Quite a few years ago, I was intrigued with, though I couldn’t afford, a lavish coffee-table book titled ‘Pleasure of Ruins’ by Rose Macaulay, with superb photos by Roloff Beny. The author was a relative of Thomas Babington, and the photographer captured India extensively.
Perhaps it influenced me, however subconsciously, in my evolution as a Calcutta fan, but maybe the title suggested that it was permissible to appreciate things classified as ruins, even if they weren’t Pompeii or Zimbabwe or Taxila.
In any Calcuttan walkabout, I’ve never intended its purpose to be the creation of a photo (or word) essay on the detritus of a recent festival, just concluded. I guess detritus is too strong a term, mainly because the remains encountered result from love and devotion, if not pleasure.
So, while the vast majority of sacred images immersed have been transitioned toward the Bengali bay by Gangetic solution within Hooghly-lined bunds, some remnants – or remnants-to-be – are worth noticing. They may not be stately remains of an ancient civilization now extinct, but they are fresh signs of an ancient civilization that’s alive and well.
As with most ritual immersions in Indian traditions, the materials cast off are mostly organic. Your average Durga puja (aka: pujo) may involve as much discharge as an exploding coal-fired power plant, but the armatures of reed, thatch, and bamboo, and their dressings of clay, plaster and paint have long been based on renewable resources. Even though today’s pandals have all the wonder, spectacle, and slickness of a Great Exhibition or a mega-sized trade fair, hopefully, in their essential images of the divine ones, a minimum of industrial effects, such as fibreglass and metal, are headed downriver, and with no traces of the contemptable plastic whatsoever. I mean, can you imagine Ma Durga having a taste for ornaments made of the same cheap materials as throwaway chai cups and snacks packets? I think not!
The craft traditions of Kumartoli, beloved by all, remind me that the future of all immersion-bound festal images is secure. A simple, non-sensational stroll through that communal artists’ studio of evergreen creations proves that not only are the old and valued ways still in play, but the prospect of replacing them with anything else is insultingly absurd. Assembly lines spitting out plaster saints? Never! And never was the concept of plant matter, joined with water and clay, so ironclad!
As much as the festivities themselves, I celebrate they who model and mould, mix and match, paint and polish. The makers themselves are invariably modest, disinterested in attention, and wholly devoted to their art. That’s why one can saunter about in their midst and remain innocuous, at least in the quiet intervals between festivities. I once had to pacify a very protective watchdog, while her clients enjoyed jovial down time.
So now, between festal excitements, certain remains linger – at least for the moment. I quite like the pictoriality of those I find, whether a Saraswatian sitar half-stringed, or a bit of shaggy demon’s wig bobbing amongst the lotus-waste, or what might’ve been a bit of Mahishasur’s snout, nearly dissolved (and good riddance, too!).
Some of the scenes discovered are humorous, wistful, and even pathetic. What looks like a little kid stands isolated in a corner, as if just beaten for a minor naughtiness. Tragic, too: near the kid, the thrashed form of a human still wears its golden finery, as if a tsunami wave has lately receded. But mostly the human-formed remnants are of good cheer. Most are still smiling.
The journalist Raghab Bandyopadhyay writes: ‘The images of Durga and the other gods and goddesses are immersed in the Ganga after puja every year. In low water, the straw frames of the clay gods lie rotting in the water like a symbol’.
For me, such a symbol is not of the warning variety, but rather, a testament to a continuum that still has significance, not just of timeworn commemoration, but of a culture still intact. And it is intact because it has always been additive, not exclusive.
There’s nothing decadent or morbid about these findings. Every Calcuttan of every persuasion knows what they are and what they are still here for. A big city with big celebrations. The celestial ones are always welcome. That’s why they come back, year after year.
Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!