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Culture capital to caricature hub
- Talking heads: What to expect in mayor's wax museum

Half a century ago, Howrah industrialist Alamohan Das used to organise Janmasthami celebrations on a mammoth scale. The highlight would be the depiction of the life of Krishna through dolls that were in constant motion, severely limited though their actions were. Saroj Ghosh of Science City and howling dinos fame has done the same in the Town Hall.

And now, mayor Subrata Mukherjee plans to go one up on Ghosh’s Kolkata Panorama and create Calcutta’s version of Madame Tussaud’s gallery in the basement of the Town Hall.

Gallery of the grotesque is what it is likely to be, on the evidence of the Panorama enjoying pride of place at the Town Hall today. Prominently placed billboards try to sell Ghosh’s brainchild foisted on the Hall as a high-tech marvel, although he has achieved little more than what Das did five decades ago. Set up at a cost of Rs 3 crore, 15 galleries were opened to the public as a “gift to Calcutta” in 2000.

The models Ghosh has put on display here are so crude and primitive that they provide little more than comic relief from the boredom of walking down the extremely restricted idea of Calcutta’s history, both of its involvement in the freedom movement and its rich cultural heritage. The Panorama has tried in vain to project so complex a milieu through a series of tableaux that could have bagged the most prestigious award reserved for the most innovative (read bizarre) Durga puja sideshow.

When the Town Hall was restored at a cost of Rs 1.25 crore, the space was meant for civic receptions and large gatherings. The first floor can accommodate 600-800 people. Kolkata Panorama was set up in violation of rules to protect restored structures.

Mayor Mukherjee, meanwhile, has set aside his plan for a Rs 20-crore Calcutta Gateway, and set his sights on a Madame Tussaud’s — Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC)-style — in the basement, where life-size wax models of home-grown celebrities will be displayed.

With help from Asansol-based wax artisan Sushanta Roy — who created a wax doppelganger of Jyoti Basu, that was presented to the former chief minister on his birthday earlier this month — the mayor has decided to set up a hall of fame. First in line are two living legends of Bengal, Amartya Sen and Sourav Ganguly. Next up, the great sons of Bengal like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose and C.R. Das.

Kolkata Panorama is outrageous enough. Rabindranath looks like Durga’s lion, complete with a white mane. His head wobbles like a victim of serious neurological disorder as he breaks into a song, albeit in his own high-pitched voice. Other greats from Calcutta — Vidyasagar, Ramakrishna, Dinabandhu Mitra — break into speeches at the drop of a jaw. And for some strange reason, Mangal Pande and O'Shaughnassey, who had introduced the telegraph in Calcutta, share the space. In one exhibit, Job Charnock suddenly starts mouthing stilted Bengali, the way firangs always do in flop films and jarring jatras.

Where the best museums of the world have introduced interactive touch-screen panels, that give the visitor the option of seeing or not seeing a particular section, the Panorama forces people to follow a route that takes two hours to traverse. One is treated to unintentionally comic visions of the Battle of Plassey, with sparks flying out of thundering cannons.

At a nautch presented by a babu for the pleasure of his white overlords, only the dancing girl spins like a top; the onlookers stand stock-still. In the vaunted nine-screen projection of a film on the freedom struggle, the images are so pixalated they turn into ectoplasmic forms.

The ‘culture capital’ is clearly on caricature overdrive. But can the Town Hall please be spared and saved for what it was built — hosting civic receptions for Rabindranath Tagore once, and Sourav Ganguly now'

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