December 9, 2023

‘Puja will be complete when Durgas on the road reach home’: Artisans in Kolkata

If Durga Puja is about homecoming then the celebrations have to wait.. If the festival is about the hope for resurrected morality, then for now the festive spirit has run dry. For now humanity is endangered.

In Sujoy Ghosh’s 2012 film Kahaani — a taut thriller centered on a lone woman’s arduous journey to avenge her husband’s death — Durga Puja plays an integral part in the narrative. Her search ends on the last day of the festival when she hunts down the killer. After extracting her revenge, she hides herself in the gathering crowd of women wearing the traditional white sari with red borders. But apart from serving as an effective ruse, the rousing dhaak playing in the background elevates the act of vengeance to a deed of righteous triumph, and for those brief moments the protagonist Vidya Bagchi appears invincible, akin to Maa Durga.

On the other hand, in Rituparno Ghosh’s 2002 film Utsab, the festival causes not just a family reunion but helps in easing pent-up creases. Members of a household come together to their ancestral home to escape from their own individual personal crises but over the course of five days, their meeting serves as a common ground to reveal and compare personal afflictions. In both instances, the festival serves as a crucial plot point but mostly highlights what it has come to represent: five-day escape from mundanity; a sanctioned licence to be brazenly optimistic and to believe, even for a short while, in the existence of a higher power and functional morality.

The migrant Durga

The Durga idol at Barisha Club in Behala, Kolkata, is unadorned, almost bare. She has no speck of colour and the goddess whose homecoming we celebrate, has her back turned to us. She is leaving with her infant in arms and two daughters by her side. Durga here has not come back home but is on her way like the many migrants who had taken to streets earlier this year. She is emblematic of that indomitable spirit. She is the face of those migrant workers. She is one of them. “I was certain that if I worship this year I will worship humanity and those countless human beings who walked back home,” says Rintu Das, the artist who conceptualised the idol and the pandal. He found Durga among the crowd rather than make one for them. She has no colour because, as Das asks, how can she? “She has walked day and night. The sheen is lost.” The idea came subconsciously “I kept thinking about what I can do this time while working.”

By the time it was done, the end result resembled the iconic painting Darpamoyee, a re-imagining of the idol as an everywoman by the late Bikash Bhattacharjee. Das insists the resemblance is not deliberate but also acknowledges his deep admiration for Bhattacharjee.“ He is my guru and maybe I was influenced subconsciously. After I completed the painting, it became more evident,” he concedes. It was executed by idol-maker Pallab Bhowmick to perfection through undeterred perseverance.

In Salt Lake AK Block, the idol is bereft of any weapons. Instead of the trident she has rice grains in her hand. Much like Das, artist Samrat Bhattacharya wanted to pay homage to the human crises which unfolded for everyone to see but mostly he wanted people to remember. “This is no concept, this is a reality we have all seen,” Bhattacharya says. A resident of Nagaland, he too is a migrant worker who unlike many stayed back. But his shared status has enabled him to be empathetic. “The migrant workers worked so hard to go back home. Those who are staying here must at least pledge to remember them and be with them,” he adds. The entire pandal has a story to tell. In keeping with the guidelines most of it is under open air.

Leading to the idol is a road and on either sides there are workers with their families trudging along. The idea is they are coming home and their mother, Durga is waiting for them at the entrance of the house with food in hand.

His tribute is further evidenced in the batik portraits of migrant workers, inspired from the many faces he saw on news channels and the many from the area.

“The word porijaayi sromik (migrant worker) did not exist in our dictionary. We knew the word in terms of birds,” says Bhabatosh Suta, the man behind Naktala Udayan Sangha Puja pandal. “I felt very helpless to see that a staggering number of people who leave their homes to earn a living was conveniently forgotten by our ministers.” This helplessness which stemmed from being a bystander at that time, found shape in the architecture of the pandal. On its sides are trucks and matadors which Suta believes continue to be the mode of transport for a certain class in spite of all the progress.

But he really goes all out depicting his angst when he replaces the familiar alpona, which signifies footsteps of goddess lakshmi, with a structure made out of chappals. “I never think I am making a mere pandal. I always see Durga Puja in social context. As an artist it is my responsibility to uphold the reality I see every day. The prospect of making something from scratch which will be seen by so many people provides me with a site of activism,” he says.

Durga Puja in times of Covid

For most of this year, Durga Puja in the city was shrouded in conjectures. The ongoing uncertainty delayed preparations to last minute and severely constrained budgets. “My aim this year was to use minimum resources and maximum imagination,” Das says. “Till the first week of September we were unsure about the puja as well as the guidelines. There were no sponsorships and we had no idea how we would execute,” Trinoy Banerjee, member of Barisha Club, says the budget slashed from the usual 50 lakh to 20 lakh. In a bid to use whatever resources they had, Puja President Sudeep Polley had asked Das if the latter could use the 30,000 empty jute bags that were with Polley after relief work. It fell in line with what Das had in mind and the result was the pandal being decorated with those jute bags with the word ‘traan’ meaning ‘relief’ embossed on it.

Suta did something similar: used the shackles of limited budget to sharpen his imagination. With 25 lakhs at his disposal unlike the usual 70 lakhs, he created the pandal at Naktala Udayan Sangha mostly in open spaces. “My structure is very bare. I used minimum raw materials, basically a lot of bamboo. There is no architectural design near the mandap.” But these artists, on their turn, have used the platform to create employment for several others. Suta worked with 70 people including several women. Bhattacharya too employed artisans from Shyamnagar, Amta, Kumortulli in his bid to stand by them at this hour of need.

The theme this year is humanity

Durga Puja in Kolkata might mean different things for different people but underlying all the five days encapsulate a feverish hope for wish fulfillment, of believing that things will look better once the daughter returns. Even cinematically the festival signifies a quiet leeway, a narrative justification for letting good triumph over evil, for making age-old bitterness subside. This escape or refuge is reflected in the fervour which grips people in the city.  Over the years, the scale has expanded and pandals — growing like vanishing trees at every corner of the city — present with a possibility of either escaping reality or confronting it.

Rooted to a theme, however, they are always an exaggeration even in their approximation of reality. This time things are different. The home where the daughter returns is no longer the same. So many faceless people suffered abject adversity. So many are still without their homes. So many are still on the streets. If Durga Puja is about homecoming then the celebrations have to wait. If the festival is about the hope for resurrected morality, then for now the festive spirit has run dry. Das sums it when he says, “Durga Puja will only be complete when all the Durgas on the road reach home.” But home, as we know, is still a long way. For now one can derive hope from the refrain that is rehashed at the end of the festival every year: asche bochor abar hobey (next time there will be Durga Puja again).


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