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Prabir Purkayastha's Durgas

Carefully capturing the sacred and the sublime – Prabir Purkayastha’s collection of Durgas evokes a deep sense of spiritual fulfillment born out of innate fervour

So many Durgas!! If there is one photographer who leads many lives, it is Prabir Purkayastha. He lampoons the lanes of his travel to capture frames that halt you in your tracks and leave you seeking for more. In this gorgeous visual tapestry, India's finest travel photographer goes beneath the skin of the superficial and shares his spiritual journey through the Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata over a span of five years.

"Every journey begins with a single step," reminisces Purkayastha, who creates a corollary born of the crucible of time.

"I had just turned four when my father, an army officer, was posted to Srinagar. Most days, my sisters and I would watch my mother, an Indian classical dancer, gracefully practicing her Bharatnatyam in the soft glow of the afternoon light. Those hypnotic images, of light infused languid motion, were magical!"

Whether he captures the ephemeral or the real or the gorgeous or the gravitas filled moment, we are looking at images that celebrate not just the form but the atmospherics of the ambience and the spirit of the devoted.

Purkayastha has the lens of a prophetic philatelist, as he reveals the grace of Durgas in Salt Lake as well as Ballygunge and Red Road. If the Ballygunge Durga has a nocturnal nuance of heady drama and incandescent beauty, the Barasat Durga is a modern mooring.

"For me, photography is an emotional state of being. When I grip my camera I reach out. I never shut down. The relentless cacophony of living ceases. At such times I am in a 'trance-like' state – only me and my image. I live for such moments. I love to shoot alone. My creativity glows when I am alone," says Purkayastha.

What ensues in these images is the feeling of fervour, the auratic echo of sounds – be it the conch shell or the dhaak or the songs sung in erudite sanctity. "I was 12 years old when I first heard Birendra Krishna's soul stirring and hypnotic recitation of the Mahalaya Chandipath," reflects Purkayastha.

"I still remember the hour before dawn, my parents, my sleepy sisters and me huddled around our Phillips radio. Trying to catch every incantation as it glided through the static and crackle of an ancient sound box, I was mesmerised!"

"Decades later, while photographing in the back lanes of North Calcutta, I heard the pulsating beat of the dhol. I walked towards the drumming and soon found myself in a frenzied crowd of worshippers performing anjali. It was ashtami, the most auspicious day of the Durga Puja celebrations."

"As I raised my camera, I unconsciously started reciting the Chandipath with Birendra Krishna's voice resonating deep within me…

"yā devi sarva-bhūtesu sakti-rupena samsthithā

namas thasyai namas thasyai namas thasyai namō namah"

"I had found my way back home!"

"Photographing Durga has never been easy for me. It's not the punishing physicality of weaving through hordes of worshippers or the long hours of waiting for the 'decisive moment'. It's the emotional and spiritual tsunamis that I am immersed in that make it impossible for me to create. Like Durga, my immersion is complete. I am in a state of 'dhyan'," he explains.

"My images are an invitation…..into a world where the viewer will possibly experience my state of being when I created the moment. I make images that will hopefully manifest into a silent signpost, pointing to an unknown sanctuary amidst the surrounding madness, a haven of momentary stillness," he says with devotion.

Form, colour, expression and evocation all combine to create the dynamics that is born in the journey of the sacred and the sublime. Perhaps most surreal in terms of tonality is the Kumartuli Durga in the altogether, an image that speaks of the beauty of the feminine form in her avatar of Durga with her slender arms. If that is one intonation, then the Durga at Barasat is quaint, curious and contained in a modest poise.

Purkayastha quotes the Renaissance poet Rabindranath Tagore to give us the insignia of the spirit of Ma Durga.

Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads!

Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?

Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground

And where the pathmaker is breaking stones.

He is with them in sun and in shower,

and his garment is covered with dust.

Creative Director Mudra Communications, Prabir has for the past 25 years held critically acclaimed, major solo exhibitions in New York, Katonah, London, Singapore New Delhi & Mumbai. His photographs of Ladakh have been exhibited by Fuji Films in Cologne, Germany, in group shows throughout India and have been published across leading magazines and newspapers in India and abroad.

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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