The goddess creates new art

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By Designers are redefining the Durga puja as a public art event, says a researcher. Chandrima S. Bhattacharya reports
  • Published 14.10.07

When a Durga idol is installed in a hotel, is it art or religious icon? The Durga puja is redefining art. With the entry of “designers” into the Pujas, previously the domain of “artisans” — idol-makers, pandal-builders and decorators — the festival has become a public art event from just a spectacle or a gimmick or even pure kitsch. So feels Tapati Guha-Thakurta, a professor of history at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. She is a researcher of art and cultural history of modern India — and a hardened Puja enthusiast.

“I used to visit pandals when it was infra dig,” says Guha-Thakurta. “But from the late 1990s, there has been a distinct sense of change.” It started then because of a few factors. “Within the city, the Puja came to represent a new civic regulation.” Authorities’ concern about road-blockage, noise pollution, chanda and the interest of the corporate sector and the various awards being offered changed the profile of the Pujas. “The middle classes are more involved now.”

She is working on a project at the centre with her colleague Anjan Ghosh on the changing face of the Puja. But for her, the focus is really the changing face of Durga — the visual culture of the Puja.

“‘Art’ Puja is not new in Calcutta,” she says. Since 1975, Bakulbagan in Bhowanipore has commissioned artists from Nirad Majumdar to Suvaprasanna to design their idols. But from the late 1990s, there has been a real boom, from about the time “theme” pujas started, she says.

“Now there are six to seven prime design people, who see themselves as artists,” says Guha-Thakurta, such as Bhabatosh Sutar, Sanatan Dinda and Amar Sarkar. The works of Sutar, an art college graduate, are being preserved. One of his creations, a terracotta altar and Durga image, designed for the Barisha Shrishti Club of Behala, was bought and installed in its lawns by the ITC Sonar Calcutta.

“Many of the new designers are art school graduates. They work on durable media — fibre glass, plaster, wood and bamboo,” says Guha-Thakurta. These idols are not immersed — they are symbolic, while a small idol, which is also worshipped at the Puja, is sent for “bisarjan”.

Some parts of “designer” pandals are also sold later, for wedding decorations perhaps. “But Durga puja is ultimately Matripuja (the worship of the Mother Goddess).” It results in a tension between the artwork and the religious icon.

The tension is sometimes resolved. Sanatan Dinda considers his Durga idols ephemeral, only for five days, though they tend to art as much. But sometimes the tension remains — what does one say of a Durga idol in a five-star lawn? Yet it was in a pandal once. “The ritual occasion sustains the idol as art. It seems to lose its vitality in a hotel atmosphere,” says Guha-Thakurta — and she is not speaking as a worshipper. At the same time not all such idols translate into successful art.

Despite this undefined territory these idols occupy, one thing is certain, feels Guha-Thakurta, who plans to publish her work as a book. Such Pujas, which allow an entire “Madhubani village” to be created (by Amar Sarkar for the Barisha Shrishti Club in 2002) or an idol to combine the traditions of Tantric art and Pal age features or Bastar statuettes to throng a pandal, open up a space for the city’s art professionals. This is a new kind of production, often huge in scale, where people are employed to work out the design given by the artist for the idol, the pandal, the surroundings. So much so, that someone called the work of building a pandal “Nagarik Lokashilpa” (urban folk art), says Guha-Thakurta.

The sobriquet is also appropriate given the preponderance of rustic “themes” — terracotta tiles, bamboo, jute work, pottery, and a tendency to revive “dying” folk arts. “It also reflects on the larger visual culture of the city,” says Guha-Thakurta. Think Swabhumi.

Of course, it co-exists with an impulse to create a Hogwarts castle from Harry Potter. And not at the expense of Kumartuli — “artists” from art colleges share Puja space with the “artisans” from Kumartuli. Guha-Thakurta doesn’t think that there’s a conflict there.

After all, the Pujas bring so much together. “The entire city turns into an exhibition,” says Guha-Thakurta. And as she observes elsewhere, the Calcutta of the Pujas is a space both real and unreal, where everyday places are transformed beyond recognition for a few days. In this space, J.K. Rowling does not enjoy copyright over Hogwarts.