Mamata Banerjee makes sketches for Durga idols,creates playlists of Rabindrasangeet and indulges in clever pandal politics.
She stands against a red brick wall,her palms clenched,her eyes closed. Nearby,rows of botched-faced owls bask in the sun with equally bad-looking mice. A lions mouth is open in a half-roar. They are all clay in this cramped workshop that smells of wet earth and wood shavings. But this is autumn,shorot. And in Bengal it is in such tenements and tents and in the bylanes of Kumartuli that goddesses are born. Every Bengali knows it,and Mamata Banerjee perhaps only too well. At a Puja committee office at Bakul Bagan in south Kolkata,a hoarding says it loud and clear: Creative Director Mamata Banerjee.
Durga Puja organisers in Kolkata are known to be a different breed altogether a pen is firmly tucked in their pockets,a quote from Rabi babu and Sunil Ganguly will be summoned without notice and they have an amusing knack for talking endlessly about peace,art and traditions. At Bakul Bagan,20-something Suman Bhattacharjee is a variant,with his spiked hair,Guns n Roses tee and Didi talk. I cant express how grateful we are to Didi. She holds an office of such importance at the Centre,yet she has agreed to ideate for this Puja. From pandal decoration and music to the idol,Didi will direct everything, says Bhattacharjee,press relations officer of the Puja committee,which has Union Railway Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Banerjee on board as creative adviser.
It is not a job that Banerjee takes lightly. She has a list of Rabindrasangeet to be played in a loop outside the pandal,has instructed a Mumbai music composer who has flown down to the city on what hymns to be sung and,more importantly,has already handed over an abstract sketch of the 10-armed goddess to artists. She wants the eyes to be drawn near the heart of the goddess, says Bhattacharjee. I guess the eyes on the heart mean Didi wants people to see from their heart,like she does.
In the small,sweltering pandal in the quiet,upper middle-class neighbourhood,the walls are already embossed with abstract,plaster-of-Paris renditions of the chakra,lotus and the swastika,according to Didis designs. A landscape painting of rural Bengal,complete with mud huts and coconut trees,has been prepared as the backdrop for the deity. This simplistic village setting,you realise in an instant,is Banerjees Maa Maati Manush (Mother,Earth,Man),a political slogan that is changing the fortunes of the CPM that has been ruling the state for 34 years.
She is not just a political figure,she is also an artist. We have seen her paintings she is a natural. And she has a great vision for Bengal. Thats why we pursued her and convinced her to be part of our Puja, says Bhattacharjee,whose Puja budget is around Rs 14 lakh.
Didi is cleverly taking over two spaces cultural and political. While Kolkatas Dada Sourav Ganguly has been pushed to oblivion,Didi has metamorphosed from a hyperbole of the opinionated,aggressive Bengali woman to an artist to be reckoned with in the city. Even as the Left government seems to have lost its public relations edge in the festivities,with the passing away of its flamboyant leader Subhas Chakrabarty who had used pandals from Salt Lake to Dum Dum as platforms to interact with the masses,Didi is doing smart Puja politicking.
An hours journey from Bhowanipore is New Alipore with its tastefully painted houses and neatly trimmed balcony gardens. The only sound you hear is of masons and carpenters working in a 200 ft x 100 ft walled park the centrepiece during Puja. The Suruchi Sangha Puja is a favourite for Puja awards.
Like every other year,they have a theme rain-water conservation,modelled on a technique that is popular in Karnataka. Masons from Murshidabad are building an elaborate pond in the middle of the park,while 50 other workers from across the state as well as from Assam and Karnataka are busy with paintings and artifacts to make the Rs 10 lakh Puja celebration with an eco-message a success.
The chairman of the Puja committee is Trinamool Congress MLA Aroop Biswas. Dressed in white kurta-pyjama and black shoes,Biswas declares that Puja has nothing to do with politics,but he takes the Trinamools new role as the civic guardian of the city very seriously. The WHO says that by 2020 water will be more expensive than petrol in our country. Its important to implement rainwater-harvesting techniques across India. The model shown here is the first step I am taking to encourage the practice. Its not just my partys responsibility; everyone should do their bit, he says.
A world away from the opulence of New Alipore is Patuapara. At Harish Chatterjee Street,which leads to Didis residence and which is next-door to the famous Kalighat temple,artisans are running against time to finish medium-sized idols of Durga and her entourage. In a four-ft-wide bylane dank with clay,Arun Pal,a 60-something artisan who has been in the trade for decades,has no time for chitchat. But mention Didi and he is more than willing to talk about the idol he is making under her supervision.
Didi to byasto manush (Didi is a very busy person), he says. I had to break and make the idol twice. She is full of ideas and the one I am making now is based on a sketch she finally gave me. Before this,she had spoken to me over the phone and given me directions. She has asked me to let her know how this turns out. This idol isnt like anything I have made before, says Pal. He is guarded about the design,but lets on that the theme is Unnoto Manobik Prithibi,which roughly translates into Progressive Humane World.
At Kumartuli,the artisans quarters in north Kolkata,photographers throng the lanes to capture pictures of the day. Their pleas to the artisans to pose and to let them into the recesses of the workshops fall on deaf ears as they sit silently,their paintbrushes glued to giant idols until someone shouts,Didir mukh er moton Maa er mukh banieche shunlam (Heard that someones made a Durga idol whose face resembles Didis)?
While you expect scorn,disbelief and dismissal at the suggestion,the artisans turn back,curiosity writ large on their faces. Tai naki? Kothai? (Really? Where?), asks one.
If this were to happen,Banerjee would join the list of Osama bin Laden,George W. Bush and yesteryear actresses who have inspired the look of Asur and Durga.
A few days from now,Kolkatans will spill into the streets in celebration and squeeze into the first AC Metro coaches that will roll out during Puja. And then both Ma and Mamata would be taking a headcount of their believers.