The Mother of All Festivals

At 5 in the evening the sky has already turned dark. There may be a few stars here and there but most of them are camouflaged by thick clouds that lurk low. There is no sight of the moon either, or maybe it is hiding somewhere behind the imposing hoardings dotting the skyline of the City of Joy. The roads beneath are hidden, too, by thousands of vehicles—cars, taxis, autos, buses, tempos—all trying to make their way out of the mayhem. The little space left on the pavements has been taken up by pedestrians. It seems like the entire city is out in full force. And why not? It is, after all, that time of the year when Maa Durga comes home to meet her ‘children’.
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Many refer to Durga Puja as world’s largest art installation. The rest think of it as a carnival in which people from all walks of life participate together. Then there are those who consider it madness and insanity. There is one more category of people, though, who once thought of it as sheer absurdity but have now come to appreciate its significance and beauty. I happen to belong to that category. Until only a few years ago I dreaded Kolkata during Pujas but experience and maturity have made me see the other side of it. So much so that every other autumn I make it a point to visit the city to experience the ‘madness’.

I have arrived in Kolkata this morning and am presently caught in the backseat of a cab between my friend and her mother. Dressed in brand new clothes, and all set for the night out, they are animatedly telling me about the interesting pandals that have come up this year and filling me in with the latest puja trends. In between they are also arguing with the cab driver about the shortest route, and admiring the lighting and decoration on the road.

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We are headed to the heart of north Kolkata, Shobhabazar, where we finally reach after spending two hours on the road and paying precisely two hundred rupees for the drive.

The way modern-day Kolkata owes its origin to old Kolkata, modern-day Durga Puja owes its origin to the Bari Pujos of north Kolkata. It was here, in the homes of rich aristocrats, that the concept of Durga Puja took roots in the 18th century. The festival continued to be celebrated only in the courtyards of the rich and powerful until 1790, when 12 young men were debarred from attending the ceremony at a local landlord’s home. Then began the public celebration, a practice that has now become the norm. In the lanes of old Kolkata, though, one can still come across quite a few Bari Pujos in the courtyards of rich aristocratic families, although, minus the opulence of the 18th century.

Walking through the lanes of north Kolkata is like taking a lesson in history. Not only do you come across practices that are dying, but at every nook and cranny you also see an important landmark of the city. Unfortunately, as much as I would like to, I cannot go close to them at this hour. So, I make do with the puja pandals.

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The first pandal at Ahiritola is one of the oldest and most famous in the area. The façade is decorated with iron sheets, pieces of wood, and other scrap; the interior is created like an art studio—an unfinished sculpture here, a broken statue there, some tools and clay lying around in the background. The Durga idol, meanwhile, stands majestically in the centre, made of clay and painted in black and red. Being an ardent fan of terracotta, I am spellbound by the creativity of the place, I want to stay there longer, but I am pushed out by the swelling crowds.

Outside the pandal, the street has turned into a food and entertainment zone. The road is lined with stalls selling everything from biryani to korma, from coffee to cola, from ice cream to sweets. While most of the country fasts during this time of the year, Kolkata feasts.

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My friend and I are now walking in the lanes of the neighbourhood discovering one puja at a time. The pandals in this part of town are mostly small in scale but big on creativity. Unlike their sponsor-rich counterparts across the city, these pandals are a result of the sweat and blood of the humble residents of this once elite neighbourhood. We discover many interesting pandals hidden in narrow lanes and bylanes, some made with washing machine pipes, some created with handcrafted dolls; some decorated with local oil paintings, yet another made with wood, bells, even drums and paper.

Our next destination happens to be the most famous puja of the neighbourhood, Kumartuli, or the Potters Colony. The place is famous for two reasons: one, the idols here are supposed to be huge and unique, and two, it is here that all idols for the festival are created. The popularity also means serpentine queues, crowds, and endless wait. In my numerous visits to the city, I have tried to see the puja at Kumartuli but have never been able to. Today, too, we spot the long queue from a distance and turn back.

If the art and craft of old Kolkata make you whimsical, it is the grandeur of posh south Kolkata that makes you go wow!

After having explored a bit of rustic old Kolkata and gorged on some authentic Bengali sweets, we are now looking at ways to get to the other part of the city. Taxis are few and far between, buses are bursting at seams, and radio cabs are quoting five times the fare. We decide to hop on to the lifeline of Kolkata—the metro.

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The metro turns out to be full, too. So full that the doors don’t shut until some people are made to get off. We squeeze in somehow and gasp for breath for the next 20 minutes.

All efforts seem worth it when we reach the first pandal in this part of the town—a majestic replica of the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, at the famous Ekdalia Evergreen Club. Then there is the Ambaji temple of Gujarat, at Singhi Park, the Sun’s Chariot at Mudiyali club, the thousand-arm Durga of Deshopriyo Park, all waiting to be discovered.

The vibe of this part of the city is completely different from what we have been experiencing all evening. Although it is close to midnight, the night here is still young: food stalls are all up and running and doing brisk business, people are out and flashing their latest acquisitions, be it clothing or jewellery, the hip and happening of the city can be seen laughing, eating, clicking selfies. The sea of revellers is ready to drift all night. We soon join the wave and become one with it.

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This story first appeared in The Week.

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