The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Glow of Puja floats down the Thames

London, Sept. 15: Bengal’s peacock-shaped boat, known as the bajra, was a spectacular success when it led the Mayor’s Thames Festival in London last night.

Thousands of onlookers clapped and applauded as the illuminated float slowly made its way along the Victoria Embankment, then over Blackfriars Bridge and ended its 90-minute journey along the South Bank in front of the National Film Theatre.

Although it is difficult to explain why, there was somehow a touch of Puja in the atmosphere created by the use of 135,000 little bulbs. But these bulbs had all the colours of the spectrum, from red through orange, gold, yellow, green, light and dark blue, to silver.

Walking alongside the bajra in an elegant red sari was Nandita Palchoudhuri, the curator who oversaw the design and construction of the bajra in Chandannagar under Sridhar Das.

“The peacock represents India,” said Palchoudhuri, and then, referring to the intricate designs on the peacock’s wings and other parts of the body, she added: “the alpana represents West Bengal”.

She agreed that the whole operation was being managed “like a military operation”.

At one point, when an overzealous securityman stepped in front of her and tried to hold her back behind a crash barrier, she made it plain she was having none of his “nakhra”. “Do not separate me from my people and my boat,” she said crisply.

The float carrying the bajra led the Mayor’s procession, consisting of 2,000 participants dressed in colourful and sometimes scant carnival gear and representing the multicultural mix of London. On a warm, dry night, when the temperate was over 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the bajra glowed from a distance like a piece of molten lava.

From Waterloo Bridge, the light from the bajra cast strange and wonderful patterns across the waters of the Thames. Then the shape of the bajra hove into view as the large truck carrying the boat inched its way over Blackfriars Bridge.

Bengal’s boat made its way under the silhouette of St Paul’s Cathedral, an intriguing mix of East and West. As it passed, onlookers scrambled onto ledges, walls and even lamp posts for a better view of something, the like of which has probably not been seen in London.

All the while, Palchoudhuri shouted instructions to a man tucked inside the peacock. He later identified himself as one Probir Bag, who said he was from Chandannagar and delighted to be making his first trip to London. His job was to guide the bajra through various obstacles and replace any bulbs that fused.

Sheta to hoy (that is bound to happen),” he said nonchalantly, though he would not say how many bulbs he had deftly replaced without anyone noticing.

Palchoudhuri, thoughtful as ever about her staff, had known it was going to be a hot job and had equipped him with four bottles of water.

As the sail of the bajra, which had a smiling sun to represent din shuru (the start of the day), looked like getting entangled in the overhanging branches of a tree, Palchoudhuri had to act the part of air traffic control.

She made her instructions heard above the din of the London crowds: “Pal takey namaye dao (lower the sail).”

The sail obligingly came down.

The next hurdle was a bridge but it had enough room for the barge to pass under it. Again, Palchoudhuri’s voice could be heard: “Ebar uthiye dao (raise the sail now).”

The sail went up.

In front of the float, a group of Indians carried a banner with the message: “The people of India salute the Thames Festival: Chandannagar Heritage.”

A week’s preparation by Palchoudhuri and her colleagues had paid off. “It was very tense earlier in the day,” she admitted.

Earlier, there had been a misunderstanding that the bajra would sail down the Thames. But that may happen next year, according to Evans.

He intends visiting the Calcutta Carnival on December 14 as a way of strengthening links between London and Calcutta — some politically correct people in London (but not Evans) have unfortunately started calling Calcutta Kolkata in an effort to ingratiate themselves with the natives.

He said the mayor of Calcutta had been invited but had been unable to come. “It’s a shame,” he said.

The bajra will be dismantled and put into storage in London, ready for next year.

“The bajra was just magical,” said Adrian Evans, the festival director. “All the feedback I have had is that it was an extraordinary way to lead the procession of lights.”

Ken Livingstone, the mayor, thought it was a fantastic display of craftsmanship. “It was just absolutely awesome.”

Meanwhile, Palchoudhuri’s mind was on higher things. She was planning to buy a large “bottle” as a thank you for some of her staff — and she was not referring to a bottle of water.

There was a word of gratitude for the man upstairs as well. “Bhagabaner daya brishti pore nai (thank God it didn’t rain).”

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