• Mohana Prabhakar

Calcutta called

I don't think I am a particularly nostalgic sort, but occasionally things have a way of sneaking up on you. Ten days ago, I had a very specific travel requirement: I wanted to reach my hometown in time for my state's biggest annual festival, one I hadn't seen in 26 years. I was also determined to stay in a particular cottage on a particular golf course. Luckily for me (and even more so, for those around me), everything fell into place. Travel, stay and extremely hospitable friends, and I have had the most amazing 'sensory overload' sort of week.

First, the grandioseness of the Durga puja pandals: Pandals are the temporary structures that house the images of Goddess Durga for worship (puja). They started life as simple structures of bamboo frames bound by fabric or canvas. These metamorphosed as time went on, and today they are massive creations representing elaborate themes.

I saw entire pandals with walls studded with real taxi cabs (the Ambassadors from Hindustan Motors) and the background music was a strangely soothing cacophony produced by beating actual spare parts together. I saw one with beautifully crafted fibreglass and metal figurines, that the young sculptor explained was about seeking freedom from all the things that bind us down. The art alone, separated from any symbolism, was of a standard that could claim pride of place in any art gallery in the world.

Then there was the one that looked like a dream castle spun out of molten candy and gold wires, and another with a tunnel of dynamite walls and a giant, nuclear explosion at the entrance to the shrine. Needless to say, whether I understood the concept or not, the workmanship everywhere was impeccable.

A simultaneous assault on the senses comes from the sounds.

From the constant chatter of people, cars blowing their horns as often as possible to music blasting away on giant speakers, the volume button was always turned up high. Talent competitions, street stalls offering everything from a 'revolutionary new app' to the 'world's most authentic chow mein', beautifully choreographed traditional dance shows, religious discourses and even beauty competitions: everything was happening. And naturally, through all of this, I, like many others, was talking at the top of my voice in order to be heard.

People watching seems to have continued as a favourite pastime and it was lovely to see the women in their traditional white saris with red borders, the men in their long kurtas. Everyone was out, smiling at nothing in particular, gathered together on narrow streets and gardens of luxury condos, private houses and community centres.

Commercialisation is unavoidable as sponsorship brings in money that would certainly be needed to finance the ambitious pandal-building plans of most of the local associations. Apparently the primary mode of financing has changed from collecting donations from individuals living in the neighbourhood (what we saw as children) to corporate sponsors who finance upwards of 80 per cent of the event.

What I learned this year is that now you have theme directors, creative consultants who visualise and execute these mammoth productions, not surprising considering the scale. It also led to interesting conversations like when my friend insisted that the gigantic vertebrae on display was a dinosaur's. The theme director, shook his head really slowly and carefully, and said, 'No madam, it is man. It is all of humanity's spine weighed down by burdens!'

It was a trip anyway that left my spine remarkably energised. And I am so glad I made it. I have started planning for next year's visit already. It's less about being organised and more about an apology to my significant other, friends and family whom I terrorised to make this trip happen.

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