A six-year-old boy in Delhi spending hours, days, watching the Devi emerge from straw and clay, like magic… That’s my first memory of Durga puja.
We used to live in Devnagar at the time and there was a ground near our house where we would play gilli-danda and cricket. But it was taken over for Durga puja every year. The rest of the boys would be very upset that our playground had been usurped, but I did not mind it a bit.
I would spend the whole day watching the craftsmen create the idol. I would not budge from there, I would go to eat only when they went to eat, for which I would get a scolding from my mother. But nothing could keep me away and I later helped in the creative process as well!
I still remember it clearly. First the straw, then the clay and then finally, the painting, the dressing and decoration. It was magic… Something that has stayed with me through the years and is even now reflected in my paintings.
Childhood memories have a strange way of influencing the present.
I steadily got drawn into the spirit of the Pujas — the making of the idol, the festive days, the cultural activities, the magic shows, the literary and the cinematic associations, Tagore and Ray (who can forget the scene in Joy Baba Phelunath where the old man is painting the eyes of the Goddess).
It was heady stuff. I picked up my first Bengali words from the pandals. I remember winning an award for a portrait that a friend had forced me to submit during a competition at Kali Bari. The organisers got my name down as Manju Sinha, instead of Manjit Singh, but gave me back my identity just before handing over Tagore’s Galpo Guchchho as my prize. That was 1958.
Since, then I’ve been part of so many Durga pujas, three of them in Calcutta. I’ve been to the fascinating world of Kumartuli a couple of times and even enjoyed the time spent at Maddox Square.
This is the time of the year when Calcutta really comes alive. I have been hearing a lot of criticism about the manner in which the Pujas are celebrated here, but I look at it differently.
At one level, it helps creates so many jobs for craftsmen, keeps creativity alive through competition and takes tradition to almost every street in Calcutta.
At another, it builds bridges between people in a unique way. The community feeling that is inculcated through participation in the Pujas from an early age is wonderful. The para feeling is being kept alive by the Pujas, as it brings people of different religions, different languages together. With no government infrastructure in place, such an occasion actually helps build up a social security system for an area.
For me as a painter, Durga and Kali have always been symbols of power and magic, the two things that fascinate me. I believe in the power of the woman. She may be suppressed and oppressed, but ultimately, she is the one who rules.
Just like in a family — especially a Bengali family — the man may say a lot, but the woman has the final say!