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To the goddess of big things

Runa Mukherjee Parikh | Updated on September 27, 2019 Published on September 27, 2019

Seeking divine providence: Humans are hurtled to and fro like a shuttlecock, suggests the Rajdanga Naba Uday Sangha puja pandal themed around migration and the NRC in Assam

From refugees to ecological disasters, Bengal’s Durga Puja organisers seek to turn the lens on a host of pressing issues

The army’s surgical strike. Water crisis. Women power. Just what do these issues have to do with Bengal’s Durga Puja? Quite a lot, it transpires: These are, among others, the underlying themes marking the festive season in Kolkata this year.

Time was when the Durga Puja was just that — a four-day ode to the goddess. But, increasingly, pujas are also an invocation to social, economic and cultural issues. At a time the country is reeling under larger-than-life issues, many of the puja committees in the city are bringing them to life. The artists who put the themes together are often village artisans known for their pandal-making skills, or young art graduates.

Take the popular Tridhara Akalbodhan puja, whose theme has been designed by award-winning pandal (makeshift pavilion) artist Gouranga Kuila. In its 73rd year now, the Tridhara puja has chosen Drishtikone — or perspective — as its theme. Canvas after canvas in the South Kolkata puja pandal is a paean to women: From Mother Teresa to a woman seeking alms. As you walk ahead, the images merge with that of Durga. With the help of a 3D effect, the transition tells the viewer that every woman — no matter who she is and what she is going through — is an embodiment of Shakti, or Durga.

“It tells us how our times are torn by strife, with even festivals coming under the political and public scanner. At such a time, having the right drishtikone will ensure we don’t stray,” says Subhojit Chakraborty, cultural convener, Tridhara Akalbodhan.

Across Kolkata, pandals have been readied for the pujas, which start on October 4. Thikana — or address — is the theme of the Rajdanga Naba Uday Sangha puja. Using large props of shuttlecocks and badminton racquets the puja committee seeks to address the issue of stateless refugees.

“Whenever someone comes to power, they decide who gets to stay in that land and who doesn’t. But for the person who has lived there for years and made a life, his whole world gets uprooted. Like a shuttlecock, humans are flung from here to there. So this year, we are asking a higher force, ‘where is our thikana’,” says Nirmal Mukherjee, a senior member of the 44-year-old puja committee. Mukherjee hopes that the puja revellers take home more than just the creativity of the art, which also touches on the citizenship or National Register of Citizens issue.

There is a reason why such themes are gaining popularity over the years. The pandals — which on an average cost ₹30-50 lakh — vie for footfall, and themes or elaborate decorations are seen as ways of attracting pandal-hoppers. From cinema-inspired themes to aiming for the tallest or biggest Durga idols, there is no dearth of ideas — which veer from the creative to the absurd — in West Bengal. Earlier, the puja themes have centred on aliens, the inside of a mother’s womb, a mental asylum and even the Jurassic Park. One of the themes this year draws on the army’s air strike at Balakot in Pakistan, which is brought alive using model fighter planes and a statue of wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman welcoming visitors at the entrance.

Every year, committees have to up the ante to attract more visitors. Take, for instance, the Sreebhumi Sporting Club committee, which had in the past designed pandals to look like Bollywood inspired themes such as Baahubali’s palace and Rani Padmavati’s fortress. This season, the organisers have adorned the goddess and her children with diamonds.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Hatibagan Nabinpally Puja, which has used eco-friendly material such as the bark of date trees, tobacco leaves and bamboo to advocate healthy living under the theme ‘Lifeline’. The goddess is tucked cosily among the elements of nature in artist Subal Paul’s design.

“We put a lot of junk in our bodies today. Earlier we had a much more balanced lifestyle, whether in our diet or professional lives. So we mean health when we say lifeline here,” says Hatibagan Nabinpally secretary Souvik Bhar.

If two years ago demonetisation was a popular theme in the city, this year the environment is the leitmotif in several pandals. The Khidirpur 25 Pally Club, celebrating its platinum jubilee this year, has picked the theme of dahan (incineration), as envisioned by artist Sanatan Dinda. Global warming, water crisis and the alarming plastic hazards made Dinda wonder who was responsible for the “incineration” of the planet.

The pandal depicts a high-rise building’s use of water by boring through the earth to deplete the resource. An installation of non-biodegradable water bottles and plastic bags is placed at another end.

“The goddess is in the shape of a kalash (urn), as we are beckoning her Basundhara or water-holding avatar. Eight of Durga’s 10 hands will hold earthen pots instead of weapons,” club member Arijit Nandi says.

Durga Puja is always an exciting time in West Bengal, with festivity rubbing shoulders with piety. And, in some quarters, along with an invocation to the deity, puja organisers are voicing a prayer for a better world.

Runa Mukherjee Parikh is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist

Published on September 27, 2019
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