The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 13, 2002
Lead Article

From Rajdhani mishap to 9/11,
'puja pandals' look contemporary

Sujata Ghosh

When Durga turns crusader
When Durga turns crusader

PLANES crashing into the WTC towers, the attack on Parliament House, Ronaldo’s goal-scoring spree at the World Cup football, the derailment of Rajdhani Express... events that made front page news have suddenly returned, forming spectacular backdrops to countless Durga Puja pandals this year.

What’s even more remarkable than the interplay of lights and special-effects are the friezes that bear almost the same immediacy as today’s newspaper. And here, it’s not just the artisans to Kumartuli, but the technical wizards of Chandanagore in Kolkata who are vying for attention.

"We are celebrating a grand fusion of mythology, history and reality in this year’s Durga Puja," observes Sunil Sarkar, organiser of a community puja. "The festivities go far beyond the context of good triumphing over evil. The goddess has turned a crusader as issues of immediate social concern are being highlighted."

The 10-armed Durga idol, however, remains true to tradition, with the buffalo demon (Mahishasura) at her feet being slain as she rides a lion. She is, as always, shown to be flanked by her children — Lakshmi and Ganesha on one side, and Saraswati and Kartikeya on the other.

It is this representation as the Supreme Mother — both fierce and benevolent — that has also made Durga a good subject for the artisans in projecting women-related issues. Men abusing their wives, women being burnt for dowry and Bhagat Singh’s mother bidding farewell to her son are some recurring themes that come alive as tableaux in various pandals.

"We believe that today, women have made great progress in every field possible," says Bimal Rakshit, secretary of a pandal in downtown Keshtopur. "In fact, they are much better than men. Yet more and more atrocities are being heaped on them."


The Keshtopur pandal, which was a crowd-puller for depicting Osama bin Laden as the buffalo demon last year, has a frieze on the recent rape of a minor girl in a Mumbai train. Replete with recorded sound effects of a running train and shrieks, the "audio-visual presentation" is expected to be a major attraction.

But Ramesh Pal, a veteran idol maker, has his doubts: "I really don’t know if people will follow the message. We can only hope that some educated people would like the show and learn from it. For children and the public at large, this is nothing but entertainment."

Pal echoes the feelings of a large number of elderly Bengalis who believe that these "side shows" are robbing Durga Puja of its sanctity. While public attention should be focused on the Mother Goddess, the emphasis on "showmanship and gimmickry" is turning out to be distracting, they argue.

"In our time, Puja meant wearing new clothes and offering prayers with the rest of the neighbourhood at the local pandal," explains Bibhas Chakarborty, a septuagenarian poet. It was a simple, pure and holy affair. There were no mikes, lights, film songs, electronic effects..."

"Modelling Durga images to resemble Hema Malini or some other Hindi film star was bad enough," Pal points out. "But now, they are asking for the most ridiculous things. Religion and worship can find no place in all this."

"But we must change with the times", argues Bibhas Maity, a special effects expert who prints greetings cards for the rest of the year. "When we have the technology, why not make use of it? Besides, there is no better forum to bring up socially relevant issues than at the Bengalis’ biggest festival of the year."

Another issue gaining precedence during the festivities is the gradual abandoning of bio-degradable material for making Durga idols. When and how plaster-of-paris, glass, metal and toxic paints have come to replace clay and organic colours, the artisans themselves do not know.

"We are under increasing pressure to come up with something novel each year," says Rathin Pal, another artisan. "I can understand clay idols are routine and common. But you cannot disregard the fact that after immersion, they dissolve and disintegrate in the waters very easily."

When some environment protection groups pointed out that some plaster-of-paris idols remained intact months after immersion and were polluting the waters of the Ganges, the municipal corporation decided to earmark seven tanks in the city for immersion on Dasehra day.

Needless to mention, they remain by and large unused. MF