Millennium Post

Durga Puja: A festival where modernity blends with heritage

The excitement is building up and so is the enthusiasm. The countdown to Bengal’s biggest festival has already begun. Nandini Guha sneak peeks into the meticulously-curated pandals and idols waiting to be thrown open, including the latest theme-based ones along with the vintage, iconic Durga Pujas.

The big Bengali festival — that begins and ends with the worship of Goddess Durga and her family for five days every year — is just round the corner. But somewhere, today's Goddess is a solitary figure — overseeing the loneliness of the selfie-clicking generation, somewhere she is a mime artist in black and white, somewhere she is a rustic girl with no traditional armour in her hand, bereft of the trishul, somewhere she is a Thai lady in a lofty, pristine pagoda. Just as the times have changed, Durga idol makers are creating today's Durga in a plethora of themes — both Indian and foreign — tradition flowing seamlessly into contemporaneity.

The traditional icon of the deity, in line with the representation of the goddess as in the Indian scriptures where Durga is mentioned to have been created by the Gods with 10 arms and is bestowed with a lethal weapon for each arm, has undergone a huge change. Rupchand Kundu, the creator of some of these beautiful new idols, says: "I'm in charge of the idol and the mandap of a big puja on D H Road this time around. I'm using an under-construction building for the mandap and flyash is a vital ingredient of the décor. In look and style and concept, the work will be abstract and I have experimented with Cubism here," Kundu told Millennium Post.
In 2007, Kundu had carried out another experiment for the famous Dum Dum Park puja, a black and white Durga idol along with the mandap done in these basic, contrasting colours. Durga and her family are depicted as mime artists, frozen in time. "I'd even done a workshop with mime artistes to get the correct pose. It was immensely popular," says Kundu, who used the chess board motif of black and white, horses, king and queen for the mandap décor.
For Bhabatosh Sutar, the change in trend has been in evidence for the last 15-20 years. At the S B Park pujo on D H Road this time, he is working on the "selfie" theme, where a giant size crow overseeing the city scape is used to indicate the self obsession of today's generation. Last year, Sutar had fashioned the Durga as a rustic girl in an ambience where art meets daily life. "The labouring classes are represented here. The Trishul of the goddess is missing. There has to be contemporaneity in any creative work, even if it is the making of the durga idol," Sutar told Millennium Post.
The tableau of Durga is worshipped with her four children — Kartikeya, Ganesha, Laxmi and Saraswati and the clay image that represents all the four children, along with Durga, atop her lion and the slain asura Mahisasura near her left foot, under one structure is known as the ek-chala. Though many puja organisers still stick to this school of thought or the traditional style, most of the big, barowari pujas of Kolkata, swear by "themes" and compete amongst each other for winning accolades and yes, cash trophies.
The term 'theme Puja' or adhunik puja implies those Durga Pujas where the idols are constructed in a non-traditional way, and the pandals are constructed according to certain themes, say, literacy, environment, health, world news and famous buildings. It gives artists an opportunity to showcase their skills. For the organisers, a well-made 'theme' Puja ensures a steady flow of audience or lakhs of people daily. The atmosphere of competition between various Durga Puja pandals, which is nowadays almost as important as the Puja itself, is also a motivating factor.
Take the Ballygunge Sarbajanin Durgatsav Samiti or the ever popular Deshapriya Park puja for example. In 2017, the organisers are busy creating the Thai white temple, 43 feet tall. "The Goddess who has Thai features is 11 feet tall and has been created by Pradip Rudra Pal. Our initial budget was Rs 45 lakh but due to 18 percent GST, we are getting a bit less on the ground," Sudipto Kumar, joint secretary of the puja committee told Millennium Post. Last year, the Deshapriya Park puja attracted 50 lakh visitors, clocking almost 10 lakh footfall daily.
Generally speaking, the whole getup of the theme pujas, including the pratimas (idols), the artistic decorations and of course the pandals, often look like huge and stunning works of art. And hordes of people come daily, drawn by the desire to see a work of art rather than simply a pandal. Nowadays, the big and even the not-so-big pujas, have established themselves almost as brands. Everybody benefits — the people, organisers, artists. Says Subrata Gangopadhyay: "The layman has no access to fine art or art galleries. For them, a stunning theme puja is their window to good sculpture or aesthetically done interiors. Besides, with the popularity of theme Pujas, many young artists have also taken up the creation of idols for Durga Puja. This has added a refreshingly new dimension to idol-making and pandals during the festival."
Subrata Gangopadhyay is associated with big ticket pujas like Sreebhumi (Bahubali theme in 2017) and Jagat Mukherjee Park (which is depicting a submarine this year).
However, one can hardly say that people are no longer interested in Durga Pujas held in the traditional or shabeki format. After all, 'traditional' here implies a practice stretching back a few centuries, times often referred to with great pride even today as the glorious past and so they definitely hold a pride of place in people's hearts. The ever-popular Bagbazar Sarbojonin in North Kolkata, for example, always sticks to the traditional "ekchala" goddess which is put together in the area by the Pals, for the past three generations.
Dipak Banerjee from the organising committee says: "Next year we will complete 100 years. The celebrations will be on a grand scale. This year, we are creating the Golden Temple gate at the entrance of the pandal."
The Sovabazar Rajbari puja is also one of those traditional pujas which stands tall among the Rajbari pujas. Also, for many decades, the celebration of this pattern of idol worship have been intricately linked to India's independence movement — defying the British by upholding native traditions — to which Bengal's contribution has been enormous.
So one can safely conclude that both theme pujas and traditional ones are here to stay — each invoking the famous creative spark in the Bengali psyche, each hugely appealing to the maddening crowds. For now, the dhak beats are about to roll and the Goddess is about to walk the red carpet (rather carried to the mandap) along with her family — so why not give in to the spirit of this worldwide festival sans boundaries and divides?

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