Pandals that enthrall

Pandals that enthrall

Festive art

Postage stamps, lentils, combs, leaf-plates, rolling-pins, sea-shells, gamuchas (cotton towels)… these are some of the raw materials required to build spectacular pandals (temporary structures) that mushroom around Kolkata during Durga Puja. It’s in these pandals that the idol of Mother Goddess is installed and, over the decades, they have become pieces of art in themselves.

Fervour, fasting, feasting and festivity mark Durga Puja but the buzz begins much before, when the construction of pandals begin. Present day pandals are very inventive and attractive, showing-off Bengal’s famed inventiveness in numerous ways. Gone are the times when the pandals were simple bamboo and cloth structures. Now, each year, pandal committees try and surpass their own ingenuity as well as try and beat competition. The level of contest is such that prizes are awarded for the best pandal in the city.

Over the years, pandals and their thematic decorations have become the talking point of the festival. A majority of these are a visual spectacle! Some pandals are remarkable replicas of famous edifices while others try and give traditional craft a new meaning.

Pandals also adopt social themes or celebrate a newsworthy event. So, ‘say no to female infanticide’ could be a theme and so could ‘India at the Olympics’. Even an occasion as the Will-Kate marriage can appeal as a subject. Whatever be the muse, it’s the artwork that gives it character and to translate thought into actuality, creativity gets unleashed brilliantly.

Visiting pandals and adda (group exchange) during Durga Puja is the standard in Kolkata and evidently everything else comes to a standstill! During a pandal-hopping session in the city, I was left awe-stuck at the level of artistic manifestation. If millions of postage stamps went into making collages at one pandal, quite dramatically, traditional combs were used to decorate another. In every nook of the city, there was a piece de resistance to attract the eyeballs. At each step, I would marvel the imaginative inclination of humble, nameless artists who had created such brilliance that expecting the unexpected became a norm.

Apart from pandals, I noticed Ma Durga too had received a makeover. Yes, the traditional expression was on view at a lot of places but many had gone beyond conventional barriers and crafted the idol with features representative of assorted art styles: folk, South-east Asian style; Nepalese, etc. The medley added to the arty air that’s become a staple of the celebrations.

In the season of sharad or sarat (autumn), during the lunar month of Ashwin (September-October), 10 days of ceremonies are held in tribute to the Mother Goddess.

This phase is known as Navratri (nine sacred nights) across India and it concludes with Vijayadashami (also celebrated as Dussehra). Durga Puja is held during this period with widespread celebrations beginning on the sixth day or sasthi, followed by saptami, maha-ashtami, nabami and bijoya dashami.

The commencement of Durga Puja symbolises Ma Durga visiting her parental home along with her children — Karthik, Ganesh, Saraswati and Lakshmi. It’s on sasthi, when idols of all five are unveiled in pandals or in homes. Dressing the idols is a sacrosanct ritual, and expectedly, Ma Durga looks the most beautiful! The following day, saptami, is meant for offering anjali, or flowers and special prayers, to the Goddess.

The most significant event during the puja phase is Maha-ashtmi, the eighth day, considered the period Ma Durga killed the demon, signifying victory of good over evil. The congregation is dressed to the nines on this day and after morning prayers, celebration means partaking of bhog or traditional fare, comprising a variety of vegetables and lentils served with a host of accompaniments such as rice, luchi, aloo-bhaja, chutney, papad and an irresistible range of mishti and mishti doi. The tenth day or dashami marks the end of the puja, and the idol’s immersion signifies her return to her husband’s home with a promise to be back next year.

As puja festivity concludes, the pandals too fold up. These days, most of the pandals get ‘sold out’, as quite astutely, the construction now is done in a fashion by which the art work can be dismantled as readymade-size wall decoration. Besides that, other materials used are also put on sale and revellers are happy to go back home with a segment of their favourite pandal. That’s till next year, when creative pandals return to enthrall once again. For sure, with blessings of the Mother Goddess!

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