| Ruby Palchoudhuri (left) and Richard Blurton at the British Museum. Master craftsman Nimai Chandrapal is working on the idol. Telegraph picture
London, Sept. 2: Construction of Durga by craftsmen brought from Bengal is well under way at the British Museum as part of Voices of Bengal, the biggest-ever projection of the culture of the old united Bengal that has ever been witnessed in Britain.
Huge posters for Voices of Bengal, which will also feature Tagore’s art and Ray’s films and run until January 7 next year, have gone up all around the museum.
Yesterday, the straw underpinning was completed by master craftsman Nimai Chandrapal and his colleagues, Bishwajit Chakravarti and Madhusadan Pal, supervised by Ruby Palchoudhuri, executive director of the Craft Council of West Bengal, and the man who is at the centre of Bengali activity at the British Museum, Richard Blurton, assistant keeper in its Asia department — he is a veteran of “pandal hopping” in Calcutta.
The statues will be removed from the museum — that itself will pose a logistical nightmare because of their 20-foot height — and taken for puja to Camden in north London through the crowded streets of the capital with much dhoom dham. Five drummers are due to fly in from Calcutta on September 15.
At the end of it all, there will be, for the very first time, a bisarjan — immersion — in the Thames. This has required special permission from the London Port Authority, which is mindful of the busy traffic in the Thames.
Today, British potter’s clay was being put on the straw watched by visitors from all over the world.
Although these are early days, Ganesh is proving to be a runaway hit with the children, possibly because of the association with Babar, the much-loved cartoon character.
Foreigners, who have been writing their comments in a visitors’ book, are impressed with the way the craftsmen take a tuft of straw and shape it with a few deft twists. But this is British barley straw, which is “short, stiff and a little unbending”, quite unlike the long malleable paddy variety that the Bengali gentlemen are used to.
The three craftsmen displayed minor cuts on their arms to The Telegraph and received much sympathy.
“I have so much experience, that’s why I can do it,” Chandrapal said modestly.
The statues are being made in “modular” fashion so that they can be dismantled for transport and reassembled. “I’m like an engineer,” said Chandrapal proudly.
As for working with British potter’s clay, “clay is much the same all over the world, except that there is nothing like West Bengal clay”, he pointed out.
“Because of the silt, it’s like silk,” explained Palchoudhuri.
The museum’s very strict rules on no smoking and no fires of any kind on the premises had to be bent slightly because the craftsmen would not start work without the traditional lighting of agarbatti.
Blurton, who has written a new book, Bengali Myths, appears to understand Bengali psychology, having been taken round Durga Pujas in the old aristocratic houses of Calcutta as part of his home work. He stuck up for the craftsmen against the dark forces of law and order at the museum. When West met East, the former had to bend, he argued successfully. Let there be light, it was finally decided.
“I do understand they couldn’t begin without an invocation to the Gods,” he observed.
With 15 boxes filled with everything from crowns to dresses, Palchoudhuri and the craftsmen arrived at Heathrow on August 10 on a non-stop Air India flight from Calcutta — they couldn’t have picked a worse day since London was in the grip of the terror alert over the alleged plot to blow up trans-Altantic aircraft leaving Heathrow. But with Durga, Saraswati, Ganesh, Kartik etc on their side, they sailed through immigration and past armed British police.
For the Bengalis of Britain, this should be a season to remember.
Only once before have they managed an immersion, according to Shyamal Mukherjee, general secretary of the London Durga Puja Dusserah Committee which has been celebrating the religious festival since 1963.
That was in 2003 when two frequently used pratimas were taken far out to sea off Southend-on-Sea in a boat and tipped into the waves.
“What’s happening this year is very exciting,” enthused Mukherjee. “This will be the biggest promotion of Bengali culture ever to have taken place in Britain.”
Blurton said: “We have close on five million visitors a year - many will see the pratima just because of its position down there in the Great Court.”