As October sets in, Kolkata decks up for its biggest and most-awaited festival. With pandals, festoons, banners and stalls, the whole city adorns a new look. And illuminating these are lightworks that act as dazzling ornaments. The lit streets, paras and pandals all look refreshed. The nights seem to shine and shimmer.
When talking of Durga Puja lights, the first place that comes to mind is surely Chandernagore, the birthplace of light decorations in Bengal, and the magicians behind it.
Illumination artist Sridhar Das gave Chandernagore a new identityProvided by Sridhar Das
Sridhar Das, now 78, started his journey when he was in class seven. It was Saraswati Puja and he took three tin boxes, inserted bulbs and wrapped them with coloured cellophane paper. The lights changed colour automatically and his work was much appreciated.
After a year or so, Sridhar decided to showcase a light decoration at a nearby Jagadhatri Puja. However, the display work was halted midway. The young boy was disheartened, but never lost hope. Next year, he put up the same decoration at another pandal — ‘Vidyalanka Jagadhatri Puja’ — and it was a huge success. There was no looking back after that.
Little did Chandernagore know that this young boy would give this erstwhile French colony a new identity.
Starting with models of trains and helicopters, Sridhar Das graduated to making moving objects like people playing football, hockey and the like. He started creating magic with lights.
Years later, he met with an accident while experimenting with lights in the middle of a pond and was electrocuted, but fortunately survived. However, neither he nor his successors tried their hand at it again.
Whatever he crafted left everyone spellbound. One of his most famous works was that of a P.C. Sarkar show. The entire show was re-created with lights. Not only did it receive much appreciation, P.C. Sarkar himself was delighted.
Sridhar Das' peacock barge at ‘The Mayor's Thames Festival’, in London in 2003Provided by Sridhar Das
Das’ works were not restricted to Chandernagore and its fringes. The stalwart of lights first came to work in Kolkata at Paikpara in 1962. After that, he started working with the College Square puja. He worked with them for 18 years. Das has created magic for most big puja committees of Kolkata at some time or other.
His work has been acknowledged across the globe. He went to the Soviet Union in 1985 for ‘The Festival of India’ and was there for three months. In 2000, he went to Queen’s University Belfast to train other artists. His lights were also displayed . He went to London in 2003 for ‘The Mayor's Thames Festival’, where he created a huge peacock barge. His work not only received worldwide acknowledgement, but he was showered with accolades, awards and praise.
These panels, and many more by Sridhar, were displayed in the auditorium of Queen’s University Belfast in 2000Provided by Sridhar Das
Not only did Sridhar Das make a name for himself, he created an art form for his successors too — to whom he taught his techniques. Even after retirement, the legacy created by a small boy still continues to reign hearts. But Das is not happy with the use of new techniques and LED lights. He realises that work has become faster and cheaper, but feels the artistry is missing.
Babu Pal, another top illumination artist from Chandernagore, has been setting puja pandals 'alight' for over 20 yearsProvided by Babu Pal
Chandernagore now has a host of illumination artists who have added to the fame and glory of the city. One of the most noted is Babu Pal. This year, he is in charge of Sreebhumi Durga Puja, one of the most popular pandals in Kolkata, where he has put up lights on child-friendly themes like Disneyland and the Olympic Games. His lights installation for this year’s Sreebhumi Sporting Club pandal, whose theme is Burj Khalifa, has already gone viral. He is also lighting the Beldanga pandal of Murshidabad.
He is also in charge of Park Street’s lighting during the Puja days. Babu Pal has been doing this for 20-odd years. His sheer interest and zest to continue the tradition of Chandernagore and Sridhar Das have taken him to the top of this profession.
The lighting of Sreebhumi — by Babu PalNitai Dutta
According to him, the bulbs that were previously used were 6.2 volt bulbs, or ‘tuni’ bulbs, as popularly known. These ‘tuni’ bulbs were a sure-shot sign that the lights were from Chandernagore. But the maintenance cost and power consumption of these bulbs were high.
Then came the LED. To give a traditional feel, these LEDs were capped and wrapped with coloured cellophane. These came to be known as ‘China tuni’.
Another masterpiece by Babu PalProvided by Babu Pal
Another veteran of the field is Habul Chatterjee. He has not only decorated the pandals of Charu Market, Singhi Park, Ekdalia Evergreen, Mohd. Ali Park and others, but has also worked in places like Delhi and Orissa.
Due to the pandemic, like most other trades, this occupation is also facing a lot of difficulties. A lot of karigars have been forced to take up other work, said the veteran artist.
He too reminisced about the time when 6.2 volt bulbs were used. “Chondo miliye miliye alo banatam amra. Chandernagore chara keu ei kaaj parto na. (”We would make lights with a rhythm. No one, other than those from Chandernagore, could do this.”), he said.