A FESTIVAL AND MORE – Urban folk culture finds best expression during the Durga Pujas – never to say die, however, hopefully willing to live and let live …. without hegemony or colonialism ?!!
FROM THE TELEGRAPH
BY JAWHAR SIRCAR
To an outsider visiting Calcutta during its annual autumnal madness, the city conjures up unforgettable visions. A metropolis, which, even during a normal day, strains every muscle to prevent itself from bursting at its seams, then witnesses some six to eight million people on its streets, jostling to snatch glimpses of as many of the one-and-a-half thousand Durga images as they possibly can. ‘Pandal-hopping’ is a skill that requires considerable energy and practice — and the common citizen of Calcutta possesses an unusual expertise in this. Almost every site has a different ‘theme’: for craftsmen have toiled and sweated so that millions may see, appreciate and tell the world about their ‘creations’.
The West would find the figures of these festival crowds mind-boggling, for its largest gatherings hardly ever cross thousands — or at the most, a few tens of thousands. Even the gatherings at the World Cup soccer matches, open-air music concerts or peace rallies rarely cross over to hundreds of thousands. Besides, most of these events are not regular annual occurrences. The only other comparable assembly of millions is, perhaps, the annual ‘Haj’ at Mecca — but while it remains primarily (and secondarily) a deeply-religious occasion, the Durga Pujas have a secular side as well.
Although Calcutta was founded in 1690, it acquired its recognition as the “second city of the Empire” much later. But by the time Calcutta scored its first ‘century’, the sahibs, led by the governor general, were already gracing the ostentatious Durga Pujas celebrated at the palaces of the Company’s nouveau riche Indian intermediaries.
For the next 120 years or so, this would be the fashion. Durga Pujas became enormously expensive and exclusive pageants, organized only by the prosperous Bengali babu at his own residence. There are a few reports of some isolated attempts by ‘commoners’ to establish their own Durga Pujas, financed through voluntary collections. But in 18th- and 19th-century Calcutta, Durga Pujas were synonymous with wealth and elitism.
For the masses, there were other avenues of entertainment and expression, especially during the festive season: the kabigans and tarjas (extempore poetic contests), the panchali songs, the jatra or open theatrical performances, the jhumur and khemtastreet dances — as well as the lampoons of the high and mighty through the shong pantomimes by witty subalterns. These assertions of Calcutta’s urban folk culture also required patronage. The richer babus stepped in with support for the tarja and the jatra, though their own foppish tastes and pretentious lifestyles often formed the subject of a folk song or a comic street-show.
Then, with the migration of the patua scroll-painters from rural areas to Calcutta and their subsequent settlement near the Kalighat temple, there evolved another urban folk art-form in the city — the Kalighat pata paintings. Close on their heels followed the Battala woodcut engravers of north Calcutta. The lithograph, chromolithographs, oleographs and their prints, like the colourful Chorebagan prints, have evoked continuing admiration for their fidelity, imagination and simplicity.
Except the clay-modellers of the city’s Kumartuli and Patuapara localities, who are still in demand, folk art seems to be dead in Calcutta. The factory and its mass-produced goods seem to have killed the artisans’ creations. But this is perhaps not wholly true. The more relevant issue here is, where does one find the folk arts in Calcutta now? Among possible answers, one is obvious: in the Durga Puja celebrations, if one chooses to look at them from this angle.
Going on from the elitist Puja, although several claims are made about the ‘first’ community (barowari or sarvajanin) Durga Puja in north Calcutta, we may safely date the earliest efforts in this direction to somewhere in the first decade of the 20th century. Politics had an important role in this regard: the ‘extremist’ and revolutionary leaders had stirred the imagination of the people of Bengal, while the abortive British attempt to partition this province had brought the common man out into the streets. The Calcutta session of the Congress in 1910 and the barowari Durga Puja of Balaram Basu Ghat Road of the same year were connected — in a common nationalist sentiment and fervour.
The decades that followed witnessed the steady growth of community Pujas. The increasing economic prospects available in the metropolis led to the rise and proliferation of the middle class and to the expansion of the city. The Durga Puja and the Bengali identity (at least of the middle class Hindu) were, from certain angles, almost indistinguishable. A popular festival had finally emerged in which the entire para could participate. The para in Calcutta had all along been much more than just a geographical entity — it was a ‘village’ within the city, where social interaction, ‘roles’ between non-related inhabitants were structured at levels very like ‘kinship’. The persistence of such non-urban values is traceable even now. This set-up found its symbolic unity in the joint organization of the para Durga Puja. The prestige of the entire para was involved. This is where innovations came in — to outshine the next para — and these would lead to the nurturing of a unique form of urban folk culture.
The craftsmanship that developed to cater to the Pujas related mainly to the designing and execution of the massive temporary temples of bamboo, tarpaulin and cloth calledpandals: their exquisite interior frills and decoration; the imaginative sculpting of the goddess and her retinue and the special lighting as well as the many ‘special effects’ that mesmerized crowds at each major site.
Along with these crafts came a whole repertoire of other arts, like the ‘seasonal’ songs and music created each year; the new literature that was churned for the numerous ‘Puja magazines’ and post-Puja celebrations that included musical soirees and dramatic performances. Traditionalagomoni songs, or dhunuchi-dances while the dhakis beat furiously on their drums appear to be getting far less importance at present.
Hence, we may focus our attention on the more vibrant living cultural traditions of Calcutta. Image-making is surely the oldest of these, and the idols speak of superb craftsmanship that is the culmination of generations of hereditary skills. Stylistically, this area has developed its own iconographical genre. The ‘standard’ images, consisting of five separate chalas (platforms / panels), have broken free from the original, single-platform (ekchala) tradition — though the latter style is still maintained by some of the older barowari Pujas and all the ancient family images.
The Mahishashurmardini is a well-known motif in Hindu iconography, but the skill of the local patua lies in combining, through Durga’s facial expressions and other mudras, a pulsating sense of controlled fury with a clearly visible womanly elegance.
More interesting to art lovers may be the innumerable styles of imagery that vary sharply from the ‘standard’, not only in artistic representation but also in the use of media. From film stars to national heroes, from the politician to the profiteer — the folk clay-modellers use all possible ‘models’, as Durga, Mahishasur, Kartik, Saraswati et al. Even the religious mandates relating to the Dasabhuja goddess’s 10 arms (each with its assigned weapon) are subject to the artisan’s caprice. The clothes adorning the idols range from the usual silk or cotton to velvet, crêpes, jute, paper, matchsticks, broken glass — in fact, any substance that could give the impression of novelty. Gone are the days when idols wore only the uniform daker saaj of pith, with bits of glistening foil. Experimentation spreads to every sector where there is opportunity for any outburst of originality.
But it is actually in the range of the artist’s medium that one comes across examples of the imagination running riot. Although good old Gangetic clay remains the patuas’ favourite, everything from papier mâché and bamboo splints to seeds and razor blades are reported to have been tried out. It is not an uncommon practice to arrange for a small regular image for devotional purposes, while simultaneously displaying the much larger ‘art idols’. The Durga Puja of Calcutta is, thus, not just an annual festival or the carnival of the city; nor even the most vivid symbol of Bengali culture — it is the best exhibition of the creativity of popular arts and crafts.
Calcutta, during the Puja season is, therefore, transformed from a city that struggles each day for its very existence to one of the largest open-air and never-ending emporia of folk arts and popular creativity anywhere in the world. After all, folk culture is genetically programmed to survive in changing habitats and different social eco-systems: to adapt, to improvise, to thrive and to better itself — never to say die.
PLEASE BE PATIENT – even if its getting difficult to breathe, the Gorkha answer and request is please be timely Bengal and the Centre, as you rightly ought to …… for: “when it all boils down to dust, I will help you if I can and I will ….… if I must” ?!! (Leonard Cohen)
From The Telegraph Editorial
It began in 1911, when George V moved the capital of his Indian empire from Calcutta to Delhi. Almost a hundred years after that fateful durbar, Delhi has barely managed to land on its feet with the Commonwealth Games. But given its swish new ‘world-class’ feel post-CWG, Delhi gives Calcutta yet another reason to feel left behind by history — or left with little other than history.
Over the last few weeks, the sense of a sad contrast between the two cities has found an apt emblem in the state of the Metro Railway in Calcutta, compared to that of its counterpart in Delhi. In Calcutta, the Metro inspires mortal thoughts, being most often in the news for suicides and terrifying mishaps in the dark. But the Delhi Metro, with its expanding network, its state-of-the-art, eco-friendly technology and its ability to make commuters feel safe and comfortable, has come to stand for an urban modernity that makes the world look at India, and India look at itself, with new eyes. What does this say about the two cities, about the people who live in and run them?
The loss of direct access to power is certainly one of the principal factors behind this falling by the wayside. In all the hectic bidding that goes on around events like the CWG, the Olympics or other summit events, it is always the other, lesser, cities that lose out against the might of the capital. This leads not only to an accruing material disadvantage, but also to an equally demoralizing transformation in political and civic attitudes. The Metro Rail authorities in Calcutta like to see themselves as virtually forsaken by both the Central and the state governments. This feeling of deprivation and neglect only too easily becomes an excuse for allowing the Metro to lapse into what it has become today — an embodiment of shabbiness and mismanagement that had started out, more than two decades ago, as something to be proud of. It is ironic that this should happen in the Central railways minister’s own city, and that she often gets criticized for channelling her energies into securing her base in the state at the expense of her duties as minister.
But even if the Calcutta Metro were to become flush with funds all of a sudden, the Metro Rail authorities have given Calcuttans little reason to believe that the money would be used to give them the state of the art. When the condition of everything from roads and flyovers to government hospitals indicates a consistent inability to handle large sums of money in a planned, efficient and accountable way, what is the guarantee that the Metro would be dealt with in a radically different manner?
So far, the signs have been far from reassuring. Between an old communication system that does not work inside the tunnels and new air-conditioned rakes that cannot tackle peak-hour crowds, what might Calcuttans hope for? “Please be patient!” announces the bodiless voice in the dark. Never mind if it is getting difficult to breathe.