The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Wisdom trail, wow & weird
Bechu Chatterjee Street
Judge’s Court Road
Heysham Row
Chetla Park
Bhagabati Lane, Kalighat

The veena-bearing goddess is said to have been born a river. She flowed by Brahmavartta, ho-me of the early Aryans. Being their most important source of water, she was as sacred to them as the Ganga has been to our forefathers. Thus she became a deity, venerated as the Muse who inspired the composition of hymns sung in rituals conducted on her banks.

Since then a lot of water has flowed down the stream of Time. The river Saraswati dried up long back. A day before the fifth auspicious shuklapanchami of the 21st century ' or Saraswati puja ' a couple of invitations prompted a reality check on where the deity and her swan stand on the piety scale.

Spoon full

Stop One: Hazra. A little makeshift temple has come up in a blind lane. The goddess here is worshipped by students of the adjacent institute. But the students here are not votaries of the text book but of the arc light and the ramp. Architect-in-chief Swarup has been hard at work with the decorations. But a call for a photo-op induces many pretty young things to shed their jeans and tops for saris (or in one hurried case, even use the sari as a wrap-around). 'This is our second year. We want to show that modelling is not aposanskriti but is as faithful to rituals as any other art,' smiles Samrat Mukherjee, the moving spirit behind the institute. The goddess has been decorated with paat kathi and heaps of ice-cream spoons. Where did they get the supply from' 'We had asked the local ice-cream shops three weeks ago not to throw away their used spoons,' the young man beams. Used ice-cream spoons for puja' Twin sisters Mohua and Moushumi exchange a quick puzzled glance. Then, silence.

Model mould

Stop Two: Kalighat Potuapara. If the trip-up at the style temple was due to lack of wisdom about the rights and wrongs of rituals, it is sheer market mechanics that rule at the second biggest hub of artisans in the city. Indrajit Sinha has laid out his choicest pair of creations in front of his studio. In the middle of a sea of idols all around, benign and in benison mode, the two stick out for chutzpah. The three-and-a-half-ft high things of buxom beauty in choli and ghagra (flowing from well below the divine navel) are priced around Rs 400. 'I have based them on models since that is an upcoming profession,' smiles the 19-year-old, who graduated from assistant to lead artiste three years ago. But they hardly look like goddesses! 'Actually I am trying out a new look. Let's see if customers like it,' says the youth, in slight discomfiture. Two other idols in the same style have already been scooped up by customers, inform artisans from neighbouring studios. Take a bow, Yana Gupta.

Out of syllabus

Stop Three: Further up Kalighat Road. A sight of a man throwing handfuls of dust at an eight-ft idol was cause for the car to stop. The dust turned out to be sawdust and the man Bijoy Chakraborty. 'My clients are from Judge's Court Road in Alipore. I have been supplying them idols for three years now. Last year, they took one with a coat of rice dust and of plaster of Paris the year before,' reveals the man who also shapes Durga idols. Innovations, he says, are being called for in Saraswati puja too 'for some three-four years' now. 'A couple of years ago I did a journey of the script ' stone carvings, leaf inscriptions, pen on paper and finally computers ' for a school in Salt Lake. But they have gone back to the traditional look,' he adds a trifle dispiritedly.

Books in clay ' a pile of them with the top one open ' also do good business, he says. These are replacements of idols and are reminiscent of the times when Saraswati puja used to be a quiet private affair ' worship of text books at home. In the age of fusion, tradition and innovation walk hand in hand.

The resurrection

Stop Four: Kalighat temple. A walk up to the pivot of piety in the city reveals a beautiful work of art in shells which from a distance resembles Lord Krishna, with a veena in hand. Kalighat Matri Sangha, an association of sebaits and priests, is known for innovations through the 52 years of its existence. Here it is a compulsion driven by religious diktat. 'We cannot worship any clay idol within the periphery of the Kali temple. So every year we have to resort to different materials, be it buttons or bamboo leaves,' says treasurer Chinmoy Mukherjee. The idol has been placed in the middle of a pool with two-ft deep water. All around the cemented bank are 13 aquariums. 'The deity comes to rescue us from the depths of ignorance. The shells go with sea life and the fish in the aquariums are symbols of fertility, in this case of wisdom,' explains artist Bibhas Mukherjee. Saraswati finally finds resurrection in a well-woven theme.

Other Mother

Stop Five. Chetla Park. From the temple to the church. That too in Atacama desert in Chile. 'After a pagoda last year, we wanted to do a church. A search on the Net landed us this model,' smiles Arindam Ghosh of Chetla Park Cultural Club. It is a towering Gregorian structure that welcomes the believer (and non-believer). Inside stands Mother Mary. Only, her holy stick has been turned to a veena and in place of little Jesus in her lap is a rosary of rudraksh. 'We have consulted the Bible Society about the changes as we do not mean to hurt religious sentiments,' adds Ghosh. In a locality known for myriad faces of Kali, the club concentrates its creativity on Saraswati to ensure greater footfall. Going by the numbers last year's pagoda drew, Mother Mary should find quite a following through Sunday.

Caste card

Stop Six. Bechu Chatterjee Street. Saraswati Primary School has been opened a stone's throw away from Thanthania Kalibari. Beside the idol, a woman of a lower caste in clay is poised to serve a meal to children seated in a row. But an angry babu is ready to pull away his son. This is Swami Vivekananda Sporting Club's indictment of the ugly face of caste politics that came into sharp profile recently over mid-day meals at schools. 'We choose a social theme every year. This year the budget is Rs 55,000,' says club member Bimal Pal.

Such a shadow on school premises is enough to make the visitor ' and the Devi ' shudder.

Love letter

Last stop. Heysham Row. Taj Mahal beckons from the alley in Bhowanipore. 'If Shah Jahan created the original for his begum, this is my tribute to my wife,' beams Manoj Gandhi, head honcho of the para puja. From a humble half-a-foot beginning on a street corner, the puja has grown and how. 'Last year, the puja was on Republic Day and we built a Red Fort.'

'Durga, Kali and now Saraswati have fallen prey to the pull of populist innovations. Why don't they dare touch Lakshmi' Is it because they are scared to get hit where it hurts most' wonders Debnita Chakravarti, lecturer with Shri Shikshayatan College.

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