Just some days back, you would have seen Kolkata getting ready for the city's biggest festival, Durga Puja. This year, the festival is even more special as the festival has been awarded the UNESCO tag of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In Kolkata, Durga Puja is not just a religious event; it resembles a carnival with jaw-dropping public art installations cropping up all across the city. For this one week, Kolkata gets transformed into a huge public art gallery with thousands of pandals—the temporary structures housing the goddess—popping up on streets. These structures have extravagant themes and artworks. Vehicles and people weave in and out, interacting with these amazing pop-up structures all around them. You can think of the pandals as giant art installations, and ‘pandal-hopping’ as a gigantic public gallery crawl.
In the pre-pandemic days, the big pandals would get over 3 to 4 lakh visitors every day, including people from abroad. I once spoke to a Canadian travel writer who had come specially for the festival. "I've never experienced something like this," said Dominick A. Merle, his face all awe-struck. "The nearest I can compare Durga Puja to is the Rose Bowl in the US—even that doesn't come close!"
Lakhs of artists, crafts people and workers put together this wondrous show every year. Here's a look at the people 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 shipped abroad where the festival is held. 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 trying to break this monopoly.
The illuminated panels that adorn the streets during Durga Puja originate 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 Bahubali, Harry Potter or even portraits of Nobel prizewinners). They have even showcased messages on HIV/AIDS awareness.
Their talents are now critically acclaimed in foreign shores as well. In 2001, an exhibit at the Belfast festival used the skills 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.
These artists 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 centre 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. These are elaborate works of art and some have even been exhibited abroad. 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.