Tag Archives: Cynthia Siegel

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.

A Project With Ektara

My work on the Elements project really whetted my appetite for more exploration in creating temporary, collaborative sculpture in which the viewer’s participation becomes an integral part of the work.  I began developing ideas for new projects while observing preparations at Kumartuli for Saraswati Puja.  Then after returning from my trip to Molela and Nathdwara, I searched Kolkata for potential venues and partners.

Curator and social entrepreneur Nandita Palchoudhuri connected me with charitable organization Ek Tara, located in the Kolkata neighborhood of Topsia.  Thanks Nandita!!!

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Ek Tara provides opportunities for education and vocational training for more than 500 children and women who reside in the Topsia and Tiljala area.

For our March 2015 project together, I created a four foot tall head in straw and bamboo.  In an exciting two-day workshop, fifty Ek Tara students gleefully and tenderly covered the large head form with imagery in clay.

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Working with fifty children on a project takes tremendous organization!  Not only were the wonderful Ek Tara  instructors and helpers on hand to smooth the process, but Fulbright-Nehru Student Scholar Julie Schofield‘s assistance was invaluable to me, as she entertained the children who were waiting to take their turn in working on the sculpture.

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Fulbright-Nehru Scholar Julie Schofield with Ek Tara children

The sculpture’s title, Lucky Indian Forest, comes from the children. They had been asked to bring forth ideas for a title as they worked to build up the image-laden surface of animal figures and traditional designs, using clay press molds I created for them, and traditional sandesh molds from Kalighat.

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What a great project!   Children and adults alike were enthusiastic and happy. The camaraderie was fantastic.  I hope to do many more projects like this one.

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Lucky Indian Forest” Named by the children of Ek Tara
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Children covering the straw and bamboo head with clay imagery.

 

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“Lucky Indian Forest” at Gallery Sanskriti in April 2015.   Ambica Beri, gallerist, in center,  Anita Kanoi, Ek Tara trustee, on right.

 

 

 

Mishty Magic

Please forgive me the transgression of diverting us from all things clay sculptural, and indulge me in a bit o’discourse regarding one of my favorite parts of Bengali culture – Mishty.

Mishty is the Bengali word for sweet and is also the word for a dizzying variety of sweet foods that are made with nuts and/or milk products combined with spices and other flavorings.  Mishty shops are everywhere in Kolkata, and are a cause for wonder— if one stops to think about the sheer output of sweets in relation to the number of people available to eat them!  In any case, it’s not long into a conversation with a Bengali before they assert the superiority of Bengali sweets over all others.   While I won’t comment any more about that, I will definitively say that mishty are delicious!!

I favored one shop in particular, which was on the way to a studio where I worked occasionally.  The name is Balaram and Mullick’s, as pictured below, at the Bhawanipore location where they have been in business since 1885.

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Mishty Magic since 1885
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The store manager and great-grandson of the founder.
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Fresh kulfi (ice cream) is served with a variety of toppings.
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Oh, yum.

Rasgullah, sandesh, kheer, chamcham, chenna, chandra, kalakund, gulab jamun, ladoo —even in seven months of living here, I fear that there will not be enough time to try everything.   I have made a solemn promise to myself to learn to make the mishty doi (sweet yogurt) when I return to Santa Cruz.  For the rest, I’ll just need to return to Kolkata!

Molela and Nathdwara

Say hello to one of my new favorite places —-  Molela!

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In early February, my husband Stan and I were invited by artist and professor Gagan Dadich to stay and to work in his beautiful studio in the tiny village of Molela.  Located in the state of Rajasthan, Molela is famous for a unique style of ceramics, particularly for its charming narrative plaques and murals.  A few examples of the work:

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There are about 40 families in Molela producing terracotta sculpture.  Only a few families are producing pottery.   Each workshop has many works lined up outside to entice shoppers inside.  Tour buses stop here occasionally to shop and then continue on their journey. Just a few people like us stick around for a little while to get to know the place.

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DSC_0931We spent a lot of time with one sculptor in particular, Shyam Lal.  This is his storefront, followed by several images of his works.  He had just finished a huge work segment and had many works ready for the beginning of what he called the buying season, meaning that over the next few weeks those tours buses that I mentioned before would be coming through en masse. Now he was enjoying his vacation time, which he generously shared with us.

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Shyam Lal Kumhar of Mangalam Terracotta Art
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Sculptures by Mangalam Terracotta Art

 

DSC_0908The forms are made using a combination of slabs and pinching. As many areas as possible are left open to encourage air circulation; examples in this piece are the crown and underneath the body of the horse.  The finer details are made by impressing with tools, or by adding small pieces of clay.  Cutting or carving into the clay would be difficult with the heavily fibrous consistency of the clay body.

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A beautiful mural installed in front of Shyam’s Mangalam Terracotta Art workshop

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Gagan’s studio is wonderful. New designs are painted once a year on the clay-dung walls, and the studio is brimming with works that he has made and collected.

 

 

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Experimenting with Molela Clay

DSC_0026 We experimented with the Molela clay, which contains at least one third donkey dung in the clay body.  The donkey dung has an incredible amount of fiber in it, which gives the clay body not only the strength for making large plaques and tiles, but also for the extremely quick firings.  We were told that some firings are often finished in as little as three hours!

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Shankaraba (Shankar Lal Kumhar) is one of the few potters in Molela making exclusively functional ware.  We happened upon him as he and his family were loading his kiln.  (I wish that Santa Cruz city ordinances would allow me to put a kiln like this in my front yard.)DSC_1117
Before we left Molela for Nathdwara, we met another family loading their kiln, this time with sculptures, tiles and plaques, Jamnalal and Bharathi Kumhar of Kalptaru Terracotta Art Center.   We joined in to help carry out the work for loading, and enjoyed the camaraderie that is universal when it comes to clay.

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This is part of Jaminlal and Bharathi’s showroom.  Very hard to choose from all the great pieces there!

 

 

 

 

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Nathdwara has a fantastic night market, nearby the Shrinathji Temple.  The lane leading up to the temple gate had shops with wonderful looking sweets.  We were shocked by the size of the ladoos — about the size of a softball and nearly ten times larger than the ones at the shops in Kolkata.  We bought one, and took two days to finish eating it!

The next morning I gave a lecture at  S.M.B. Government Post Graduate College in Nathdwara, where Gagan is a Professor of Art.  After my presentation I had the pleasure to spend time with his students and to learn about their interests and art processes.

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Back in Kolkata, Stan and I agreed that of all of the great memories that we brought back from this trip to Rajasthan, visiting Molela and Nathdwara is at the top of our list.

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Jamnalal’s work, freshly made

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Residency at Maihol House

How wonderful! In January I was invited to be part of an international group of ceramic artists who would  be working together at Maihol House, an artists’ residency center in Maihar, Madhya Pradesh.  Countries represented are India, Australia, Latvia, France, and the USA.

Maihol House is also the family home of Ambica Beri, who owns Gallery Sanskriti in Kolkata.  Ambica, a generous and nurturing soul as well as an avid supporter of the arts, sponsored all of us to participate in this wonderful residency.  She is also in the midst of opening another amazing residency center not far from Maihol House, called Art Ichol.

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Maihol House

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A twenty-three hour train ride later, I was met at the Maihar station by Kolkata ceramic artist Aditi Saraogi.   At Maihol House, I met three of the other invited artists, Anjani Khanna from Mumbai, and Eugenia Logovia and Anatoli Borodkin of Latvia, as well as Ambica Beri and her brand new assistant, Tanya Dutt.  The next day Eugenia and Anatoli and I set out to spend some time at the famous Khajuraho temples, as well as to rendezvous with the remaining two invited artists, Isabelle Roux of France and Sandra Black of Australia. (Khajuraho is one of the closer airports to Maihar.)

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Khajuraho

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Most of the temples of Khajuraho were first built around 1000 years ago!  They are covered with beautiful carvings of animals, dancers, musicians, and of course, lovers. Khajuraho is famous for erotic carvings, however, as our guide informed us, and we could see for ourselves, less than 15 percent of the carvings were explicitly sexual.

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DSC_0004_01Most of the temples have had some sort of reconstruction of over the last few hundred years.  The platform for this little temple was created with what looks like portions from many different temples, giving the effect of sculptural collage.

The next day we began our work at Sanskriti Ceramics.

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Aditi working outside near the ceramics studio
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Sandra Black, potter extraordinaire!

 

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My lovely roommate for the residency, Anjani Khanna, in the midst of creating one of her yalis.
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The fabulous Anatoli Borodkin!
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Isabel takes a break from work on her gorgeous vessel forms
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Eugenia near the studio pond

 

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My new friend who lives in that pond, and was the inspiration for the sculptural platter below

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After some intense days, we set our works out to dry, and Ambica took us to the Maihar Devi temple, which is dedicated to Sharada Ma, an aspect of Saraswati (goddess of knowledge, music and creative arts).

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one amazing shrine on the side of the main temple

On the way back to Maihol House we stopped near some brick makers and their kilns to learn about the process.

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kiln for firing clay bricks

 

The next day we went to the Maihar Music School for a wonderful concert of Indian classical music given by the school’s instructor.  We learned that this school is famous as the place where Ravi Shankar studied.

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Enjoying wonderful music at the Maihar Music School

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If these great experiences weren’t enough — Aditi worked with Devilal Patidar of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal to organize an international symposium at which we presented our works to a large and receptive audience.

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Bhopal is a city that is very supportive of the arts, and we visited a number of beautiful museums, among them the astounding Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum.  Much thanks to Devilal for rolling out the red carpet for us all!

And then, too soon, it was time for me to say adios…..

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A photo of our bisqued works laid out for an experimental woodfire. Eugenia’s lively elephants take front stage.

I had to leave the group a few days early, since my husband was flying to Kolkata for a long-awaited visit, and the return train ride would be at least twenty hours with the currently foggy weather conditions.  Nevertheless,  I left with many great memories!!  Much thanks to Ambica and Tanya, to Aditi for the invitation, Devilal, and to all of the other artists for the clayful camaraderie.  We shall meet again!

 

 

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

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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.

Kali Ma

I prefer Kali to Durga.  Why?  Since I’m not exactly sure, I thought I’d use the writing of this post to help figure it out.

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In Kolkata, Kali certainly has less fanfare than the almighty Durga, but from my vantage point, Kali’s devotees appear to have as much or maybe even more fervor for their goddess.  While Durga is considered to be the goddess of supreme power, Kali is thought of as the goddess of empowerment.  That strikes a chord in me – copacetic to what I feel and think when making my figurative sculpture in Santa Cruz.

Kali fascinates me — consider her lolling tongue, that rhythmically wonderful strand of severed, grimacing heads around her neck, and DSC_0514her very active gesture of stomping on her consort Lord Shiva (other interpretations are that of accidentally doing so, and also that her foot on his body calms her anger).

Regarding Durga, even with all ten of her hands loaded with weapons, it always appears to me that her lion is doing, well, the lion’s share of the work (sic) when it comes to battling Mahishasura.

Dilipda and his assistants began their Kali in Dilipda’s studio.  DSC_0029Once  the figures of Kali and Shiva had been formed in straw, they moved them to the street outside of the Shovabazar Rajbari, just next to a tiny Shiva shrine.  Over the next several days, a bamboo, cloth and paper pandal was built over and around the figures.  I enjoyed observing this process immensely, because simply by being present in the situation, I became part of  the rhythm of the street.

 

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Netal Pal buiilding up Kali’s strand of demon heads.

 

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Dilipda at final clay detailing stages of his Kali Ma
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Dilipda’s Kali, now painted and adorned with flowing black tresses. Dilipda completes the final details on Kali’s consort, Lord Shiva.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The fabulous Kali figure above stunned me outside another shop in Kumartuli!  Kali Ma!