The North is Kolkata and Kolkata is the North. Many a 'true' Kolkatan who claims allegiance to any other part of the city is, at this point of time, already up in arms. Yet it must be repeated. The North is Kolkata and Kolkata is the North.
Yes, I know of the most cliched images of Kolkata - the tram rumbling across the vast expanse of the green Maidan, the looming iron skeleton of the Howrah bridge and the helicopter shot of the Victoria Memorial - do not involve any scene or image from north Kolkata. But to get a distinctive feel, to really understand why this city is so different, you have to head into the lanes of North Kolkata.
Let's begin with the Nalin Sarkar Street Pandal. At any other time of the year, the street is typical old Kolkata, with narrow streets and looming leaning houses around. The same narrowness transformed into a throbbing red audio visual experiment for the Durga Puja. I had no clue as to what the theme was for the year's pandal but all I can say is whatever the theory may be, the execution was awesome.
A long tunnel of an entry and the sound of tribal drums reverberating through the smoky air made for a fantastic and moody pandal like no other. Frankly, this was, due to reasons not even very clear to me, my favourite pandal of the year. The aquarium pandal at Salt Lake ran it close but this won "Random Bengali Guy's (namely mine) Favourite Pandal 2015".
|Mera No.1... Music CDs of course!|
Next are a couple of pictures of a rather gaudily coloured pandal of the Chaltabagan Puja Committee. I guess it was something which was better appreciated at night when the Amitabh Bachchan in Yaarana look (2:26 onwards some trend setting fashion) really lit up the dark in psychedelic colours.
The idols though were unique and sober in white. Made me wonder why the rest of it couldn't be?
Time then to talk about another special pandal. Special because when you make idols for almost all the major pujas of Kolkata and for the Bengali diaspora around the world, the question arises: What do you about your neighbourhood pandal?
Say hello to Kumartuli, the area of town where centuries of specialization in making clay idols has permanent residence. Any time of the year, little sheds in these claustrophobic lanes and bylanes of this city neighbourhood can be found building idols for the next festival on the Hindu religious calendar with a few Grecian maidens and elephants thrown in the mix.
Highly influenced by the Addams Family cartoons apparently. these expert idol makers went along with a magnificent mansion with darker secrets theme. The relevance of the theme to Durga Puja may be subject to debate but a sincere amount of dedication was put into making the thing look real.
Here for the sake of full disclosure, I must confess that I am easily fooled. A number of my friends who have played practical jokes on me can confirm that. When I first saw the "house", I was totally taken in by this newly refurbished old house. It looks so beautiful now, I was about to tell my parents.
|Giant hands saved me giant embarrassment|
I then noticed the giant hands sticking out from underneath the verandah. Ohhh... so this is the Kumartuli pandal then I realized much to my embarassment.
Another noticeable difference in some of the older pandals of North Kolkata is that they do not have the traditional lion as Durga's mount. They seem to have some fierce biting horse creature. Must be a pretty bad-ass horse to be able to sub for the king of the jungle. Apparently, in the original Bengali tradition it was always a horse for Durga, not the lion of Sheraa Maataa.
Sometimes, it's just a random pandal ignored by the crowds that seems to serve up a dollop of difference. This particular one, somewhere on the by-lanes of the North had an interesting compact idol. What it did not have in scale, it made up in the idols' finely chiseled features.
On then to the Baghbazar Puja pandal, a traditional stopover on every north Kolkata pandal hopper's circuit. It helps that Baghbazar is one of the oldest continuously running pandals around, but the crowds are there for a more specific reason.
Yes, the pandal is quite nice too but...
The real reason everyone mobs it is the huge amount of space allotted by the organizers to all manner of food stalls. The organizers have focussed on one thing that pleases the masses. Bengal may be a special case where there are more food worshippers than God worshippers.
|OK OK, it's nice... anyone hungry?|
In all fairness though, the massive idols and the superhuman calm on Durga's face in the midst of all the mortal confusion around her makes the pandal worth the visit. Every year it's the exact same idol though the pandal look may change. That is one key tradition that they have kept unchanged.
We move then to the Kumartuly Park Puja, which shares its name with the aforementioned clay sculptors' neighbourhood but has little connection beyond that.
It began with an earthquake in progress above with modern houses bearing the brunt. There were some Indian Army soldiers depicted in rescue operations for the same.
|"Durga? Not again!"|
Also some abandoned old temples.
Plus a very intricately carved home for the goddess and her family.
The above housed a distinctively beautiful and notably different black Durga with family.
And all of this - within one pandal. If there was a theme, it must have been a very vast theme. It did allow for a huge variety of creative endeavours but it ended up as a case study for trying to keep too many people happy.
The next pandal is that of Ahiritola. They had a subdued palette of colours for a change but it only made the handcrafted nature of their beautiful pandal and idol stand out even more.
|Did look like a wedding cake from the outside though :P|
Pictures of another north Kolkata pandal follow where subtlety was preferred to in-your-face-ness. The idols were half hidden in mist and sound & the colours were muted but the impact and atmosphere definitely wasn't.
Just to give you an idea of how an off peak hour of pandal hopping looks like. I went at a time of the least popularity, in the middle of the afternoon.
|Off peak hours? Yes. Pandal hopping is POPULAR.|
Despite the huge number of visitors, the organizers ensured that at a time no more than 4-5 people entered the main area of the pandal.
On stepping inside, it became clear why. The damp of the air, the jungle soundtrack playing and the mud coloured goddess with her brood - this pandal had put some serious effort into recreating the atmosphere of a temple forgotten by time. The limited palette of colours again worked their magic.
Limited palette of colours would be an incorrect description of the next two pandals of north Kolkata. If anything, they represented the opposite end of the spectrum. They also proved that colour ain't bad either.
|Unlimited Palette of Colours - Exhibit 1|
|Unlimited Palette of Colours - Exhibit 2|
So here we are, on the very last pandal of the very last post of the Pujo Pondogol series. I thought it would be appropriate to end the series with an example of the insane amounts of preparation (and I mean INSANE) amounts of preparation that goes into building up a Puja pandal, which is scheduled to exist for 5-6 days at most.
Below is the pandal of the Hatibagan Puja committee, another one of the longstanding popular ones on the North Kolkata puja circuit.
Someone or a group of someones went through an absolutely incredible amount of repetitive effort for this.
No. No one can love arts and crafts that much. I am betting that a few hundred fingers fell off by the time they were done folding.
|Gold's "Finger" Gym|
Every year I swear, swear that this is the last year I am going Durga Puja pandal hopping. There's too much of a crowd, there's the horrible weather, there's the walking for miles together - how many times before you get bored of it? No. Not this year. I am staying in.
Then Durga Puja comes around. Then I think, OK, if I just select 3-4 'main' Pujas at really odd hours, I might get a taste of the season. Then I set out walking. Then I am amazed at this small pandal, then I am blown away by that little artwork, then I am doing the entire circuit all over again. Before I know it, I am back doing the Puja Pondogol.
[These pictures are from the Durga Puja pandals, temporary structures of magnificent complexity, of 2015.