The festival becomes a confluence of religion, faith, culture, and art. Pandals (marquee) are erected to house the Durga idol for the seven days of worship. The city of Kolkata and the entire state of Bengal bursts into spaces of gigantic annual art exhibitions. The lanes appear to shift and readjust themselves to fit in these installations. There is often a disjuncture between the grand, even phantasmagoric pandals and the shabby neighborhoods which accommodate them. Yet, the oddity tends to please more than it shocks, as one realizes the ubiquitous effort behind it, which claims the sweat of the workmen and the community. Glancing through a narrative camera, the city brews joyous tales of tradition mingled with modernity. Dotted with pandals, the visceral streets run like the life veins of the city.
The artist undertakes a journey of deconstructing the city-space as a temporary urban transformation, where nothing binds his imagination and creativity.
It involves an elaborate design process that transforms the ordinary existence into an extraordinary labyrinth complete with colors, shapes, textures, and indigenous artistic brilliance. The pandals stand as a prototype of a live art installation, devoid of any esoteric tinge of artistic sophistication, engineering, or knowledge – or is this knowledge so natural that it is acquired than learned!
What stands under the open sky is the mirror reflecting a sublime picture of the lives of people who have inhabited this city for generations. Lasting heritage and culture are built through these spatial and architectural manifestations of impermanent, tangible public constructs. The installing, completion, and even dismantling of the platforms transform the abstract of a collective spirituality to art for mass involvement. Apart from the pandal’s interior decoration, almost every other aspect of construction is visible to the onlookers and the passersby. Installation in progress becomes like a community performance art. As the pandals’ readiness matches the artist’s mental construct, the dependent population starts rejoicing at its approaching conclusion.
The immediate public domain- the streets, lanes, walls, and the houses deck up in ways so aesthetically surreal that one tends to get lost in the labyrinth of the very general milieu. A sense of spatial belongingness emerges with the pandal and the neighborhood that harbors it. It transforms into a sense of place – my territory or ‘Amar para,’ in local parlance.
Communities and neighborhoods participate and take initiatives to create an appropriate setting that follows a spatial arrangement to meet all the associated functional requirements and goes beyond to embellish it creatively with images, symbols, loaded meanings, etc., like a public art installation. Together they become a whole new experience of a public space complete with smell, sound, and light and very alive. The local community help to stage, negotiate for space with the city, bargain for shared values, and finally create this lived experience.
It is a design process that is essentially collaborative, co-produced, and holistic. It involves conceptualizing, navigating complicated legal guidelines, implementation, and finally managing the event, the crowd, ensuring the safety of a remarkably high volume of people in a restricted space for days.
The pandal structure is erected within varying durations of a few weeks to even months. The nailing of bamboo poles resonates with the rhythm of the city’s excitement. The craft does not involve the use of sophisticated art materials but rather the innovative use of articles like terracotta, jute, steel utensils, straws, grain shells, pith, betel nuts, ice cream sticks, shoes, bottles, plastic scraps, wires, papers, cardboards, books and other items of everyday use – all used in wrapping up the bamboo structure through deft craftsmanship. What keeps up with the recurrences of these installations is the nuances of artistic freshness that blooms anew every year. It becomes an example of responsive art that considers the relevance and responsibilities of art in a changing society and environment.
The Pandal Art maintains a level of accessibility in terms of appealing to a diverse mass of people without background training in art appreciation while ensuring the common chord of the festivity and celebration remains intact. The pandals display a wide range of architectural structures, resembling various buildings and replicating famous art designs.
Significant social and cultural events are often portrayed using symbols associated with them. At the cost of politics and culture sliding into oversimplified pop representations, the attempt at making various contemporary socio-political issues comprehensible through artistic symbolism at the pandal installation is undeniably commendable. From climate change to political rights to displacement and migration, issues are at least brought into focus, even if only partially at the surface of much deeper reflection required eventually.
Interestingly, art associated with Pandals has the contribution of people whose periodical appearance and involvement are permanent. The rural artists migrate to the city during the early stages and lend a hand in the meaner jobs of gathering raw materials and constructing them. The exemplary artisans of ‘Kumortuli‘ devote their lives to creating art in the form of the Durga idols. Their creation is breathtaking – grandeur mingled with veneration and beauty. Modern-day pandals see the involvement of the more trained and educated art college students, young and freshly curated with artistic ideas, who are well equipped with structures, codes, and narrative forms of artistic expositions. Their involvement only keeps making this art relevant.
What is not attached with this manual of mass installation and celebration is the temporariness of it. The five days celebration meets an abrupt end with the arrival of Doshomi, the last day of the Durga Pujo celebrations. Bereavement sets in its purest form as the bright halogens are turned off, the shola (thermocol) design installations brought down, and the pandals left empty of the idols, already immersed in the rivers. Art in the form of the massive standing pandals now assumes the form of mammoth hollowness and longing. It is beautiful how art evolves and comes alive in a span of so little time – from the excitement to celebration to the dissolution of it all. One week and it’s all gone, wrapped up, and all set to get back to work and schools and life as usual. The repetition of a celebration of art and life, the ordering of the events and the objects, creating art and anchoring it into the spaces of community life, imparts a characteristic mode of experiencing the temporality of a collective celebration of life.
Author: Sebonti Sinha
[Theatre, St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, English Literature]
Illustration/Photography: Sudeshna Ghosh
[Journalist, Cinema & Sports Writing; Photography]
Illustration/Photography – Cropping and Touch Up: TDLM Design Team