With the city of Guwahati getting absorbed in a mood of festivity, there is a rush in the streets, in every small lane and in the marketplace. A respite from the hustle and bustle of life and a time to hang out with friends and family, fulfil one’s wish list and get rejuvenated, Durga Puja certainly holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Eastern India.
Although the essence of Puja has remained the same, the manner in which it is celebrated has changed over the years, with high-budget celebrations and pandals constructed on varied themes. The pandal (temporary sanctuary used to house the deity) and the idols, in fact the multi-faceted visual culture of Durga Puja has become remarkably responsive to changing times. Even a brief look at the recent developments in pandal designing can shed light on the innovation and adaptability of this creative enterprise. Contemporary issues of the society have become themes for the pandals. Drifting away from the mythological perspective, the ‘theme pandals’ have become an art form, a representation of mundane life. The religious aspect is certainly there, together with the changing dynamics of the society and its beliefs. The artisans, the idol makers as well as the pandal makers are putting their full energy in casting the idols in different moulds and erecting huge pandals in different styles and hues.
An idol of Goddess Durga seated inside a replica of the Titanic is not a surprise nor is the idol submerged in water-logged pandal, symbolizing the frequent floods in the State. The Puja pandals have moved away from religious domain and have become a form of shoppers’ corner with commercial establishments having a field day during the four days. Perhaps, the Durga Puja is more eagerly awaited by commercial establishments than the common people. As a matter of fact, people don’t hesitate to empty their pockets on these occasions.
Among other things, rigorous realism, environmental appeal, heredity and impermanence of the pandals make each one of them a simulated, hyper real space. In fact, these make-believe architectural constructs popping up in the streets corners and localities give the city a hyper-real persona. This simulacral ambience is all the more heightened in the theme of the pandals as a result of the wide range of subjects and visual strategies, which is worth critical inspection.
The artistic freedom of designing the pandals is significantly compromised by numerous factors; from ritual or iconographic stipulations to public taste due to its public nature.
But the scenario was quite different a few decades ago. The onus of creating the idols and decking up mother goddess with traditional crafts was on traditional potters (kumar) and decorators (malakars) generation after generation. Nonetheless, without any formal art training, these artisans would create wonderful ekchalas (idols of Durga and her children were depicted in a single structure).
While some complain that the basic aim of the festival is forgotten and it has become another shopper’s corner, one should remember that the objective of this festival is to show our love for the goddess. When one commercializes this festival, that aim is somewhere lost.
A wide array of theme pandals have emerged as a trend in the recent past. An abstract concept, streaming from a song, a story or a legend or even a contemporary political or social event adorn a pandal. Some even explore the decorative potential of specific items like earthen ware, bamboo crafts or choose to address ecological problems or social issues of relevance. Needless to say, such a wide range of experiments has replaced the conventional use of stretched or pleated fabric over an intricate bamboo framework with a range of non-traditional materials —from metal and plywood to Styrofoam sheets— for the desired visual effects. The idol in each of these pandals is often made in a style compatible with the specific environment.
Manoj Chakraborty, an alumni of the Guwahati Art College has been engrossed in putting his imagination into shape. A city-based FM channel has assigned him the task of making a Durga idol out of renewable materials based on the theme Green puja. On the other hand, the Bhootnath Durga Puja Committee is all geared up to celebrate the festival with a gigantic 50-foot tall Shivlinga, made up of 11,000 smaller Shivlingas – indeed a first of its kind in the region. Inspired by the Jagannath Puri idol, it is based on the theme Mahakay, Mahaan, Mahakal. It would also highlight the problem of female foeticide, atrocities on women and effect of inflation.
The Geetanagar Puja Committee, on the other hand, would make a replica of the Parliament of India while the Sarbajanani Durga Puja Committee would place the idol of Goddess Durga in a yatch. More such puja organizing committees have come up with innovative themes for the puja this year to attract a huge crowd. The varied and innovative theme pandals are certainly a crowd puller, much to the delight of puja hoppers.
Durga Puja serves as a powerful mirror to the changing sociology of human beliefs and the urban life as a whole. Largely influenced by economic liberalization, it serves as a powerful mirror of the changing neighbourhoods and of the collective public life in urban cites. Indeed, largely influenced by a liberalized economy, the emergence and popularity of this new genre of pandals unequivocally echo the key trends in the current tastes and preferences of the people. In the face of an aggressive urban gentrification, the fascination for rural scenes and folk art seem to cater to a strong nostalgic yearning for an imagined, idyllic way of life. Likewise, the impact of radical changes in global communication caused by technological breakthroughs in the last two decades is evident in pandals, drawing on movies or distant cultures. They prominently reflect a desire to fantasize the exotic other. Appropriated from stereotypes, the exotic in such pandals is transformed into a visual motif at the service of a familiar spectacle. What is more, this changing scenario of Durga Puja is responsible for generating various types of new social dynamics. There is as much collaboration as conflict of interest between, say, the “decorators” or the kumhars (the artisan community traditionally responsible for making the idol) on one hand, and the art-school-trained artistes on the other. Clamour for media coverage and celebrity status, fierce competition over corporate sponsorship, and mass hysteria over awards and accolades for well-crafted pandals and idols also contribute significantly to the present character of the spectacle.
Culture has always reinvented its notions of traditions and identity through this revered annual event to make them relevant to contemporary life. Its visual culture employs fragmented, hybrid cross-cultural signs to override notions of cultural authenticity; yet paradoxically, it also celebrates indigenous traditions and sentiments. At this vibrant moment, it is only logical that the local contemporary art would also want to negotiate its position in a global arena, which is precisely why the production of ‘theme pandals’, along with other aspects of the spectacle, requires serious scrutiny. The onus of this task, however, is not on anthropologists and sociologists alone; it lies, most crucially on the changing social dynamics.
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