A vast range of craftsmanship goes into making the Durga Puja festival a success, right from the building of pandals, the clay idols of goddess Durga and other gods that accompany her, and the special lighting in the pandals and streets. The preparations begin about six months before D-Day. Media reports place the total expenditure for the festival at about Rs 130 crore. More than two lakh artisans from different folk art genres and workers from small industries put together this show every year. In fact, the festival keeps several folk art forms alive.
The illuminated panels that adorn the streets during Durga Puja originate in Chandannagar, a small town in West Bengal once occupied by the French. Around 50,000 people who work in the lights industry here are busy nine months of the year creating extravagant installations for the festival. Several men work on each installation, rapidly stitching thousands of tiny, multi-coloured bulbs onto pre-designed wire frames, creating a magical tableau of images of moving vehicles, animals, fire-spitting dragons, celebrities, waterfalls, monkey gods, Nobel prizewinners, political and environmental messages, and what have you. These creations now travel around the world – the most famous one was a giant peacock barge (using 135,000 micro bulbs) which formed the centerpiece at the 2003 Thames Festival.
Kolkata-based consultant and curator for traditional art and crafts Nandita Palchoudhuri has been working with the artisans behind the spectacle of Durga Puja for a while now. Her aim is to bring durability and respect to these art forms and feels it would be a pity if it remained just a five-day fun thing for people. She wants to showcase the art forms to the world, as well as give them a kind of permanence that is lacking right now because when the Puja days are over, all the creations are thrown into the Hooghly or the nearest rivers / ponds.
A few weeks before the pujas begin, visitors to Kolkata can see Durga idols being created by the clay artists of Kumartuli and Potuapara (old neighbourhoods where the clay modellers have lived and worked for generations). Many of these will be exported for pujas abroad (including UK, USA, Germany, Singapore, Australia etc). The idols are crafted from bamboo, straw and clay from the Hoogly River nearby. A series of rituals are scattered through the making of the idol. These involve an age-old custom of collecting a handful of soil (punya mati) from nishiddho pallis (‘forbidden territories’ where sex workers live), and adding it to the clay mixture. An important event in the creation process is ‘chokkhu daan’, when the idol’s eyes are painted. This is the last step in the process, executed seven days before the festivities begin.
THE PANDAL CREATORS
If you drive around Kolkata now, you will see men at work on towering structures of bamboo and cloth, as tall (and sometimes taller) as the surrounding apartment buildings. These are the pandals which will house the idols and host thousands of visitors (the ‘pandal hoppers’), food stalls and cultural events on makeshift stages. The pandals are the centre of the festivities throughout the puja period – on an average, the big pandals get more than 150,000 visitors every day. It is now almost mandatory for pandals to have a theme, with a local artist coordinating the design. The themes range from regional aesthetic folk art forms to bordering-on-corny Jurassic Park (with dinosaurs), pandals shaped like the Titanic, Harry Potter-Hogwarts, etc. Then there are those that address contemporary social issues or international events such as the death of Princess Diana, 9/11, and natural disasters like tsunamis.
THE SHOLA WORKERS
Durga idols have been traditionally adorned with delicate white jewellery and other accessories made of shola, a kind of papier–mâché made from the shola plant found in the wetlands in and around Kolkata. It’s a dying art form though, as a booming real estate scene is rapidly destroying wetlands. Only a handful of truly skilled shola artists remain. Shola products also get shipped abroad – the more popular ones are flowers (used for gift wrapping and decor) and Christmas decorations for Western markets.