The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Barge of ‘tooni’ lights for Thames festival
- Spotlight on Chandernagore

Organisers of mega-Durga pujas are always under pressure to come up with novel spectacles to attract the hordes to their pandals. In the 60s, Chandernagore, already famous for its mega-Jagaddhatri pujas, came into the limelight when the streets and alleys of this small town glittered with panels of rainbow coloured lights representing anything from sensational news stories to Hindu myths. It seemed as if thousands of dancing, twinkling, winking lights were used to paint mobile pictures.

It proved once again that Bengali ingenuity and showmanship are truly world-class. It required the combined skills of the folk artist and the electrician to produce these panels. All they had done was to exploit the potential of the tiny points of light created by minuscule bulbs known in the local argot as the “tooni”. One of the pioneers in this field was electrician Sridhar Das.

The brilliant light panels soon became an integral part of the Durga puja. When these are reflected in a waterbody, say College Square, they create a truly magical effect. This had caught the eye of Nandita Palchoudhuri, Calcutta-based curator, and in collaboration with Das, she had presented these at the Belfast Festival in 2001.

This year, the Thames Festival has commissioned Palchoudhuri to design a huge three-dimensional bajra — a ceremonial peacock barge — using Das’ panels studded with 135,000 “tooni” bulbs. Eighteen interlocking units made in Chandernagore of plywood, plastic, wood, paper, bamboo, iron rods, threads and an electrical circuit will be shipped to London and assembled there onto a wheeled trolley. Twelve artists spent the last two-and-a-half months to prepare the 30-ft-long and 17-ft-high barge of light.

About 2,000 people will take part in The Mayor’s Thames Festival’s night procession on September 14, a Sunday. The mile-long procession highlights the multicultural nature of London with huge illuminated sculptures, carnival costumes that light up, brilliant images built on floats, vibrant street music and hundreds of children with hand-held lanterns. More than 50,000 people are expected to congregate to watch the procession as it runs along a traffic-free Victoria Embankment, crosses the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge to end at the Royal National Theatre. This year, part of the night procession will be created by Kinetika, a London-based arts group, as part of the Thames Festival’s initiative to forge a link between the Thames and the Hooghly; between London and Calcutta. Pushed by 30 people, the mayurpankhi will be the procession’s centrepiece.

The day before the procession, it will be exhibited fully illuminated on the South Bank. This section featuring over 250 costumed performers has been named Din Shuru. For the last two years, Ali Pretty’s arts group Kinetika has recruited an international team of artists and created carnival presentations inspired by other cultures. This year the procession celebrates the Indian influence on contemporary carnival. This influence originates with the huge Indian migration from the 1850’s, when thousands of indentured labourers were shipped from the port of Calcutta to the sugar plantations in Trinidad. Three artists from West Bengal, Asis Kumar Bagchi, a zari craftsman, choreographer Tanushree Sankar and Kalyan Banerjee, project manager/documentation, will work alongside the Kinetika team to explore these cultural connections.


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