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Artistes’ take: That paglami called puja

Susant Pal, a costume and interior designer who has worked with Rituparno Ghosh, designed and implemented the Badamtala Ashar Sangha and Vivekananda Athletic Club, Haridevpur, pujas. Here’s his take on the grandest festival of Bengal.

Calcutta’s Durga Puja in one word? Paglami (madness).

The pujas of Badamtala Ashar Sangha and 66 Pally, for instance, are really in one lane. Just 80-odd feet from each other. Same para. Same attitudes. Same people. Same everything. Yet the rivalry between the people of this lane is such that the eventual brief for an independent artiste like me is, ‘Yes we want to win a prize but our puja must be better than them too.’ East Bengal-Mohun Bagan.

Take another aspect of this city’s paglami. Puja committees comprise adult, cultured people. Yet, when on Saptami morning committee members find out that their puja has not won an award, it’s like their puja is over. They go into ‘next year’ mode. Ironically, thousands of people streaming into their pandals continue to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’.

This award obsession is so large that most organisers have missed the bigger picture. They have failed to create great websites. They have failed to internationally market their pujas. They have failed to attract foreign tourists. They have failed to see the amazing potential of providing home-stays within their neighbourhood. They have failed to graduate their para into a brand. They could lead Calcutta into the global festival community but all you hear is, ‘But we didn’t win an award this time!’

When I started working on themed pujas, the budget outlay was no more than Rs 50,000. In 15 years, the outlay has 80-folded to around Rs 40 lakh. Even Bengal’s film industry has not grown as fast — aesthetically or commercially. And yet, except for a few film industry professionals like me, both creatively rich worlds have virtually existed exclusive of each other.

Now look at the bigger paglami picture. The puja installation industry is the largest zero-land occupying industry in India. People assemble, people disperse. And yet this unorganised segment generates more than Rs 200cr in revenue within three months, at the most conservative estimate. Besides, Calcutta’s Durga Puja is a national festival. More importantly, it is probably the largest weeklong street festival in the world. And how does the West Bengal tourism department market this phenomenon? Just two lines on its website!

Here’s another aspect of the paglami. Not many are aware that the transformation of the conventional saabeki puja to theme puja was facilitated in the late-’90s by all those young art college students inducted as juniors to assist turnkey contractors. These youngsters pushed the creative envelope, they experimented, they challenged tradition. One would have expected the world to have capitalised on this. Yet, is there a single class dedicated to puja installation in any of the art colleges? Any course? Any degree? Any workshop?

There is more of this paglami: my theme for this year’s Badamtala puja was woven around a single word, ‘dream.’ I sat on this idea for two years so that I could deliver a dream puja in their 75th year. For which I read Freud. Studied Kurosawa. Examined Dali. And researched Rituparno Ghosh. The result: the curving staircase weaving 360 degrees from front to back, the pratima’s hair flying, the extensive use of mosquito nets and the understated arbitrariness (which is how all dreams eventually are).

And then the final paglami. Studying Freud and film masters, translating that into a pandal and not being able to explain all this to thousands of visitors and yet them saying ‘Khub bhaalo laaglo’!

The pandal decor at 66 Pally. Picture by Sudeshna Banerjee

Amar Sarkar is one of the pioneers of the thematic puja movement in West Bengal. He designed and implemented the 66 Pally and Tala Barowari pujas in 2013. Here’s what he had to say…

One word has altered the character of Durga Puja — award. Every puja organiser wants to win an award. In fact, I got my first offer to ideate a 2014 Durga Puja as early as Saptami this year!

But this ‘award mania’ also comes with upsides. Budgets have grown five-fold in seven years, recession or no recession. Puja installation artistes make a reasonable livelihood. Standards have improved. Pandals have evolved into works of art. We have something in our city that is international in quality.

Besides, this hunger for awards drives speed. For a country synonymous with ‘time overrun’ in every sphere of activity, pandals get finished… precisely on schedule. This year, most pujas finished even earlier despite the wettest monsoon in more than a decade — so pandal-hopping began three days ahead of the conventional schedule. Calcutta amazes.

The award mania has also made pujas more sophisticated. It is no longer enough to have an insight only into pratima aesthetics. The modern artist needs to be an ideator, needs to fuse engineering with aesthetics, needs to have a team of designer-implementers, needs to recruit multi-capability specialists and needs to extend beyond ‘product’ to overall experience (concept, thematic consistency, light, sound, amenities and responsibility).

In the last 60 days, a team of 20 worked on my 66 Pally assignment 24x7 on site to create a combination of motor-driven light play and percussion around static kraft board-carved images for our theme — ‘Woman power’. People would need to turn their heads to see things happening all around them as per the moving light and sound. They would be initially bewildered, but thereafter awed enough to say, ‘Wow!’

There are just two tragedies: one, what is created over 120 days is celebrated for seven days and eventually destroyed in two because this city has failed to develop an archival respect. Two, there are two Calcuttas we inhabit — the aesthetic one that we build and destroy each year and the unaesthetic PWD-inspired Calcutta, one that has to be tolerated. Even as we live in the unaesthetic, we need to keep reinventing the aesthetic. This then is our tragedy — and our victory. Now if only we could connect the two, ah, what a city this could be!

The two accounts are part of a Durga Puja book being put together by Mudar Patherya and his team at Trisys. To be available in a couple of month, the coffee-table book will showcase the romance of Puja and its many unspoken stories