| The deity made of long-playing records: New-wave pujas have an eye on awards and sponsorship, often ignoring the heritage aspect
It is the 1940s. As World War II holds siege, a way of life crumbles. But even before the dust of destruction settles, a new order is emerging… That the bloodbath in Germany over half a century ago shaped the art of Bengal is difficult to fathom. But a documentary made on Durga Puja has come up with an intriguing explanation of what daaker saaj really is.
The gilded foils and glass beads that were used to decorate the devi, were sent by daak (post) from Europe, and specifically from Germany. But once the war broke out, the stream of exports dried up. Bengal’s artisans, in the frantic search to look for indigenous alternatives, turned to shola. The widely-available white pith then evolved as the medium for Durga’s décor.
When Calcutta’s Kalyan Banerjee and London-based Korak Ghosh started shooting last year for their yet-unfinished documentary on the art forms of the Puja, no one could tell them precisely what daaker saaj was. “There was much confusion, even in Kumartuli, about what exactly this art form was. Some people referred to shola as daaker saaj, while others thought the term referred to foil-based work,” explains Banerjee, the local collaborator for the co-production.
It was an award-winning artisan in Bon Kapashi, near Burdwan, who finally offered a believable explanation. Aditya Malakar, whose mother before him also worked with shola, spoke of the war-fuelled innovation. “So, both shola and zari are actually now referred to as daaker saaj,” adds Banerjee.
Perhaps it is this same innovation that keeps the Puja alive, keeps it relevant to the young in a different era. But the film is sceptical about new-wave pujas, like the sugarcane pandal and the LP deities that are currently all the rage.
Sponsorship and awards are sapping the heritage out of the puja, contends the film, the footage from which sealed daaker saaj as one of the motifs for Din Shuru, a Carnival touring England this year.
The costumes for the procession have been inspired by Bengal and the West Indies, which will travel to the Mayor’s Thames Festival, London, and back to its roots in Calcutta.
Today, Kumartuli is losing ground to Art College graduates. “With the emphasis on pleasing the judges for the awards, the bizarre is chosen above Bangla tradition,” stresses the film-maker who has worked as a photographer and TV show director in the past. Talks with the famed lighting artisans of Chandernagore also revealed a dwindling market in Calcutta. With fewer pujas shelling out for elaborate lighting designs, the craftsmen have started going “out of station” — north Bengal and further — to boost sales.
The duo also looks beyond the pandals to the literary surge. “We didn’t find evidence in any other culture of so much artistic activity around a social festival,” says Banerjee. From Puja publications to books, music CDs to sari prints, the whole industry is in overdrive in the season of mellow fruitfulness.