With the first crimson sunset, you know that autumn has arrived. “Autumn” to people in India, is more than just a season. It is the concept of festivity. As the dark monsoon clouds are blown away and the canvas of ebullient blue skies usher in, a significant section of India’s population are immersed in bringing home their goddess, “Maa Durga”. Distant echoes of conch shells linger in the air a little longer and the very fragrance in the air calms every tortured soul.
The whole festivity of “Durga Puja” and the vibrancies accompanied with it however begin earlier, with giving a form to The Goddess. Clay, from the depths Ganges is brought to the shabby North Calcutta “ghaats” and then subsequently to Kumartuli, the potters’ quarters. The labour behind bringing the goddess to life lies in these narrow, visually insignificant lanes where ordinary people won’t often tread. The artisans here cast their magic to transform the rather dull looking clay into one of the most gorgeous images one could wish to see. A thousand minds spin and more than a million thoughts are woven to create what Kolkata has to present for these five days.
While ordinary men form queues outside shopping malls and market places, hidden aisles of Kumartuli expose a world that treasures the highest artistry in the simplest hands. Feverish fingers carve and paint swiftly to present to the thousand awaiting hearts, their goddess. Bare structures, made from bamboos are clad in hay and smeared with clay. These idols, in some time, would become the focus of undivided attention for everyone in the country. The potters of Kumartuli have carried on the legacy of “God – making” for about three hundred years now, battling through uncertainties brought by modernisation schemes. The first potters hailed from Krishnagarh, Nadia. They used to visit the homes of their patrons or “zamindars” and weave their magic in the “thakurdalans”, a few months before the occasion. In those days, Durga Puja was a privilege and restricted only to the wealthy and nouveau rich.
Durga Puja, in Calcutta was initiated by Raja Nabakrishna Deb Bahadur at his palace, still known as Rajbari, in the late 1700’s. By the turn of the century, Durga Puja became more common as more zamindars began celebrating the festival in a grand display of wealth. The “ekchala” idols were famous at these times. With time, wealth fade but traditions held strong
Subsequently smaller communities took to the festival more actively. Donations from eager participants meant a decent budget for every community to conduct a “local” Durga Puja. This gave rise to an increased demand for the “kumors” or potters, and their art. The migrating potters or “kumors” now settled by the northern banks of Hoogly river at the place which came to be known as “Kumortuli” (kumor – potter; tuli – quarters). By the turn of the century Kumartuli now flourished under the newfound patronage of community or “Sharbojonin Durga Puja”. The traditional “ekchalas” gave way to more glamorous idols.
The form of art changed over generations and the potters adapted, sentiments remaining same. The idols which were primarily made of hay and clay were now also made from fibre glass and paper pulp. However, there has been little change in the place where gods are made. One can still see more than a couple of generations of potters, or, lets say artists, striving hard to produce the perfect idol. Old, wrinkled fingers are seen moulding clay on the bare structures of bamboo and hay.
Faces are moulded and features are etched on the wet clay. It is something one wouldn’t believe if not seen with one’s own eyes. The crests of idols are sun dried in rows and their placing on the torso commences the final stages of completion.
As the festival approaches, Kumartuli becomes one of the busiest places in Calcutta. Migrants respond to the call of the conch shells and it is time for them to return to their roots. The habitat in the nest, breathe a sigh of relief to see their sons and daughters back home for whatever little period it maybe. Idols at Kumartuli are almost fashioned and are seen lining up the sidewalks to be delivered to the “pandals”. However, this time is more significant for the smiles one sees on the faces of every Calcuttan in anticipation of what is to come and the nostalgia of the years gone by.
Mahalaya announces the arrival of Mother Goddess a week before the festivals begin. At the beginning of “Devipakhsha”, at dawn, all the radios of the city tune to the voice of Birendrakrishna Bhadra’s recital of “Mahishasuramardini”. This is one of the most sentimental aspects that make Durga Puja what it is. Families gather together to welcome Maa Durga with songs like “Jaago Durga” playing on the radio. The belief is firmly planted that Mother Goddess would arrive and wipe off all evil from the face of Earth.
With the painting of Maa Durga’s eyes on the day of Mahalaya, the clay idols are finally brought to life. The eyes that provide enchanting visions to the people are drawn with a single stroke of paintbrush. At Kumartuli, the most experienced of the artisans are seen standing high on pedestals, focused to get the final touch right. Amidst all the din and bustle, the “All Seeing Eye” is projected.
The idols now leave the dimly lit studios of Kumortuli and make their ways to the various “pandals” all over the country. The city dances to the beats of “Dhaak” and children and aged clamour the streets to catch the first glimpse of Mother Goddess, before she sets foot inside the “pandals”, where she would reside for the next five days and fill a million hearts with joy.
However, Durga Puja is not just about traditions, emotions or sentiments. The socio – economic impact it has is very notable. The five days of splendour brings in a flood of financial transactions that usually do not occur in any part of the world. Durga Puja sees a culmination of the various strata of the society. The festive mood allows even the not so fortunate to spend the extra buck to join in the celebration. It also provides the “not so fortunate” with a liberal market to earn some extra cash. People indulge in the small little things from their childhood; the ones they’d not generally notice in their everyday lives.
Serious commerce. That’s another side of Durga Puja. For some, they must earn so much, that they can live on it for a year till Durga Maa comes back again. Like the “dhaakis”. Their main source of income, playing the Dhaak, can earn them money mainly during Durga Puja. That’s their mainstay. Although, they do odd little jobs around the year to keep their families afloat. But Durga Puja, is when they make majority of their yearly income
With Maa Durga sitting pretty in every pandal, the hearts of every Calcuttan is filled with utmost joy. The tired old souls look at the younger ones with eyes filled with amazement. Nostalgia takes over as they remember the numerous pujos they have left behind. The things they used to do. The things that enthralled them. One can see them watching the merry – go – round, shooting balloons at the fair stalls or flaunting pink cotton candy smiles. Yes, puja is the time when every heart, young or old, beats to the same rhythm.
It may seem unfortunate but a reality of Calcutta is highlighted in the contrast of its relative poverty. Where the backbone of the Pujas is held steady by those who are mainly reliant on seasonal income, the main source of money flow, actually emerges from the higher end of Calcutta’s population. They spend freely on clothes, generously on food and openly on enjoyment. Price tags simply do not hold major significance during these five days for those who spend the other 360 days rigorously waiting especially in this heart warming city. Such people are more than ecstatic to indulge in buying happiness. The buzzing streets and the overflowing restaurants proudly reign in bundles of cash that gives the short term economy a boost in confidence. As they spend more, the suppliers sell more: a fact that is expected every year. Nevertheless while the entire world is busy bringing about change in their ways, Kolkata is perhaps one of the only cities that elegantly showcases that short term boosts in its economy can indeed affect the larger scheme of variables.
Durga puja is synonymous to Bengali which again is synonymous with food and adda. This is the time when both the street food stalls and gossiping genes of the average Bengali comes to life. With the plethora of delicacies around – right from rolls, “Chowmein”, cutlets to “Chaats” and the infamous fuchka – the Bengali appetite defies every rule in the book. Add to that the penchant to talk, laugh and stare at the good looking stranger – and you have the perfect recipe for a good old puja day…
Maha-ashtami is the most auspicious day during the pujas. Pushpanjali, or offering flowers at the feet of the goddess is the prime ritual of the day. People dress themselves in their best attires and go “pandal” hopping. The city is adorned with multi-coloured lights as the whole Bengali community comes to life on this day. At the end of the eigth lunar day comes Sandhi puja.
The cusp between Maha-astami and navami is called “sandhi puja”. This is the time when Mother Goddess is believed to have slain the devil and restored peace on Earth. The ritual is performed with absolute grandeur when The Mother is offered a hundred and eight lotuses and clay lamps. In folklore, this is the time when good prevails over the evil. Sandhi Puja requires 108 lotus flowers, a single fruit, dry rice grain for “noibiddo”, 108 earthen lamps, clothes, jewelry, hibiscus garlands and wood apple (bel) leaves. The almost non existent rituals which underwent changes with the changes in the society can still be seen in some of the 200-250 year old Pujas.
Vijaya Dashami, on the tenth lunar day announces the end of the five days long festival. This is the day when Maa Durga finally defeated Manishasura, thereby brining peace on earth. This day, Mother Goddess is at impressive best! Her eyes emanate a charm that people here in Calcutta wait ‘round the year to feel. The charm that gives them strength to carry on with their lives, removing all evil and wiping off all sorrow. However, this is the most emotional day for every Bengali, as Mother Goddess bids the final adieu for Kailash. This day, Mother Goddess is at impressive best! Her eyes emanate the sense of victory.
Dashami also encapsulates perfectly the significance of a married woman. Where the Indian culture stages a married woman as a “ghar lakshmi”, the last rituals of this day allows the common woman who is sometimes overlooked to relate themselves directly to Maa Durga. “Shindur khela” is not only a ritual which women are overjoyed to participate in as they make their ways to the local pandal, but an emotional relation with their “maa” that intertwines love with compassion.
Traditionally, on Vijaya Dashami, “Durganaam” is penned down by most families. This is to seek blessing from Maa Durga, and in prayer of her return every year with new hope and happiness.
Bisarjan. The journey ends here. What was taken from the ganges, goes back to the ganges. They clay that was once the adobe of divinity for 5 days, is now clay once again. Perhaps, that’s Kolkata’s way of saying : ” Ashes to ashes”… Bisarjan. On vijaya dashmi, the idols are sent back to the depths of the river. Emotions fly high and tear drops are shed for our ‘maa’. ” Ashche bochor abar hobe”… means ‘next year, once again !’. And then, the lights go out. The temporary shops get closed. All the decorations, peeled off. Everyone goes back with one single heavy heart. But a solitary earthen lamp, refuses to let the hope die. It keeps the flame alive. Somehow its infectious optimism urges the local youth to dive into the river and bring out the bambu and hay structure made for the idols. Then they get reiconstructed at kumortuli. They wait for next year, when they will become idols once more. They are ‘The Water Phoenix” of Kolkata. They rise and fall and rise from water. They make the idols immortal.
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