Oct 27, 2015

The Great Art Exhibition

Durga Puja, a 5 day annual holiday here in Kolkata, has just concluded. During the Puja the city's subway system doesn't open until 2 p.m. but stays open until 4 a.m. If the question is, "What is the population out doing until the early morning hours?" The answer is at least as much, appreciating art as it is worshipping a goddess—but the two are interconnected here as art and religion once were everywhere. Kolkata's Durga Puja is, among other things, the world's largest open air art exhibition.

I began my coverage of the festival a couple of weeks before it began in Kumortuli, a riverside community of sculptors in north Kolkata.  In Kumortuli they make, much as they have for centuries, sacred idols for traditional Durga pandals (temporary temples) all over the city. The first two images, however, show the portrait sculptures of one of the community's most prominent artists. In the third a sculptor works on a traditional Durga idol in which clay is molded over a form made of straw. In the fourth, you see in the background a formed, but unfinished statue of the 10-armed goddess Durga and in the foreground Mahishasura, the evil demon she slew. In the fifth image a completed Durga idol is hauled by coolies out of the community to a waiting pandal just as it would have been 500 years ago.







The Durga Puja is hundreds of years old, but it grew enormously during the British Raj when Durga came to represent India and the demon, their colonial rulers.  The British got so weary of Calcutta's rebellious creativity that they moved the capital to New Delhi in 1911. In the modern era the puja has transformed itself again to become a showcase for the cities young architects and artists. 



Above, in silhouette, the visitors, and on stage live performers and statues of the goddess and her retinue in an African themed pandal.







The three images above show a portion of the line to get in, the entrance and the inside of a pandal inspired by the art and culture of the people that live along the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat. There was a gang armed with sticks here trying to prevent anyone from photographing their goddess idols (which are not the dancers shown in the third image.)




This photo of the goddess idol at a different pandal was taken without incident by a young Mexican volunteer with Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity. Thanks, Renata, for allowing me to display it here. Note how the demon holds the goddess up with his elbows and wrists as an acrobatic dancer might support his partner.  This idol appears to be making the kind of subtle commentary on the relationship good and evil that is not shocking in Indian art as it would be in the West.

The puja ends with a ceremonial return of the goddess to the river through which she can return to her home in the Himalayas. One idol has just been sunk in the background as the men in front are preparing to do with their idol.

After years of complaints about the environmental impact of this return the idols are now immediately plucked back out of the river by cranes and work crews that return them to the earth in a proper landfill.






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