Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Rooftop reverie

Gone. The colours. The crowds. The cheer. All immersed into the Ganga with a subdued splash. Until next year, the dhakis must wait. Until next year, the strings of lights must dim. 
The storm of activity that was Durga Puja, only 4 days after, is already a fast fading fantasy.
Post-Puja Kolkata is a very different city from pre-Puja Kolkata. It takes a night like tonight and a rooftop like this one to notice.
Central Calcutta is not particularly good to seekers of inner peace. There's just too many motorcycles for that (mine included). The roof of the house that my grandfather built, however, is stubbornly resistant to the chaos of the narrow streets 4 floors below. The hullabaloo of the street is not totally absent from this concrete rectangle of respite, but is peripheral enough to be insignificant.
The very air is different. A delicious chill has descended and the first pleasurable shiver of winter now has everyone's undivided attention. The soul sapping humidity, especially of September, has left for its short annual retreat. Normal conversations seem quieter, more intimate, of easy laughs and of cozy comfort.
The myriad masjids surrounding have gone quiet, their booming loudspeaker boosted azaan calls for the day fulfilled. The streets have already carried their quota of evening rush hour traffic and now will entertain only the occasional motorcyclist going full tilt. 
Yellow street lights compete with their newer white cousins to light up these same lanes that have turned in for the night. LED TVs, the 'new' thing to have, display their multi-colour capabilities through distant windows. 
Packed together as the buildings are in this part of Calcutta, a domestic scene or two of mother & daughter cooking or a family eating dinner are hard to miss, beautiful transient paintings hung, it would seem, on other buildings' dark walls.
The moon is full, it is Lokkhi Poornima night. Tonight, the goddess of prosperity, aided by the cloudless sky, is casting her benevolence, ethereal silver light on every rooftop and balcony, near and far. The absence of sound is a quiet of the ear. This, its existence surprising in a city of 14 million, is the quiet of the eye.
Quite disturbing it is, a beautiful night like this, for those given to being affected by such impractical things. Somewhere in the depths of the forest, I imagine, a wolf howls to that strange orb in the sky. A student dawdles in his balcony, ignoring his study books which like the streets, are well lit but abandoned. The moon, after all, affects much more than just the ocean tides.
From the Salvation Army hostel three buildings away, the faint plucking of a guitar. It's hard to make out the tune but not very difficult to take a guess. Sad or sweet, we do not know, but quite likely to be a love song.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pujo Pondogol [Part 1 of 4] - Salt Lake

Salt Lake? What's in Salt Lake? The standard Calcuttan's standard response to the suburb in its far north east corner ranges from ignorance to downright disdain. Agreed that the monotonous oneness of all the blocks of Salt Lake make it seem rather sterile after the chaos of the 'city' but the variety of Pujo Pandals on display do indicate that the Salt Lakers may soon be ready to give their 'city' cousins a ghooshi in the eye. A few instances of them actually outdoing 'Kolkata' also caught my eye.
I must admit that Salt Lake was last on my agenda of pandal photography mania too but a few pictures on an office neighbour's phone made me reconsider. It was already past Dashami, the final day of Puja, when I left office early on Friday to add Salt Lake pandals to my existing stock of 2015 North/South Kolkata pandal photos. Knowing that many bishorjans were planned for Sunday I hoped to catch a little bit of Salt Lake's Puja fever.

I drew blanks on my first two targets, the pandal inside Labony Housing Estate already dismantled and another good one (so I had heard) on the adjacent EC ground on its way down. Got a picture of the empty idol-less structure as seen above indicative of the glory that might have been. Mission Salt Lake wasn't really taking off yet.

Gunning my motorcycle towards FD Block, my belated efforts at finding a Salt Lake pandal finally bore some fruit. The Oriental oriented pandal had an interesting and quite wide geographic mix of Chinese/Japanese/Buddhist/Puri Jagannath influences. 

The crowds were streaming in from all sides. Had to be due to the most important religious purpose of all - solid khawaa daawaa. The rows of snack shops that dished out crowd favourites like fish fries, momos and chicken kebab sticks were mobbed with a spiritual frenzy unseen in front of the actual idol. The mela feel was complete with a carry-in carry-out amusement park set-up.

Every Pujo Pandal worth its salt must add a twist to its idol for the roving crowds to remember it by. FD block's strategy was to frame Ma Durga and her brood in between dragons, keeping the theme of the East Asian pavilion housing them intact. Ma Durga, I am sure, being the super-mom that she is, occasionally cooks up some Indian Chinese for her kids once she is done with her demon slaying duties for the day. Her husband, given his habits, must be hungry all the time anyway.

Street lighting was also especially nice where leading the way to the respective pandals. Salt Lake's planned structure with well spaced out houses did help it use the Pujo aaloshaaj to maximum effect. 

A cake like pink pandal with a rather sober Durga idol inside summed up the contradictions between trying to get the curious pandal hopper's attention while keeping the religious core of the festival intact. 

Chandeliers dangling above the idol seem to be quite the theme for pandals I had seen in Kolkata. No reason then for Salt Lake to feel left out. 

Caught a couple of dances in a toddler dhunuchi dance contest supported by an army of dhakis. Even more than the audience's adoring reaction, the smiles on the faces of the dhakis said it all.

The FE Block Pujo Pandal did a rather grand job of a Lotus temple like set-up with beautiful changing lights.

The GD Block went for a Euro feel to its pandal on the outside and inside.

Inside the castle of GD Block was the most beautiful idol I had seen in all my traipsing around in Kolkata over the past 3 days. This Greek mythology inspired Durga was a real work of art.

Some wise guy on the road to this pandal had told me, with full confidence in his misinformation, that this pandal was already dismantled and I taking his word for it had almost abandoned its search. It was the pictures of this pandal on my colleague's phone that had brought me to Salt Lake and now it was a lost dream.
Luckily, a casual turn into a lit up alley brought me to the pièce de résistance, the jewel in the crown, the highlight of the evening - the dreamscape of the AE Block 'underwater' pandal. 

Part of the objective, a critical part of the objective of creating a 'themed' pandal is to immerse the audience. The darkened interiors awash in wavering blue light; the magical creatures of the deep, both fear inducing and awe-inspiring; the idol itself set as it was amongst corals and octupusses - AE Block ticked every box on the mood creation checklist.

Part of the reason why the AE Block pandal hit home for me may lie in the animal/nature lover/day-dreamer genes inherited from both sides of my parentage. The contributors of those genes too were blown away when I took them out to the same pandal the next morning. 
Salt Lake, it must be said, in its parting shot left this cynical and jaded pandal hopper thoroughly convinced of its potential for creativity. On a toe to toe face off with big brother Kolkata, this pandal alone could have said "Bring it on!"

[These pictures are from the Durga Puja pandals, temporary structures of magnificent complexity, of 2015.