Imagery, messaging for Durga Puja undergoes shift as Kolkata's creative industries contend with COVID impact
Kolkata’s art and culture community is responding in creative ways to an unprecedented Pujo, navigating their way around the question of what it means to observe Durga Puja during a pandemic.
Last week, images of an idol created for this year’s Durga Puja, depicting the Goddess as a migrant woman, went viral. Rintu Das designed the idol as one of the three Pujo projects he’s handling for the festive season; he made her in the image of one of the many mothers who made the long, brutal march home with their children this March, as the nationwide lockdown to counter the coronavirus pandemic triggered a humanitarian crisis involving lakhs of stranded, unemployed migrant workers.
“I believe she is the one who needs to be worshipped, she is the goddess,” says Das, who endowed the idol’s hands with packets of food and other essential supplies, instead of the usual weapons and religious symbols. Das and his associate Pallab Bhowmik developed the artwork for the idol at Kolkata’s Barisha Club. The installation includes a sound simulation of a COVID-19 relief camp for migrant workers.
Das’ installation is just one of the many ways in which Kolkata’s art and culture community is responding to an unprecedented Pujo, navigating their way around the question of what it means to observe Durga Puja during a pandemic.
The crisis has already intervened in the form of the recent Calcutta High Court order banning the entry of people into pandals. (Last month, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had decreed that all pandals be open-air and adherent to COVID-19 safety guidelines.) Amid the ensuing collective dismay, the court relaxed norms, allowing a specific number of individuals to be present within a pandal, depending on its size.
“If crowds are a health concern, then I don’t know why the focus is only on the pandals. The same should apply to people on the roads, on metros and buses,” says Piyali, one half of the artist duo Saumik-Piyali. The duo conceptualised the marquee at East Kolkata’s Arjunpur Amra Shabai Club this Pujo and their theme centres on Goddess Durga as the mighty feminine force of nature — a force that can nourish all other living organisms, or cause untold destruction.
Titled ‘Kaalchakro’, Saumik-Piyali’s artwork looks at nature’s cyclic attributes through which it evens out earth’s disproportions, irregularities and imbalances — be they ecological, societal or economical. Piyali lists the COVID-19 safety protocol the Arjunpur Amra Shabai Club is following: “They have arranged for virtual screening of the inside of the marquee, cinematically shot; the marquee itself has been designed to enable streamlined transit where people can come in, look at the pandal, and walk/drive out from the other side.”
Practically and thematically, COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of the Durga Puja celebration.
For Partho Dasgupta, renowned painter, sculptor and ceramist, it manifested in the idea of ‘Jibon Juddhobigroho’ when designing the marquee for Thakurpukur State Bank Park in its golden jubilee year. “Essentially, this autumnal Durga Puja represents war, and we are at war right now,” says Dasgupta. Owing to the COVID-19 regulations, Dasgupta’s pandal isn’t really welcoming visitors onto the premises but provides a virtual or on-the-go experience. Located along the Diamond Harbour Road, the pandal has a 70-ft opening for passersby to see the idol and observe a light-and-sound recitation by noted theatre exponent Debshankar Haldar.
In normal times, conceptualising and executing the design of a pandal occurs over a four-month schedule. This schedule has been compressed into a mere 30 days in light of the pandemic and lockdown. Dasgupta says the crisis has presented both challenges and learning opportunities: “I couldn’t work with my outstation team as they couldn’t travel. Unskilled labour comprises more than 70 percent of the task force that collaborates with me otherwise. I had to work with local artisans this time,” he says.
The fact that the pandal would be viewed virtually posed its own problems. “Suddenly, I lose a dimension: my 3-D art pieces now appear as 2-D and the scale of viewing gets distorted immensely,” Dasgupta notes. “It is like putting the Gulf War and a video game at the same level!”
Award-winning visual artist Sanatan Dinda has focused on a moral he hopes will emerge from these times: that a self-absorbed existence is a vice. His artwork is based on the hypocrisy reflected in our use of social media; Dinda aims at presenting the harsh realities of our times via the shining reflections of our smartphones. “Behind my Durga there are many Durgas hidden. Their blood-smeared feet have left imprints on numerous mirrors which only present distorted images,” Dinda says of his concept.
A post-pandemic Pujo has shaped artists’ inspirations in less outwardly visible ways as well. As a Firstpost article previously stated: “Durga Puja is not just a time of revelry, the climax of Kolkata’s cultural calendar. It’s also a huge economic high point. A 2013 Assocham report estimated it at Rs 25,000 crore and growing at 35 percent CAGR.” An expert observed that if Durga Puja was an industry, it would rank as the second-largest (after agriculture) in West Bengal. What this translates into is an intensely competitive spirit among the city’s sarbojanik pandals to outdo each other. But not this time.
Bhabotosh Sutar, among the state’s leading installation artists, articulates this sentiment. “I wanted to steer clear of the whole competitive rat race during Pujo and instead play along with my associates and collaborators of more than 20 years,” he says. “Many of them have been unemployed and depressed over the last several months due to the pandemic, followed by Cyclone Amphan. For this Pujo, more than anything, I wanted to look after their financial and mental well-being.”
In Naktala Udayan Sangha, Sutar found a vast stretch of land where he has been able to realise his vision. Like Rintu Das, Sutar’s theme also reflects the migrant workers’ crisis. Sutar used “a minimum of finished goods and maximum labour force” to benefit impoverished artisan families. Among the props he created are huge cloud-like structures fashioned out of bamboo and positioned atop nearby residential buildings. Sutar explains, “These represent both, the autumnal clouds which are distinctive of the Durga Puja season, and the metaphorical gloom hovering over us of late.”
THE PUJO SHARODIYAS
Pujo sharodiyas (or barshikis, as they are referred to in Bangla) are probably unique: seldom are scores of magazine editions published around a festival in any part of the world. These magazines are of various types, catering to diverse age groups and tastes: While publications like Anandamela, Shukhtara and Kishore Bharati are dedicated to children, for adult readers, there are titles such as Desh, Pratidin, Bartaman, Anandabazar Patrika, to name a few. More recently, several independent magazines such as Harappa, Anustup, Chaturanga among others, have also made their mark.
Graphic designer-illustrator Pinaki De says that over the years, people’s interest in pujo barshikis has reduced substantially. “People don’t wait for the traditional barshikis anymore; they have lost their sheen and the standard of writing has deteriorated a lot,” De rues, noting that this perhaps has been why indie magazines have been able to make an impact in the market.
Saikat Mukherjee is the editor of Harappa and operates single-handedly out of Ranaghat, about 80 km from Kolkata. This year marks the eighth consecutive sharodiya edition for the three-year-old magazine, which is published every four months. “Due to the lockdown, our February edition was massacred and I had just seven days to distribute the copies. For the sharodiya edition, we had to do something special — this year is different and as magazine editors we couldn’t afford to miss it,” Mukherjee says. Harappa’s sharodiya edition for this season covers, among others, Kumartuli’s artisans, Chandannagar’s lighting industry, an elderly woman who paints chaalchitra for Durga idols, Pujo traditions etc.
Above: Harappa's Pujo barshiki cover designed by Somnath Ghosh; idol making in Krishnanagar's two renowned barowaris — Judge Court Para (top) and Chasapara (bottom), photographs by Saikat Mukherjee; snapshots from a tribal Durga Puja near Shantiniketan, photographs by Somnath Ghosh,
For Tridib Chatterjee, the editor of Kishore Bharati, the focus this year has been on rare, unpublished stories across all genres, from writers like Lila Majumdar, Satyajit Ray, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Annada Shankar Ray, Shibram Chakraborty. They’ve also published six novels and several comics. The response to the edition has been heartening. “Our print run was not reduced; in fact, the books sold off faster than in previous years,” Chatterjee says.
Above: Kishore Bharati's sharodiya cover designed by Subrata Gangopadhyay; the comics Maskbaadi Bonku Doctor which is basically a pun on 'Marxbadi Bengali'. In this comics, Bonku doctor is relentlessly trying to make people aware of the dangers of coronavirus , but he is completely ignored every time.
The editorial schedule for the festive editions begins as early as January-February and this year was no different. Back then, even though Wuhan was in the news, not many had an inkling of the devastation that would follow.
“Pujabarshiki is the most coveted and important edition for any publication. For a writer to have their piece published in a sharodiya is and has always been a matter of great pride. That’s also the reason why we reserve the best writers and best stories for it. As a practice, we begin commissioning our writers, mainly for the novels, in the month of Jan-Feb and get the final drafts by July end,” says Bhaskar Let, deputy editor — Features, at Pratidin. “This year was no different.”
With a major portion of the content already commissioned and on the verge of completion, the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting lockdown required Pratidin’s editor Srinjoy Bose and the editorial team to think on their feet. They reached out to eminent writer and nephrologist Dr Abhijit Tarafder, who wrote a short story called ‘Pather Panchali’; it narrates the journey of a migrant worker who tests COVID positive, heads to his village after recovering, and is shunned by the other villagers.
The entire edition (with the exception of ads and non-editorial content) was printed in black and white, in keeping with the sombre mood, with spreads on Kolkata’s now forlorn Howrah Bridge, a multimedia element in the form of a podcast series, and so on.
Above: Pratidin's sharodiya cover designed by Jogen Chowdhury; Dr Abhijit Tarafder's short story Pather Panchali, illustration by Shantanu Dey; Kingshuk Pramanik's story Lockdown'er Din Ratri, photographs by Pintu Pradhan; Two songs penned by popular singer Kabir Suman, as part of his write-up Aadhar Periye, is also part of Pratidin's pujo special podcast series.
This Pujo is special for Bengali art and literature aficionados for an additional reason: it marks the centenary celebrations of filmmaker Satyajit Ray. To commemorate this, Sandesh — a children’s magazine started by Ray’s grandfather Upendrakrishna Ray in 1913 — dedicated its sharodiya edition to the auteur’s legacy. Sandesh editor Sandip Ray (Satyajit’s son) lists all the ‘specials’ that are part of the commemorative edition: the complete screenplay of Samapti, a segment from Teen Kanya, an article on the deleted scenes from the first cut of Sonar Kella, the script of an unfinished advertisement that Ray meant to work on sometime during 1990, and a feature on the letters Ray wrote his mother Suprabha Devi while he was studying at Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan.
Above: Cover of Sandesh's sharodiya edition this year celebrating 100 years of Satyajit Ray; Letters written by Ray to his mother while he was away studying in Shantiniketan from 1940-1942; Screenplay of Rabindranath Tagore's short story Samapti written and adapted as part of the anthology film Teen Kanya (1961) by Satyajit Ray; Excerpts from the first cut of Ray's first Feluda film Sonar Kella (1974); Ray's unfinished ad for Pepsi Cola featuring Goopy Gyne and Bagha Byne as part of the soft drink's launching campaign in Calcutta.
Even while trying to rouse festive cheer during the Puja season, creators are not turning their gaze away from the tragedies that continue to unfold around us. Illustrator Aniket Mitra’s series ‘Devipaksha’ reflects events from recent history, such as Hathras, that are seared into our collective psyche.
BRANDING AND ADVERTISEMENTS
For brands and advertisers in Bengal, Durga Puja is a busy period — but not so in 2020, which has changed the game entirely. Arjun Mukherjee (Executive Creative Director) and Sourish Mitra (Art Director) at Wunderman Thompson, note that a celebratory tone and a strong brand connect were the essentials of ad campaigns during Pujo in times past. This year, there's been a greater focus on advertising on the web (as opposed to traditional media like print or outdoors), and crafting messaging that’s informational but not preachy.
Above: Wunderman Thompson's pujo campaign for Exide Industries. Image courtesy Sourish Mitra; Other creatives by Rupak Neogy.
Freelancers have seen their work volumes dry up, although some have been more fortunate. For instance, Prasenjit Bera, the creative controller in a leading Kolkata advertising firm, designed for a website presenting a 360-degree view of city pandals to viewers across the globe. “The first thing I noticed was how we could flip the GPS pointer to resemble the third eye of Durga,” says Bera of the project.
Above: Prasenjit Bera's ad campaign for The Puja App this year.
Bera and his colleague Arindam Lahiri also worked on two big TV commercials this year — one for a leading apparel brand, and the other for a competition to judge the best Durga Puja pandal in the city. Both commercials incorporated strong, heart-warming messaging about staying indoors and bringing the Pujo inside the home. Lahiri admits that striking a celebratory and inspirational note at a time of general gloom wasn’t easy.
Above: Screengrabs via YouTube for Bera and Lahiri's TV campaigns this year for Durga Puja; (Right) Design for the makeshift gates of Pujo pandals this year. Courtesy: Sourish Mitra for Wunderman Thompson.
“Under the current circumstances, the biggest challenge is to stay happy,” echoes Calcutta-based visualiser and illustrator Rupak Neogy who worked on several campaigns this Pujo under the title ‘Bhaalo Theko (Stay Happy)’. Neogy has dedicated his campaign to “those professions which would have been hit the hardest had Pujo not been celebrated this year”.
Above: Rupak Neogy's Bhaalo Theko campaign honouring idol sculptors, decorators, lightsmen, pandal artists, dhakis etc.
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