It’s October 1st, new moon – and in Kolkata that means Durga Puja – yay! the start of five exhilarating days and nights of praying, eating, dancing, talking, drumming, flirting and more eating. All this is in honour of the indomitable mother-goddess Durga, wife of Shiva, blessed with ten arms and occasionally masquerading as the ferocious Kali. As this is India, the backstory is complex, even, let’s say, incomprehensible, but the bottom line is that during Durga Puja celebrations, all Kolkata comes out to play. It’s Bengal’s version of a Hindu Christmas.
Everywhere you see effigies of Durga, her four children, her lion chariot and the terrible demon, Mahishasur, all of whom adorn incredibly complex pandals – huge structures that become the focal-point for each neighbourhood. Although I didn’t see any completed, it seems they are becoming more and more way out by the year, each district trying to outdo the next, bigger, better, blanketed in thousand of twinkling lights – pandal envy? This year one is even designed to resemble a stadium to honour a former Kolkata cricketing giant. His fans called him the ‘god of cricket’, so why not? There are whispers of discontent however about the sponsoring that is now necessary to fund these extravanganzas – even Durga’s jewellery is emblazoned with brand-names. Don’t think she’d approve.
While Puja fever build-ups in September, coinciding with the tapering-off of the monsoon rains, half Kolkata seems to be out on the streets getting kitted out for the imminent party – whether at cheap street-markets or in the air-con malls. The man below seems to have got waylaid by his favourite streetfood …
Meanwhile, for months beforehand, artisans toil away on making the statues in their traditional district of north Kolkata, Kumartuli (a name that literally means ‘idol maker’). Here, in dozens of cramped, dark studios, teams of craftsmen work doggedly (for around £4 / day) to make the effigies, using armatures of trussed bamboo which are then fleshed out with hay and / or jute and bound with cow-dung. Next comes coating with clay from the Hooghly river or with a more modern material, fibre-glass resin. At this point you have perfectly sculpted, realist figures with smooth grey surfaces – before the final transformation with intricate hand-painting and unbelievably garish colours.
When I squeezed through this maze of alleyways lined with ramshackle workshops, it was already dark, so the atmosphere was decidedly eery. Yet craftsmen were still hard at it, sculpting, moulding and painting by lamplight in shacks packed with a sea of bodies, arms and the odd detached head – in clay of course. Some are experts in one type of limb – hands for example, while others may only do heads, realistic or not, and still others may specialise in a particular god such as Ganesha, the elephant-god – one of Durga’s children.
Durga puja kicks off a long celebratory season, because she is not by any means alone. Soon after comes Kali puja, then in January, Saraswati puja. Following each festival, the statues are taken to be thrown into the nearby river, and thence to float downriver to the sea. As an extension of the Ganges, the Hooghly plays a powerful spiritual role, so the immersion is a high point, provoking tears, prayers and intense emotions. Some statues are actually saved, and returned for repair to the workshops – but with some 15,000 statues of Durga made annually, you wouldn’t think there’d be much room for returns.