idea of decorating a pandal out of safety pins. They not only feature as dangly things, but it is the central theme of this pandal. Huge replicas of safety pin were created and placed meticulously to provide shape to the pandal. The deities even wore jewelry made out of safety pins. This idea is so wild and executed so well, that I started to question myself, is there anything that an artist cannot convert into art.

Huge replicas of safety pins adore the pandal at Belghoria

The wackiest of them all

We have already witnessed a pandal made of safety pins, what could be more wacky that that. Well that spot goes to Kumurtuli Park.

Kumurtuli, where artists create the clay idols of the goddess that then spreads to the whole city, this year decided to pay tribute to the chandrayan 2 mission of ISRO. The pandal was a huge rocket all complete with communication towers and launch pad.

The pandal of Kumurtuli Park

That’s not wacky! Its actually what is inside, that places this pandal on the top slots of ‘wackyness’

The diety presided inside an OFO shaped inner sanctum

Insides of this rocket was a scene straight of of the wild imaginations of ET enthusiasts. A terrain designed as the asteroid in Armageddon and a saucer shaped UFO, all lit in an eerie blue tint. There were aliens as well in the pandal, thank god they didn’t have guns on them. Phew!!

Bling! Bling! All that matters is gold

Till now what I have shown you were glorious pandals, where the theme and execution wowed us. It is now time to look at one where the deity was the centre of attraction.

At Santosh Mitra Square, the pandal itself was very beautifully modeled after the ISCON temple of Mayapuri, however the huge crowd that descended from all parts of the state, was there for the goddess. The ‘sonar durga’.

The pandal of Santosh Mitra Square

It took 250 jewelers, 50kg of gold and almost 3 months to complete. The 20 ft high deity is made up of clay, with an half inch layer of gold plate moulded to form the outer layer and pasted on top of the clay. The craftsmanship into making this peice of art is fantastic.

As per the organizers, this gold will be returned to the jewelers once the festival is over, which they can later use to make jeweleries for mortals like us. The past year this same pandal showcased a deity with a saree made of gold.

Their obsession with gold is not blind, there is a reason behind it. For years the market had many gold workshops managed by skilled goldsmiths. With time however, most of such shops lost their business to MNCs making jewelry using modern machinery. The organisers want to send accross a message that machines may make jeweler but only ‘Vishwakarmas‘ (gold-artists) can make a goddess not any machine. It takes a certain skill to produce suh marvels, machines simply cannot do that.

To further emphasis on gold, the interior of the pandal was modeled as sheesh mahal, or a hall of reflections. It reeked of golden aura as the lights, which were yellow, shone off them. It was an overdose on gold, something that overwhelmed the senses.

The durga pujo in Kolkata is not just a pujo, it is a time for people to take a much needed break from their regular life and indulge in a non stop party for 5 days. For most of the people in the city, these days are probabaly the only days when they can spend time with friends and family without worrying about their work. The city has definitely ensured they have a great time.

No post can truely capture the scale and beauty of the biggest carnival in the east. You need to let go of your inhibitions and immerse yourself in the celebration. In this time of social distancing, we may not be able to give the city a visit. However as the bengali chant during the bisarjan goes “asche bochor aabar hobe” (next year it will happen again), I will be back for 2021. Give it a shot, you won’t regret.

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