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From Assyria, martial lady on a lion
Durga by Bikash Bhattacharjee

We Hindus believe that the Goddess Durga vanquishes evil and delivers us from disasters. But the idea of a goddess astride a lion was derived from the Assyrians. In high reliefs, we see the Goddess Anahita in a martial pose with a lion as her mount. It seems to have been the prototype of the Jagaddhatri image. The Aryans came down the land route from the same geographical location. Their Avestha is the counterpart of our Vedas.

Having known them for some time and having read about them, I have deduced that the Parsis are the original Aryans. They are a minuscule community now. Both the Aryans and the Parsis are fire-worshippers.

I was born and raised near Shyampukur Street, in north Calcutta. There used to be a children’s club in Sovabazar Rajbati, named Sab Peyechhir Ashor, or Got It All Club. It was patronised by Jugantar Patrika, while Anandabazar Patrika took Manimela under its wings. I used to be a regular at Sab Peyechhir Ashor. About 300 children gathered there. We were taught freehand exercise, drills and we were told about the lives of great men. This is where my identity as a Bengali began to develop. The Bratacharis used to be there too, and the leaders — Gurujis and Alajis, depending on rank — emphasised the word “Bangali” by laying stress on the last syllable.

The bamboo-and-straw framework of the image, known as kathamo, was worshipped on the day of Rathajatra. The base was constructed with wood sawn into two halves. The image took two months to be created. At Sovabazar Rajbati, the image used to be built in the school for children. The artisans came and the kathamo was built with straw.

Layers upon layers of clay and cowdung were applied on the framework. This was done in several stages. Gradually, the image would take shape. I have seen the artisans making the moulds of the goddess’ visage and drying them in the sun. The moulds had two perforations. The ‘face’ was fixed to the framework. The artisans gave shape to the fingers with their own hands. Last of all came the final ‘skin’ of clay.

The lion was called ghora simha and it resembled the unicorn. This liberty was, perhaps, taken to curry favour with the British rulers.

Paint was applied in several stages, too. The patachitrakar, or painter of patas, created the chalchitra or the backdrop of the image. They evoked a vision of Shiva en famille on Mount Kailash by painting directly on the clay backdrop. Now, they paint it on paper and paste it. Those artisans are all gone.

Last of all came chakshudaan, or creation of the eye, that breathed life into the image of Durga. The artisan who made the image made an outline of the eye.

Then he would walk straight to the Ganga (Hooghly) for a dip. Purified of mind and body and still dripping with water he would prostrate himself before the goddess.

With his own hands he would make kajaal by burning a ghee lamp and gathering the moist black pigment. With the end of a matchstick he faultlessly painted the eyes and the goddess was in our midst.

This would never have been possible without faith and devotion. It is through this faith that Bengalis wait the entire year round to worship the Mother. The puja is not about happiness alone. It sustains people the whole year. Who would not want to celebrate this' The poor wear new clothes to greet the Mother. This is a belief I have always held.

Which is why I never leave Calcutta during the pujas. There are those who turn their nose up at the pujas. They say it is too crowded. They give statements in newspapers to the effect that they cannot abide the revelry. In a way this belittles those who stay back.

During my lifetime, several mother figures have taken care of me. My own mother and others too. I am over 60, and even now they have kept me going. From this insight, as an artist I have visualised Durga in varied forms. They have a third or inner eye. These are people I know and belong to my family. These mother figures have ruled and nurtured their households and families with ten arms that cannot be seen.

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