KOLKATA, India -- There are two things about Kolkatans, my friend Santanu tells me. "We’re work-shirkers and we’re anarchists." I can’t speak to the local work ethic, but there is a strain of anarchic fervor in the celebrations surrounding Durga Puja, the City of Joy’s most important festival.
Over the course of two hot, humid months at the tail end of the monsoon season, 20,000 new structures come up around the city for the pujas, celebrated over five days in September or October, depending on the lunar Hindu calendar. Each structure houses an enormous image of the 10-armed goddess Durga riding her lion and slaying the demon Mahishasura, and flanked by her four divine children: Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik.
These temporary temples, called pandals, go up in every imaginable open space – and a fair number of unimaginable ones. They overtake intersections, fill traffic circles, choke narrow alleyways and transform neighborhood parks into raucous, trash-strewn fairgrounds. Visitors flood the city; 100,000 dhakis (drummers) alone arrive from neighboring villages to play at the pandals. One pandal organizer estimates that Kolkata’s population – already a staggering 14 million in the metro area – swells by another million during the pujas. "You could call it chaos," he says, "but there’s also an energy and vivacity."
Busy commercial thoroughfares empty of traffic while otherwise quiet parras – the name for Kolkata’s tight-knit residential communities, the organizing units of the city – are mobbed with surging crowds of families and friends out ‘pandal-hopping’ into the wee hours of the morning.
With the advent of corporate sponsorships in the last two decades, the pandals have become increasingly flamboyant. Paradoxically for a city of anarchists, as Santanu points out, they are also built with remarkable efficiency and elan. This year, one North Kolkata pandal took the form of a three-story, Thai-style pagoda; another, of a coiled Chinese dragon. One in South Kolkata was a haunted house, complete with ghouls and creepy ambient sound effects; another was a giant lotus built of wooden fishing boats.
The high, black ceiling of one justly popular pandal was hung with strings of crystal, wheeling overhead like galaxies. The crystals alone reportedly cost nearly $2,000. (For perspective, that was the total budget for the modest neighborhood puja where I stayed). The Singhi Park pandal, straddling a busy intersection in an affluent South Kolkata parra, had a budget of nearly $50,000. The Times of India sponsored puja – a Mughal-style structure covered in magnificently carved Styrofoam – had a purported budget of about $115,000.
The comparatively modest Selimpur puja has been built in the same 40x50-foot space at the end of a narrow alley for nearly 80 years. Dipayan Roy Chowdhury, one of the organizers there, tells me the pandal would see upwards of 100,000 footfalls each night. Rajarshi Gon Chaudhury, an organizer at Singhi Park, said (perhaps hyperbolically) that his pandal would see four times that number. At some pujas, entry lines stretch on for several blocks; this being India, these are not tidy, single-file affairs. Inside, crowds of visitors snap cell-phone pictures of the goddess while cops usher them forward with whistles. Some pujas give out VIP passes.
In a city notorious for overpopulation and poverty, the massive budgets and dramatic influx of people might seem insane. Yet this money also helps sustain local craftsmen and artists, crucial to the identity of a city that maintains its traditions of culture, intellectualism and gentility even as its political and economic significance has declined.
The organizers at Selimpur, for instance, commission an emerging local artist each year to design their pandal, and workshop districts like Kumartuli still supply the city with its deities, hand-sculpted and -painted using techniques passed down through generations. The pandals have become giant art installations, ‘pandal-hopping’ a kind of gallery crawl.
The pujas end with the procession of the deities (all 100,000 statues from the pandals, plus practically countless ones from smaller household pujas) to the river Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges, where they are submerged and left to disintegrate. The pandals are dismantled and planning begins for next year’s crop of entirely new buildings.
Think of it as the world’s largest, most popular public art fair. And the only one that ends with the artworks being systematically destroyed. Only a city of anarchists could create such extravagant beauty, then obliterate it with such relish.