Durga Puja isn't just a religious event. It resembles a carnival with jaw-dropping public art installations. The city is transformed into a huge public art gallery with beautiful idols of the goddess, all-night crowds, live music sessions, and cultural programmes. Thousands of pandals—the temporary structures housing the goddess—pop up on streets with extravagant themes and artworks. Vehicles and people weave in and out, interacting with these amazing pop-up structures all around them. The pandals are like giant art installations, and ‘pandal-hopping’ is a kind of gigantic public gallery crawl.
The big pandals get over 3 to 4 lakh visitors every day, including people from abroad. "I've never experienced something like this," says Dominick A. Merle, a travel writer based out of Canada. "The nearest I can compare it to is the Rose Bowl in the US—even that doesn't come close!" Lakhs of artists, crafts people and workers put together this show every year. Here's a look behind the scenes.
If you visit Kolkata a few weeks before the puja begins, you can witness Durga idols taking shape under the expert hands of idolmakers at Kumartuli. In the winding, narrow lanes there are more than 400 workshops that have been doing this for generations. Some of their work gets are shipped abroad as Durga Puja is held in places with Bengali population all over the world. Some potters’ families can trace their roots back to when the city was founded in 1757. The profession is still mostly male but a handful of women are breaking this monopoly.
The illuminated panels that adorn the streets during Durga Puja originated in the erstwhile French colony of Chandannagar. The people working in the lights industry here spend a large chunk of the year creating extravagant shows for major festivals. They spend weeks stringing together multi-coloured bulbs on wires to create moving images of animals, flowers, people, vehicles, and even fire-spitting dragons. Sometimes the final product is a commentary on current affairs, or a reflection of pop culture (think dragons or Princess Diana and even portraits of Nobel prizewinners). They have even done messages on HIV/AIDS awareness. In 2001, an exhibit at the Belfast festival used the talents of Chandannagar artisans in a storytelling exhibit centred around the Ramayan. Large indoor and outdoor panels and arches were built using 50,000 bulbs and transported to the UK. They used 2-D, free-standing animated panels highlighting important aspects of the Ramayana. They have also created a spectacular 3-D, peacock-shaped boat as a centrepiece for the Thames Festival. Built using 135,000 micro bulbs, it was exhibited as a static installation near the London Eye as well. It was later transported to Blackpool to be displayed as a special exhibit as a part of the 125th year of the Blackpool illuminations.
The Pandal Creators
Pandals—elaborate structures made of cloth on bamboo frames are built all over Kolkata and the idol of the goddess is kept inside these. They are the center of the festivities throughout the puja period. They are built around a theme ranging from current affairs and popular Bollywood films to folk art forms, temples and even the Paris Opera House and Hogwarts! They are elaborate works of art and some have even been exhibited abroad. In 2011, a model of one of the pandals was selected by German artist Gregor Schneider to be replicated and exhibited across the globe. Schneider also worked with local artisans on a replica of a house in Rheydt, Germany, for the Ekdalia puja.
The Shola Artists
Traditionally, the adornments used on the goddess are made with sholapith—a milky-white sponge-wood derived from the shola plant found in the marshy, waterlogged areas of West Bengal. The shola cottage industry began under the patronage of the British when it was used to make hats for the Brits–the famous ‘sola topees’. Today, shola artists make flowers and decoration items that are exported abroad–for instance, flowers for packaging and as gifts, decorations for Christmas, and even shola Santas. This exquisite workmanship was on display at the Edinburgh Festival with a gateway made of shola.