Tag Archives: Fulbright Scholar Program

Coming home to Santa Cruz

Wow.  My first full day at home in Santa Cruz, CA, the first thing that I noticed was the quiet.  Compared to the bell-clanging, horn-honking, engine-sputtering, brake-squealing hustle-bustle of Kolkata’s 4.5 million human residents, plus umpteen million cars, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, crows, dogs, cats, goats, and squirrels, Santa Cruz (pop. about 63,000) is practically a ghost town. This afternoon, just a few waves are lapping the sand at Seabright Beach, and if I listen really closely, I can hear the barking of a couple of the sea lions hanging out underneath the Santa Cruz Wharf, more than a mile away.  At the end of next month, after Memorial Day, the tourists will take over.  Even then the resulting increase in busyness could never be compared to the likes of Kolkata.

Two weeks before I left, as I was desperately searching for packaging materials, I also started to emotionally process that I would be leaving Kolkata after being there for the better part of seven months.  A great part of me couldn’t wait to come home!! Yet, I knew that as soon as I arrived home, another, equal, part of me would be missing Kolkata.

There are the obvious things that I welcome about being home — my husband, cats, garden, studio, being able to bite into an apple without peeling it first, and eating raw, leafy green salads without a detailed, rigorous rinsing regimen.  And having my truck there for me to drive, wherever, whenever.

This was my fifth visit to India.  The first three relatively short visits were as a tourist, during the late 80’s – late 90’s.  The fourth visit was as an artist-in-residence at Sanskriti Kendra in 2011, plus a little traveling. This time was very different.  In seven months, I made many friends and developed a rhythm of living life there which made leaving so bittersweet.  There’s so much to miss about Kolkata and its vibrant, teeming culture — rather than listing it all, I prefer to resolve to return in the future.  And I will.

Meanwhile, I’m back and there’s so much to do!  Besides the post-grant Fulbright paperwork and the ever-present house and garden projects, what I’m looking forward to the most is diving back into the studio and integrating all of these incredibly rich experiences into my work, both permanent and temporary.  My experiences with Elements and Ek Tara have motivated me to seek more partners for collaborative works.  Any ideas? Please contact me at cynthiasiegel@msn.com.  And check back soon, as I evolve this blog to share how the work begun in Kolkata takes its shape in the USA.

The Goddess of Knowledge

Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music and art, and is the daughter of Lord Shiva and Ma Durga.   In West Bengal, Saraswati is revered by schools and universities, because of the belief that she endows the worshipper with speech, wisdom and learning.

Saraswati Puja takes place this year in later January, so preparations of clay images at Kumartuli began in late December.   The energy at Kumartuli is much quieter than the frenzied activity of Durga Puja preparations, but there were a group of artisans in the neighborhood who were making some spectacular images!

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This image is 10-12 feet tall.
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This image is about 14 feet tall.

 

Saraswati is either accompanied by or seated on a swan, and is dressed in white for purity.  In the images made at Kumartuli, she is mostly depicted with two hands that play a stringed instrument called the veena.  In the images where she has four hands, the other two hands will hold a rosary and a book.

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Tiny Saraswati images.
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Pair of life sized Saraswati figures placed as if conversing.

 

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Saraswati is also a prominent figure in Buddhist iconography – the consort of Manjushri.   Her early history is as a river goddess, and I saw a number of figures adorned with flowing, watery imagery.

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Dilip Pal and his assistants were working on eleven commissioned Saraswati images during this time, ranging from two to four feet tall. The floor of Dilipda’s studio at the Shovabazar Rajbari was blanketed with straw, as assistant Netal Pal bent and wrapped and compressed the straw into voluptuous female forms.

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Small Saraswati pandal in the Kumartuli neighborhood.

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Elements

In December I was very busy with a project called ELEMENTS. ELEMENTS was an experimental art installation for children in Kolkata, the first of its kind in India, and for the kids it was a thrilling sensory experience. Created by Ruchira Das of ThinkArts, this multimedia project melded puppetry, motion-activated laser and sound, and clay.  When I met Ruchira, she knew that she wanted to include clay in the project, but was still looking for ideas of what to do and for an artist to make it happen.  After my months of observing the processes at Kumartuli, the maker in me leapt into action and I suggested that we draw upon Kumartuli for inspiration and create straw figures for the children to cover with clay.   Ruchira agreed, and I happily became part of the project.  I decided that these straw, jute, and bamboo figures would be life-sized children; my reasoning was that I wanted the children to be able to relate directly to the forms as reflections of themselves.

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Working in straw is seriously fun!  And the camaraderie of  our diverse group made the experience even more enjoyable.  Here are the figures the night before the installation opened, with just a hint of clay to get the children started.

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The children at play, more than 150 kids participated!

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And by the end of the event, the figures were transformed.  For me there’s a poetry to these cracking layers of clay, unselfconsciously (maybe even  gleefully?) slathered onto the straw forms.  I love them.

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Given the success of this installation, Ruchira Das plans to have another ELEMENTS event in Kolkata very soon, and is also working on taking the ThinkArts project to other cities such as Delhi and Bangalore.”

Krishnagar clay

From practically the first moment since I stepped off the plane in Kolkata in late August, people have been telling me to visit the town of Krishnagar.  Last week I had the opportunity to visit there with a group of artist friends.  Krishnagar is famous for the production of highly realistic sculpture, from larger than life to extremely minature sculptures.

We visited with local sculptor Subir Pal, who has both a shop on the main road for his finished works, as well as a workshop that is just a short walk down a small alleyway near the shop.

DSC_0095Subir Pal’s showroom with cabinet of narrative clay works

DSC_0038His workshop

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Subir Pal also works in fiberglass (as well as stone, plaster, bronze, and cement).  Check out this cow – sculptural trompe l’oeil – in the photo above.  Photo below, another cow sculpture is stored in the workshop loft.

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In the alleyway between workshop and showroom, we encountered the raw, unprepared Krishnagar clay, loaded up onto a bicycle  cart

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According to Subir Pal, this clay is so dense that it is as hard as stone without being fired!  I remain skeptical, but hopeful, since he generously gave me a big chunk of the clay to try it out!

DSC_0079These minatures are really amazing!

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Below, Subir Pal’s “artist’s reserve” of minature sculptures.  Wow.

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A Dentist to Lions

Dilipda is preparing no less than five images for Jagadhatri  Puja, which is celebrated throughout West Bengal and parts of Odissa about one week after Kali Puja (late October to early November) and exactly one month after Durga Puja.

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The courtyard outside of Dilip Pal’s Kumartuli studio, where he prepares images for Jagadhatri Puja.

Jagadhatri is considered to be a calm incarnation of Durga.  She is known as the “Holder of the World,” and it is believed that if Jagadhatri is not there,  the world will fall down!   The origins of Jagadhatri Puja are unclear.  One account is that the puja was founded by Sarada Devi, the wife of Ramakrishna.  Jagadhatri celebrations are observed today with great joy in Ramakrishna missions around the world.

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Dilip Pal working on a Jagadhatri image at his Kumartuli studio, Kolkata

Today, Dilipda is amusing himself by repeatedly telling me that he is “The Dentist To Lions,”  as he finely sculpts each feline’s memorable dentition.  In researching Jagadhatri’s history and observing the images of many Kumartuli workshops,  I saw reference to both lions and tigers.

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Priest performing rites at Jagadhatri Puja
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Jagadhatri  image

 

 

In addition to being accompanied by a lion/tiger, the three-eyed Jagadhatri is described as being the color of the morning sun.  She holds a conch and a bow in her two left hands and a chakra and a five-headed arrow in her two right hands.

 

 

 

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Kumartuli artisan at work on Jagadhatri image

Some of the Jagadhatri images depict the lion stepping upon the elephant demon, Karindrasura, who represents human pride/power.  According to Sri Ramakrishna, “Jagadhatri arises in the heart of a person, who can control the frantic elephant called mind.”

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Straw Jagadhatri images-in-process at nighttime, Kumartuli.

Immersions – Tradition and the Environment

Traditionally, Durga Puja ends with the immersion of the pandal images into a stream or river.  Once again, good has triumphed over evil, and Ma Durga and her children return to Mount Kailash and Durga’s consort, Lord Shiva.

Thousands and thousands of images are submerged each year!   There are serious environmental concerns in Kolkata regarding the dumping of so much debris (not to mention chemicals from today’s use of acrylic paints, etc.) into the Hooghly.  To alleviate these concerns, some communities or families now keep their clay images for several years before immersion.  Others have developed their own symbolic immersion of the goddess and do not submerge the pandal at all.   This year, a few media outlets reported that in some cities located along the banks of the Ganga river, all worshippers now submerge their images in man-made ponds instead of the river.

However, in Kolkata, many still chose to physically immerse their Durga pandal this year, and immersions began on October 3rd.  The following morning there was a massive reclamation and recycling effort.  The images in this post will show you some of the efforts being made at an area next to the Hooghly river that is called Babughat.

During the time set aside for immersions this year, convoys of trucks loaded with people and pandal images made their way to the river,  while musically accompanying their journey with drums and chanting.

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DSC_0051The group of people packed into the truck above all work for the same corporation, and they had brought the company’s puja pandal.

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DSC_0089Lots of dancing and music to honor Durga and her children before lifting the images out of the truck.

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DSCN4408The company insisted that we join in the dance!  So here I am, happy to oblige, yet not exactly sure how to dance safely with my Nikon.

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DSC_0191Notice the clay figures’ mouths – they had been fed some prasad, or religious offerings of food.  After being presented to the gods, prasad is then consumed by the worshippers.

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The pandal is spun around several times, before its bearers carry the pandal into the water.

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The pandal is once again turned around several times, before Durga and her children are laid down gently into the water.

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The immersion is finished.

And, now for the reclamation —
In the morning we can see pandal parts floating down the river.

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DSC_0264 DSC_0289The cleanup and recycling begins—

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Television news teams on location at Babughat to report on the efforts to contain the pandal debris.

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By 4pm, Babughat is completely free of debris and prepared for this evening’s immersions.

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Beauty and Chaos

“Beauty and Chaos”  – one way to describe that which is Durga Puja!

We heard this phrase first from photographer Dev Nayak,  when Stan and I met him while undergoing some serious “pandal-hopping” with Partha Dey in South Kolkata.  Dev’s actually comment was, “Beauty and chaos, in India you can’t have one without the other!”

It’s Monday evening, the day before Durga Puja celebrations are in full force for the next five days.  Even so, as the evening progresses, the streets began to swell with people eager to preview this year’s creations.  Pandals (the name for the structures that are build to house the Durga Puja sculptures) are everywhere, in the numerous parks, jutting out into the street, tucked into every possible nook and cranny.

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This most spectacular of spectacles could be likened to a combination of Disney World, Las Vegas, and Burning Man (sans nudity).  We saw everything from the grandest commercial extravaganzas to tiny, lovingly heartfelt private family shrines (the truth: these are my faves).  The estimate that I’d heard several times was upwards of 15000 Durga images in Kolkata alone!  Most pandals are sponsored by clubs and other local community organizations, with some sponsorship from local businesses.

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The biggest, most elaborate pandals usually have snagged big corporate sponsorships, are themed, and often have renowned artists and designers at their organizational helms.  The planning for next year’s big-budget pandals begins almost immediately after the prior year’s celebrations!  There are also many sponsored pandal contests, with celebrities and other prominent personages as their judges.  At the heart of each pandal, somewhere within, often underneath a plethora of clothing, hair, props, and other decorations, are the clay, straw, and bamboo figures that brought me to Kolkata.

Enough chatter for the moment, yes?  Time to show you some pics!

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Enter into a giant lotus with whirling imagery

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Durga looms above it all

DSC_0248Insanely crafted, metal leaf-covered Buddhist temple-inspired pandal

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A glimpse of a golden Durga inside

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 Below is a pandal dedicated to late Bollywood actress Suchitra Sen, who died earlier this year.DSC_0065_01

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A smaller, but charming pandal with figurative columns

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I’ve been enjoying the chandeliers of each pandal – they are often over the top!

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 Community-sponsored pandal

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Walkway towards family puja pandal of a very sweet and welcoming retired doctor.

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His Durga pandal is below.

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And below is an example of some of the fabulously creative decorated walkways intended to entice viewers towards a pandal

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More Durga Puja tomorrow……

Kumartuli – the second and third visits

With great excitement, I returned to Kolkata at the end of the first week of September, specifically to observe Dilipda and his assistants in the next stages of work on their Durga Puja sculptures at the Shovabazar Rajbari.

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In the above photo, Dilipda’s assistant,  Netal Pal, is adding the second layer of smooth clay to this roughed-out form of Ganesha. You might remember from an earlier post that this Durga Puja tableaux of images had been started about a month ago, and had been given several weeks to slowly dry.

Below, Dilipda’s other assistant, Bishonal Pal, works on adding the second clay layer to the Durga form that is central to the entire tableaux, or .

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When I returned the next afternoon, Netal Pal was sitting on the floor with a chunk of clay from which he was modeling the hands and feet for all of the figures.

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Then — Netal and Bishonal began to add the hands and feet to each figure, ending with Durga’s ten hands — and for me a magical energy filled the Rajbari.  I felt an intense need to stay and observe until Durga’s final hand was attached and secured to her tenth wrist.

IMG_0732Ganesha (above), now fully detailed and needing just one more hand!

IMG_2072Bishonal Pal works on Lakshmi and Netal Pal works on Kartik.

IMG_2078 Netal Pal works on Durga’s hands

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In the above photo, Dilipda is working on refining the details of the images.  His images are structured in what several people have referred to as the “traditional” style.  However, regardless of the style in which the figures are rendered, most Durga Puja sculpture groupings have the following images (I’m listing them in bold from left to right):  Ganesha; Lakshmi; Durga; below Durga is her Lion, who along with Durga, is attacking Mahishasura, the Buffalo Demon; Saraswati, and Kartik.  Often Mahishasura will be emerging from a buffalo form (he is after all, half man and half buffalo).  Below is a photo of another Kumartuli work-in-process where the buffalo imagery is more apparent (under Mahishasura but not painted white).

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Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartik also have puja celebrations specifically dedicated to them at some point during the year. The timings for when the festivals take place are based on the positioning of the sun and moon, and not on a specific calendar date.  Timings are available for past, present and future years from websites such as http://www.drikpanchang.com/ .

Often referred to as Durga’s children:
Ganesha is the god of beginnings, good fortune, and the removal of obstacles;
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, love and prosperity;
Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music, and the creative arts;
Kartik is the god of war.

Shantiniketan

In between my first and second visits to the image-makers of Kumartuli, I spent some time in Shantiniketan.  It’s a small, quiet (compared to Kolkata!) town about three hours by train from Kolkata, and it has become something of a second home destination for people wishing to take a break from the faster pace of the city.  There is a university there that was founded by the much-revered poet Rabindranath Tagore and his family.

As Santiniketan increased in size,  it grew up and around the beautiful villages of the indigenous Santhal people (one of the largest tribal groups throughout India).   Some of my favorite memories of my time there are of wandering around the small streets and alleys, discovering sculptures and murals covering houses, garden walls, and other structures, made of local terracotta clays, concrete, and tile mosaics.

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Another favorite place nearby is the  Amar Kutir Society for Rural Development, which is a cooperative employing more than 450 people in the production of leather craft, batik textiles, and bamboo crafts.   You can check out their website here: http://amarkutir.com/ .

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I visited Amar Kutir with the kind and generous Dr. Prasanta Ghosh, who besides being a former Fulbrighter to Washington D.C., is also the head of the Deparment of Social Work at Visva-Bharati University, Sriniketan, and a very active board member for Amar Kutir.  The Amar Kutir objective is the reorganization and rejuvenation of cottage and rural industries in handicrafts in the light of the ideals of self-help outlined by Rabindranath Tagore.  Tagore’s statue at the cooperative is below.

IMG_1740While I was in Shantiniketan, I purchased a book by Tagore called On Art & Aesthetics, a selection of his essays, lectures and letters.  I’ve been enjoying his manner of expression, and his ideas.  I’ll leave you with one quote from an essay entitled, “What is Art?,” to chew on before I head back to Kolkata for the next visit to Kumartuli.

“For Art, like life itself, has grown by its own impulse, and man has taken his pleasure in it without definitely knowing what it is.  And we could safely leave it there, in the subsoil of consciousness, where things that are of life are nourished in the dark.”

I welcome your opinions and comments!

 

 

Kumartuli – the first visit

On the morning of my second day in India, I had the great fortune to make my first trip to Kumartuli, which is a neighborhood of image-makers that is located slightly north of the center of Kolkata. Leading the way was the delightful Partha Dey, a Kolkata native and visual artist who was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Iowa a few years ago.

Our first stop was at the Shovabazar Rajbari (raj=king, bari=house) to meet Dilipda, a friend of Partha’s and the well-known sculptor who was currently in the process of creating the Durga  sculptural tableaux for the annual Shovabazar Rajbari’s Durga Puja celebrations.   He had already created his figures through the first stage of rough clay and straw formation, so we made arrangements for me to come back when Dilipda would begin his next stage of work.

Next we wandered through the main area of Kumartuli, with narrow streets such as this one,

typical kumartuli street/alley
lined with the workshops of many image-makers. Some workshops are tiny spaces, some are so narrow that we marveled at how the sculptors can gain any sort of perspective on the figures as they work! Look at the size of some these sculptures!

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In the time before I left for India, I had been concerned that I was arriving so close to the date of the celebrations that all of the images being made for Durga Puja would be so far underway that I would miss the chance to witness the whole process. Happily, these concerns were unfounded! Images were in every state of progress.

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The foundation of each image is built using split bamboo as a support structure, to which basic forms of straw wrapped with jute are added to make the rough figure.  Then a first layer of clay mixed with straw for strength, is added to the straw figure.  Once this dries, a second layer of smooth clay (in Kumartuli, this clay is taken from the banks of the Hooghly river) is added to the image to allow for more  refinement and detailing.  The photo below depicts this difference between clay/straw and smooth clay layers in two Ganesha images.

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Workshops are everywhere, in houses, shops, street side, and even right next to the train tracks.

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So at this point, some may ask, ”Who is Durga?”  And, “Why is all of this work being done on her behalf?”  IMG_1555

As described by Nilima Chitgopekar in The Book of Durga, “Myths associated with her (Durga’s) origin name her as Shakti—the female manifestation of cosmic energy—created by the fusion of the fierce energies of all the male gods and stronger than their combined strength.  She is the scourge of demons, as she is protectress of the realms of gods and humans.  Her anger is terrifying, her lust for victory in war overwhelming, on the battlefield she is merciless, even savage.  Yet she may just as easily transform into the consort of Shiva, daughter of the mountains, sister of the gods, or mother of her four children and of all mankind.”

I’m excited to learn more in the coming weeks before Durga Puja.