At 5:00 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. 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 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 the mother comes home to meet its devotees.
Many refer to the Durga Puja of Calcutta as world’s largest art installation. The rest think of it as a carnival where people from all walks of life participate together. Then there are those who consider it madness and insanity. There is one more category though – of people 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 Calcutta 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 that it is.
I have arrived in Calcutta 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.
We are headed to the heart of North Calcutta, 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 Calcutta owes its origin to old Calcutta, modern day Durga Puja owes its origin to the Bari Pujos of north Calcutta. It was here, in the homes of rich aristocrats, that the concept of Durga Puja had taken roots during the 18th century, and until 1790 the festival continued to be celebrated only in the courtyards of the rich and powerful. It was only in 1790, when twelve young men were debarred from attending the ceremony at local landlord’s home, did the public celebration begin, a practice that has now become the norm. In the lanes of old Calcutta 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 though the lanes of North Calcutta is like taking a lesson in history. Not only do you come across practices that are dying but at every nook and corner you also come face to face with an important landmark in the city’s lifecycle. I see many such places too, 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.
The first pandal is one of the oldest and most famous of the area at Ahiritola. 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 meanwhile stands majestically in the centre created by 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 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 biriyani to korma, from coffee to cola, from ice cream to sweets. While most of the country fasts during this time of the year, Calcutta feasts.
My friend and I are now walking in the lanes of the neighborhood discovering one puja at a time. The pandals of 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 other made with wood, bells, even drums and paper.
Our next destination happens to be the most famous puja of the neighbourhood, Kumhartuli, or 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 t Kumhartuli many times but have never been able to. Today also we spot the long queue from a distance and turn back.
If the art and craft of old Calcutta makes you whimsical, it is the grandeur of posh south Calcutta that makes you go wow!
After having done a fair bit of rustic old Calcutta and gorging on some authentic Bengali sweets, we are now looking at ways of getting to the other part of town. Taxis are few and far between, buses are bursting at seams, and radio cabs are quoting five times the price. We decide to hop on the lifeline of Kolkata – the metro.
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 twenty minutes.
All efforts seems worth their while 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.
The vibe of this place 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. The hip and young of the city can be seen thronging the pandals in their puja best, laughing, eating, clicking selfies. The place looks less like a place of worship and more like a college fest. We soon become a part of it.