Long before Unesco was thinking of Durga Puja as part of humanity’s “intangible cultural heritage”, Niladri Chatterjee was collecting very tangible artefacts of Durga Pujas past. He has a black-and-white glossy print from 1979 of a Durga image from Tarun Sporting Club — a fairly traditional Goddess on a rearing lion, spearing Mahisasura while emaciated men in dhotis look on from behind bars. At the corner is the artist’s name — Aloke Sen.
This is not a photograph Chatterjee has taken. Before the era of cell phones, Puja pandals would sell prints of the year’s Goddess as collectibles. “These pictures, mostly black and white, would be printed on flimsy glossy paper,” says Chatterjee. “They would sell for 25 paisa or 50 paisa, and I was obsessed with them.”
He still has a collection of a dozen Durga prints, mostly dating back to the Eighties. Some mention the name of the photography studio; some look like old-school studio family portraits that were once in vogue — just a divine version of it. The goddesses are usually traditional, though some are more stylised as if inspired by art classes at the Indian Museum. But as Chatterjee points out, it’s all about the Goddess. The pandals which housed the deities were cookie-cutter “pyramid structures with spires and turrets”. “The artistic energy was overwhelmingly focused on the idol,” he says. Professions like theme maker or installation artist were unknown. These prints only carry the name of protima shilpi or idol-maker.
For a brief period, experimentation happened with the idol. Each year would see some new holy horror — the goddess as gimmick, made out of biscuits or car parts. That wore thin quickly. There’s only so much leeway an artist can take with a religious icon. But the pandal could truly become an artist’s playground. Corporations started instituting awards, drawing in crowds hungry for novelty. Art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta remembers meeting an artist who could make perfect thermocol replicas of architectural monuments. He could build the Mukteshwar Temple or a Jain temple, often to scale, in the middle of a Kolkata park. “Everyone knew it was thermocol. But the painstaking way in which he replicated the original was a matter of immense pride for him,” she says.
Chatterjee’s pictures are a reminder not just about how Durga Puja has changed but also how its audience has changed in the way it consumes the spectacle. In an age of selfies, we want to be part of the installation, inserting ourselves into the tableau. We want to be entertained but also feel artistically stimulated.
The Vivekananda Park Athletic Club puja this year, spread over 6,000 sq ft, could never be captured in one of Chatterjee’s selfies. It’s like an architectural drawing of an old mansion’s courtyard or thakur dalan but laid on its side, iron skeleton exposed, completely skewing the viewer’s perspective. Its artist Susanta Paul is quite a cult figure among the Durga Puja cognoscenti. As is Sanatan Dinda who has turned the south Kolkata neighbourhood of Bakul Began into Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night this year. That neighbourhood once had the who’s who of Indian art build the idol — Paresh Maity, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Meera Mukherjee. Now they have been bitten by the “theme” bug, organiser Ram Kumar Dey says, because “people demand themes.”
Durga Puja had always been a festival of homecoming and mythologises a sense of home. But now, for the spectator, it has become a way to see the world. We can teleport ourselves to the White Temple of Thailand’s Chiang Rai, the Burj Khalifa in UAE or the Vatican and take selfies without leaving Kolkata. During the pandemic, the big pujas went online so we didn’t even have to leave home.
Five days, or even 10, do not feel long enough to consume this excess. So there are new rituals (and selfie opportunities) like Khunti Puja — the day the first bamboo pole is planted to construct the pandal. “The khunti was a ritual within idol making. In the last 7-10 years, it’s become an invented ritual (for the clubs), bringing the season forward more and more,” says Guha-Thakurta.
Chatterjee now has a proper camera and documents the annual festival with great vigour. At one time, he was sceptical about Durga Pujas that mixed in social messaging. These days, he invites friends to come see how the city becomes “one big art installation”. This year even saw a “preview” of select pandals so foreign guests, drawn by the Unesco tag, could get a taste of the festival without the choking crowds. The art interest is huge, says Dhrubojyoti Bose Suvo, secretary, massArt, which organised the preview. “A Brazilian visitor told me why not create an online platform so art lovers can purchase some of the art objects through digital auctions. We want to do it soon.”
That will be yet another new way to consume an old festival. But Chatterjee’s black-and-white prints remind us of a time when the only “theme” of a Durga Puja was Durga herself.
(Sandip Roy is a Kolkata-based writer and commentator)