This Durga Puja, time will roll back by at least three decades when pandals were simple bamboo structures draped with coloured cloth and the idols were placed atop platforms so that they were visible as you walked or drove past.
The emergence of ‘themes’ in the 1990s had changed the way the city celebrates Durga Puja. Over the years, pandals became more elaborate and intricate and the four-day festival turned into arguably the world’s biggest street art installation show that not only mesmerised its residents but drew lakhs from adjoining districts and thousands of others from across the world.
But Covid-19 has sent all calculations haywire this year. If footfall was a measure of a ‘theme’ pandal’s success till last year, the focus this year is to prevent crowding. Puja organisers have been forced to return to the simple form of yesteryears when pandals were basic structures and the idols were clearly visible from outside. CM hief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also made a similar appeal to the organisers following suggestions from an experts’ group that has been advising the government on its Covid response. The team led by Nobel laureate Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee has suggested it would be better if pandals are open on three sides to allow cross-ventilation that reduces the chance of droplets remaining suspended in air.
Partho Ghosh, founder of Forum for Durgotsav, a platform representing major Durga Puja organisers in Kolkata, said this year would mark a return to the simplicity that was on display prior to the advent of theme Pujas.
“Till the early 1990s, the Sib Mandir pandal used to be across the road with the idol on one pavement and a stage on the opposite pavement. One could view the goddess as one drove down Lake Temple Road,” recalled Ghosh.
The direction of the pandal changed when themes were ushered in. One needed to see the pandal from a distance and then enjoy the intricacy of craftsmanship inside. The idol was positioned at the very end with exits on either side. That will not happen this year. Decorations will be on the pandal facade or on the idol’s backdrop,” said Ghosh.
Kajal Sarkar, the current president of Forum for Durgotsav, said people will again be able to view most idols and pandals while driving past. Three rival Puja organisers in a south Kolkata neighbourhood have joined hands to work on a common theme and agreed to vacate the road and restrict the pandals to only the pavement to enable a drive-through experience.
“We don’t want elderly people who are susceptible to infections to park their car at a distance and then walk down to see the pandals and idols. We have therefore chalked out a drive-through concept,” said Rajat Sengupta, president of 66 Palli and coordinator of the concept that has participation from Badamtala Ashar Sangha and Nepal Bhattacharjee Street Club.
But what will make the most significant difference in crowd control, believes Sarkar, is the decision to ensure that the pandals look and feel the same during the day and night. “When theme Pujas were ushered in, illumination became important. The biggest change since the 1980s has been the build-up of crowds after dusk and night-long pandal-hopping. To ensure that the crowd gets distributed evenly through the day, pandals will not look more spectacular at night this year,” said Sarkar, who is also the man behind Bosepukur Sitala Mandir Puja that had made a big impact in 2001 when it decorated a pandal with earthen tea cups.
Themes, Sarkar says, will be on display this year too, but they will be muted due to budgetary constraints. “Some Pujas may go in for the old-style decor with coloured cloth, but most have engaged theme artists to do the decor aesthetically. Only, all the display will be on the pandal’s exterior,” he explained.
The duration of the celebration, too, may change this year with some organisers keen on returning to five-six days from what has become a 10-day affair. “Every additional day adds to the cost,” Ghosh pointed out.
Maddox Square, one of south Kolkata’s largest crowd pullers despite not going for themes, will not erect a pandal at all this year. It will organise a very private puja in its club room within the park with only members joining in. “We do not want people to come this year. We will worship the goddess with all earnestness. But it will be a private affair,” said member Ranajit Chakraborty.