Svetlana Ryzhakova, an anthropologist from Russia, was in town for the Pujas. Ryzhakova has been frequenting India since the 1990s and has authored several books and made films on life here. This was, however, her first time in Kolkata during Durga Puja. She shares her experience with The Telegraph Salt Lake.
It’s tough to think of a festival that I have not attended in India. From major ones like Holi to lesser-known tribal ones, I have watched and documented them all. I guess Durga Puja and Guru Purnima were the only ones left.
But this October, I became part of the pulsing Puja crowd. I was walking, watching, meeting and merging with the hectic and fantastic space of Kolkata. The rush was so big towards dawn that I was having to squeeze through, just as one has to through the narrow passages of temples in the caves of Jammu.
50 pujas and hungry
The artistic imagination of the pandal-makers was incredible. Each square was turned into a visual story, dense with meanings, feelings, emotions and messages. If in Tala Park a huge installation representing the universe, it was a simple yet nostalgic view of middle-class life in a little yard puja of south Kolkata.
Ahiritola, Singhee Park, Sovabazar Rajbari, FD Block… I saw around 50 pandals. I travelled with my friends but also alone. Often I was welcomed into homes of strangers who were celebrating.
Salt Lake special
In Salt Lake, I visited blocks like FD, BJ, AE (Part 1)… I had wanted to see EE Block, that depicted saura tribal art but there was no time. CD Block had replicated a temple, and I realised how much one can learn about architecture and rural life from such pandals. Some idols and their themes seemed disjointed, though.
The FD Block puja was on a huge scale and had a lot of commercial activities around it. I also noticed lots of advertisements on the streets which showed how puja and business were being conducted simultaneously.
I have visited Kolkata umpteen times before but this time the taxis wouldn’t ply by the meter. The autos were charging ridiculous amounts too. One auto driver demanded Rs 300 to ferry me from BJ to FD Block! Then again, they are needy people, and what they were charging is probably the price of coffee at Flurys.
Sacred and secular
I found the rituals fascinating — kola bou snan, bodhon, sandhi puja.… I attended a wonderful music and dance soiree on Vijaya Dashami in Boral, invited by my friend Piyal Bhattacharya. The focus was on the performing arts identified with gandharvas, the celestial musicians.
My friend and fellow-anthropologist Kanchan Mukhopadhyay shared his idea of a comparative study between the ways of celebrating Navaratri all over south Asia and I would love to explore it. Apart from Mahishasuramardini, there are Amba, Annapurna, Uma, Chandi… but then Durga puja combines both sacred and secular elements. While I saw the reflection of the goddess in the eyes of the people, even those not performing the puja were involved.
Many people visited pandals simply for the art. For them, it wasn’t religious but cultural. I learnt that the government gave grants to the pujas and think it’s a good idea if it is without corruption and if it really promotes art and artisans.
I had heard of a pandal built to resemble a building flattened in the Ukraine-Russia war (at Nazrul Park Unnayan Samity in Kestopur) but couldn’t reach it due to lack of time. Politics plays a part in contemporary art and I had wanted to see how the war was interpreted here.
Lots of Indians have been asking me about the war but it is out of curiosity, not animosity. An airport official in Delhi told me Russians and Indians are friends, while another gave me a discount on my excess baggage fee.
Most Russians want peace and when the war broke out, it was unimaginable for us. Many people fled the country, international congresses for anthropology and other subjects — that were slated to happen in Russia — got cancelled. Our credit cards, as part of sanctions, are not working outside our country and I’m having great difficulty in dealing only in cash.
But we must preserve cultural connections. That’s why I’m here, to keep our ties strong.
With or without Unesco tag
The top Indian destination for Russians is Goa, followed by Jaipur, Agra and the hills. Kolkata doesn’t feature on the list and I don’t know a single other Russian here for the festival. But it can all change.
I’ve been sending pictures of the pandals to friends back home and they are very impressed. Russians will love to come for Durga puja, even without the Unesco tag. Only the word needs to reach them.