Tag Archives: Kolkata

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!

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.”

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!

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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Just a few more pandals…..

This post is a gallery of Durga Puja pandal image highlights from our explorations of Kolkata pandals throughout the following three days of the holiday.   We admired some pandals for the beauty and creativity of their designs, and others for the mindbogglingly extensive craftsmanship that was required for their creation!

A South Kolkata pandal decorated entirely using braided jute.

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A Central Kolkata gilded beauty –

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With images that are highly realistic — this pandal is also non-traditional in the sense that it includes many other figures besides  the traditional scene of Durga, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik, Mahisasura, and the Lion.  Gods such as Brahma are also present, in addition to several human and animal onlookers.

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DSC_0449Durga’s lion atop Mahisharsura, the Buffalo Demon

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Amazing chandelier!

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In South Kolkata, a hybrid pandal of  peacock, boat, and stone temple

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the “boat’s” interior decorations

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DSC_0139A priest performs the traditional rites at the foot of this pandal’s Durga image.

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Waiting in line to go inside this monumental pandal near College Street, the famous central Kolkata street of booksellers.

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The Durga pandal, surrounded by the stony-textured interior

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The figures of this pandal also include a few image-makers, who are now forever putting the final touches on the pandal.

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And out the exit we go!  In the larger pandals, it is often very difficult to stay for a long time and enjoy the Durga pandal images, due to the numbers of people visiting, and the often very tight crowd controls.  In a couple of the larger pandals that we visited, we spent over an hour reaching the inside of the pandal, only to have about ten seconds to look, before traffic volunteers directed us to the exit.   However, in many of the community pandals, we were welcome to sit and spend as much time as we wanted.

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Enjoying the camaraderie and hospitality of a community pandal.

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DSCN4043Stan and I enjoyed a delicious lunch and great conversation with the community members sponsoring this pandal near Park Circus.

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Durga pandal of a central Kolkata home, where Stan and I were invited in to share a bounty of homemade traditional sweets.

Soon the end of this holiday will come, and Durga will return home, after the pandals are physically and/or ritually immersed in flowing water.

Durga Puja

This first day of Durga Puja is also known as Maha Shasthi, and during this day a series of rituals are performed to symbolically awaken Durga.  For more information on the rituals of Durga Puja and their timings, check out

http://www.bangalinet.com/pujacalendar.htm or http://www.durga-pujas.com/shashti.shtml.

For today’s pandal-hopping, Stan and I decided to return to Kumartuli, particularly to view the final installation of Dilip-da’s Durga pandal at the Shovabazar Rajbari.

DSC_0005Waiting outside the Rajbari for the pandal viewing to begin later that evening.

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DSC_0319The Durga pandal with all of the clothing, headdresses, jewelry and other props, except – Durga’s hands are yet to be holding their ten weapons.

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Here’s the Ganesha, side by side with his earlier photo!

DSC_0115A short distance from the Shovabazar Rajbari was this mountain-themed pandal, studded with giant heads.  A few close-ups follow:

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Inside, a contemporary rendition of the Durga scene using near life-sized figures (sadly, some other pandal hoppers’ heads are blocking my view of Kartik and Ganesha).

At the foot of this installation is a tiny traditional Durga pandal.

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Around Kumartuli and pretty much everywhere in Kolkata, you will find advertisements using Durga to sell products and services.  These photos show ads selling underwear, health care, and food.

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Another lotus-themed pandal!

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This Durga has a cartoon-character quality.

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DSC_0251   Fabulous chandelier

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On our way back to the metro, we stopped to check out one more traditional community pandal, tucked into a lane.  It was full of energetic and exuberant children!   Their Durga is below.

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When we peeked into some of the Kumartuli workshops, some image-makers were already hard at work on gigantic pandals for Kali Puja, which takes place in a few weeks’ time.