Every autumn, for about a week, the city of Kolkata, India, and its outskirts is transformed beyond recognition into a world of fantasy. Millions of people pour into the streets to join in the festive mood of Durga Puja that celebrates triumph of good over evil. Employing the skills and talents of hundreds of artisans for several months, temporary structures or pandals are erected, many of which are spectacular replicas of different famous buildings and historical sites. Adding to the glitter and glamor are the treatments of lights and decorations. And, to top it all, there is the idol of the ten-armed goddess Durga.
Whatever the historical date, Durga Puja today is a festival beyond religion. It is a celebration of community and of art and culture.
The idol of the goddess Durga is usually a towering clay model, varying in height from ten to fifteen feet. Awestruck people bow their heads in obeisance as they hop from one pandal to the other, where the displays and structures compete on categories that include “Most Socially Relevant” to “Most Green to Best Pandal” and “Best Idol”. With the kind of skill and craftsmanship on display, the six-day Durga Puja festival in Kolkata is alleged to be the largest open air art festival in the world.
There are several references to Durga, the goddess, in Bengali literature dating back to the 11th century, but it is only in the 18th century that Durga worship became popular among Hindu Zamindars (feudal landlords) of Bengal. Some believe that the first Durga Puja was organized by Raja Nabakrishna Deb in Calcutta to celebrate Lord Clive’s victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Yet others believe that the first official Durga Puja was organized by the Sabarna Roychowdhurys in 1610. Whatever the historical date, Durga Puja today is a festival beyond religion. It is a celebration of community and of art and culture.
Female Power before #Feminism
Who is Durga? Durga is a warrior woman riding a lion and carrying ten different weapons in her ten hands. She saves mankind from miseries and afflictions, dangers and difficulties. She is the embodiment and conglomerate of energy. She challenges Mahishasura who tries to deceive her by changing his form. This idea of changing forms is an allegorical representation of the continual war going on within us about good and evil. Evil changes its forms and tries to escape in disguise like Mahishasura. The Durga Puja idol depicts her lion in a deadly grapple with Mahishasura, who bursts out of his fierce buffalo form before being slain by the goddess.
Durga is not only representative of the ideals of independence and supremacy, but she also challenges the assertion that women exist to please the opposite sex, as she takes on the demons that threaten her and defeats and extracts vengeance when needed.
So it is particularly relevant that a festival that celebrates female power also celebrates modernism, culture and arts.
A Hereditary Way of Life
Idol making is a skill that is hereditary, perfected over the years by an artist under the strict tutelage and guidance of an experienced artisan father or any other family member. Though seasonal, idol making goes beyond goddess Durga, and comprises of other gods and goddesses worshipped at different times of the year.
Seeing Sanatan Rudra Pal at work no one can possibly imagine that he is one of the last remaining artisans and bearers of a four-hundred-year old tradition that may eventually face extinction. Perhaps the most sought after clay modeler in the city of Kolkata, Pal is an artist par excellence whose wonderful creations follow ritual authenticity and aesthetic appeal and whose brilliant artistry has been acknowledged through countless awards.
Sanatan, like other clay artists, learnt his trade from his father and uncle, both of who were once clay modelers of significant repute.
Over the years Sanatan has evolved as an entrepreneur and an employer. His studio, covering an approximate area of 4,000 square feet and employing about a hundred and fifty people, buzzes with activity almost the entire year.
Most of his helpers were once daily laborers with a poor and unstable monthly income who, in their spare time, built appreciable clay models for their villages. They neither had the affluence nor the doggedness to set up their own studios. Many of them came to the big cities before Durga Puja to assist idol makers. It is then that their skills and talent got noticed by craftsmen, like Pal.
Durga is not only representative of the ideals of independence and supremacy, but she also challenges the assertion that women exist to please the opposite sex.
Cutting, Chiseling, Hammering
Assisted by an army of helpers, an artisan takes about 15 days to complete a ten feet idol of Durga and reputed artists like Sanatan may have to work with 50 models at a time!
Work in Sanatan’s studio gains momentum from the month of April as it starts resounding with cutting, chiseling and hammering. It begins with building three dimensional models of straw and bamboo on a wooden platform. Being a perfectionist, Sanatan keeps on shaping and sculpting the models through repeated interactions with his workers until it’s time to apply clay.
The clay is kneaded with tiny bits of straw to render firmness to it. A couple of helpers, standing in knee deep clay, trample and churn it, occasionally adding straw dust, until it is ready. Application of this clay on straw idols requires expertise as it must model a human form to perfection.
Sanatan spends hours intently giving form to the clay-faces of idols to be added after the completion of the rest of the body. His long slender fingers work wonders with clay and his unblinking eyes, behind his spectacles, scan for any kind of flaw that has been overlooked. His area of speciality is painting the eyes of an idol.
When painting is in progress Sanatan works the details through strokes of his brushes as he transforms a model into a goddess.
No Money, No Enthusiasm
Many clay modelers have found the business of idol making declining steadily despite the number of pujas increasing every year, along with their budgets. In fact good clay modelers are dwindling in numbers.
The hereditary practice of a father teaching his art to his son is now an idealistic concept, hardly ever implemented. The younger generation is not enthusiastic enough to take to clay idol making as a profession.
After two and a half centuries about a thousand artisans throughout West Bengal still survive on idol-making, but not even a hundred of them are able to make ends meet today.
The industry of idol making is not recognized by the Government because of its instability and volatility. A loan from a nationalized bank being difficult to obtain, artisans have to procure an initial working capital from money lenders at a very high rate of interest. Raw materials along with wages have sky-rocketed whereas prices of idols have not proportionately increased. Having faced such constraints himself Sanatan has not taught his trade to his son.
Yet, despite these challenges, Sanatan Rudra Pal is one of the few who has succeeded in building up an excellent clientele in this competitive business of idol making.
A new breed of artists and designers from Art colleges shun the age old practice of clay modeling. They are choosing to work with media like paper pulp, brass and bamboo to build the icons of the goddess. Some sculptors make fiberglass models in addition to traditional clay idols. Fiberglass models are light and easy to transport and are sought after in the west.
Durga Puja is usually organized by Bengali associations in the United States. Most of the idols found in the United States are made of fiberglass. Prices for a five-foot-tall fiberglass idol of Durga could range between $1,750 to $3,000.
A Word on Pollution
At the end of the festival every Durga icon of clay is immersed in a local river or any other water body. Women, blowing their conch shells, and ululating, smear the face of the goddess with vermillion as they bid her farewell till the next year.
The flip side of this custom, however, is water pollution. Lead and chromium, used to color models, make the water toxic. The straw and bamboo structures decompose in water and pollute it. Artisans have been asked to use lead free paints, but that would make the price of their works exorbitant, which many organizers are unwilling to pay for.
One doubts if this sanctified custom of bidding farewell to the gods during immersion will last long, as idol-making itself may face eventual extinction. Like his predecessors, Sanatan Rudra Pal will also be forgotten once his days as an artist are over. The legacy of a traditional art left behind will gather dust lying unattended.
Gautam Banerjee is a freelance writer and documentary film maker. His works, based on contemporary social issues, have been published and screened in India and abroad. He survives by teaching physics and mathematics.
Durga Pujo Here and Around
Durga Pujo celebrations attract huge crowds numbering over a thousand people in the United States. Here is a listing of some notable ones:
- In the Bay Area:
Sanskriti’s Durga Pujo at Foothill College, Los Altos on Oct 24, 25
Pashchimi’s Durga Pujo at the Santa Clara Fairgrounds, Santa Clara on Oct 18 to Oct 23
Prabasi’s at Chabot College on Oct 17, 18
BayBasi’s Durga Pujo at Bowditch School in Foster City on Oct 17, 18.
Shobar Pujo at Century House and Gardens, Fremont on Sunday Oct 18
Women Now’s Bay Area Durga Utsav, at Sneha Banquet Hall, Sunnyvale from Oct 19 to Oct 22.
- In Southern California:
Dakshini’s Durga pujo is scheduled for Oct 23 to Oct 25 the venue tba
- In Washington, D.C.,
Sanskriti’s Durga Pujo at Gaithersburg High School in Maryland on Oct 24 and Oct 25
Northern Virginia Bengali Association’s Pujo is to be held at Mclean High School in Virginia on October 17 and 18.