“What could this mean?” “What is the theme?” “Who is the artist?”. Sounds like art buffs at an exhibition, doesn’t it? But that’s how conversations go in Kolkata’s Durga Puja pandals. As cameras click away, the theme of the pandal is slowly revealed like a sculptor unveiling an installation. And as one enters the main enclosure to finally face the goddess, one can fully grasp the artist’s vision.
One such artistic highlight of this year’s puja was at Tarun Dal, tucked away in the lanes of Dum Dum, North Kolkata. At the entrance, the first visual cue was a wall of rainbow-coloured kites. Then, deeper into the lane, there was a sculpture of a child, locked inside a home and being berated for ‘girly’ habits.
Inside the main tent, there was an installation of a fairy breaking out of a cage hanging above, with the walls around decked with large pride masks. The idol embodied the features of both Durga and Krishna, a unique androgynous representation of the deity. The final detail was the third eye above the idol, with a projection of trans-women dancing.
Pandal-hoppers at Tarun Dal discussed how this might be the first LGBT-themed puja. Even those who were unfamiliar with the popular LGBT symbols used in the pandal turned to their friends and family to find out what they meant. In this way, in the unlikeliest of places and contexts, thousands of people each day were starting a conversation on LGBT identities.
Almost every neighbourhood in Kolkata builds a pandal as a home for the goddess and her family, welcoming her like a daughter or as a feminine force against evil (depending on their interpretation). The festival gives every locality an opportunity to establish itself in the collective imagination of the city.
It has also become a celebration of the city’s inclusive spirit in many ways. This year, a pandal in South Kolkata, 75 Palli, decorated the entrance with a web of electric meter boxes with the names of local citizens. Inside, in front of a towering cityscape, were wireframe sculptures of diverse religious architecture, and the sound of mantras was interspersed with the azaan, Catholic hymns, and readings from the Guru Granth Sahib. The organisers were at hand to explain that the meter boxes represented the diverse people who power the city. A similar pandal on communal harmony in Beliaghata drew some heated criticism on social media, but this was quickly countered by over-whelming support online and enthusiastic crowds at the pandal.
While many pandals had a social message, they stayed away from preaching or dictating beliefs, instead using metaphors and symbols to encourage audiences to question and engage. Of course, a few took a more literal approach. A pandal on the harm caused by radiation to the bird population greeted one with a dish antenna and mobile tower, and another one on plastic pollution immersed visitors in a trail of plastic bags to drive home the message, while contradictorily sporting flex banners right outside. However, overall, nothing was sacrosanct and everything up for interpretation, including what Durga represents, how you celebrate and who can participate.
Other pandals may not have had a social message but, like the best works of art, were engaging and sparked a dialogue. In the middle of an empty field in Tala Park, in the extreme north of the city, artist Sushanta Pal and his team celebrated the power of imagination by creating a liminal space between heaven and earth titled ‘Kalpa Lok’. Pandal visitors were heard exclaiming how they felt transported into an alternate world that they did not want to leave.
In many ways, this pandal was a fitting symbol for this year’s puja — representing a fantasy world where we have the privilege of escaping from the daily grind and distracting ourselves from the crises — ranging from Kashmir and Assam to Amazon — that cry for our urgent attention. However, this fantasy also created encounters with diverse perspectives and ideas, sparking an imagination of a more inclusive and joyful world.
Source: Times of India