The display of creative ingenuity in the making of pandals and images adds an extra dimension to the festive and social spirit of Durga Puja
The craze for novelty can inspire creativity. It can also pander to the worst type of philistinism. Both are evident in the public worship of the goddess Durga in Calcutta. The classical image of the goddess is hardly visible anywhere save in traditional homes and a handful of community pujas. Most of the big community pujas also do not follow the same model in an attempt to preserve continuity. Durga with a new look every year is the prevalent trend and has been so for some time. Over the last few years, two new variations have become noticeable. One is that the big community pujas spend more money on the pandals and lighting than on the idol. The second is that images are being built from things other than clay and straw, the materials traditionally used for making the image in Kumartuli. It is in these spheres that the race for novelty is now being concentrated.
The first of these trends has led to pandals that have reproduced famous buildings. Thus Calcutta has had its own Bodleian Library, various famous temples of India; this year’s fare has a Buddhist monastery; the year the film Titanic was a hit, one pandal became the ship itself. Whatever the aesthetic appeal of these structures, it must be admitted that it requires considerable skill to build a replica of a famous building from bamboo and cloth or from thermocol. The second of the trends has brought to the fore even greater ingenuity. Images and pandals have been made from various objects: from tyres to mirrors to earthenware cups and so on. On display this year are images made from soap, from dried chillies and from shells of crackers. Anything goes, as Cole Porter sang. The novelty itself has become an attraction. The more avant garde or outlandish the creation the more the crowds which throng to see the pujas. It is facile to mock at all this. Innovations of this kind have become part of the ritual of celebration of Durga Puja. The bigger canvas of these changes is, of course, the shift away from a family-oriented worship to community worship to a Durga Puja which is more award and sponsorship conscious.
Purists and the genuinely pious might well wonder where piety and the sacral fit into all this. Such concerns will only be voiced by a fast-dwindling minority. Durga Puja in Calcutta is no longer a religious occasion. It is a social occasion in which the worship of the goddess is only a pretext for wide-ranging socialization. The socialization takes many forms and includes all social classes. The old familiies, many now in decay, enjoy themselves in their mansions, the middle classes through an annual orgy of expenditure and consumption, and the subalterns by indulging in forms of enjoyment which are beyond their reach during the rest of the year. The innovations on show in the making of the images and the pandals are another manifestation of this process of socialization. There is an element of the burlesque in many of the novelties that are introduced. A replica of a medieval cathedral may not be the best of places to house the lady from Mount Kailash. But there is evidence here of an attempt to think outside the conventional groove. History and piety take a toss but the popularity makes up for it. In the phrase, popular culture, the first word is always the driver and so it is with the Durga Puja in Calcutta.