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!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Most 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.
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).
On the way back to Maihol House we stopped near some brick makers and their kilns to learn about the process.
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.
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.
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…..
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The children at play, more than 150 kids participated!
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.
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.”
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.
Subir Pal’s showroom with cabinet of narrative clay works
Workers and apprentices busy with their various tasks.
Subir Pal with work in process
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.
In the alleyway between workshop and showroom, we encountered the raw, unprepared Krishnagar clay, loaded up onto a bicycle cart
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!
These minatures are really amazing!
Below, Subir Pal’s “artist’s reserve” of minature sculptures. Wow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 her 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. Once 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.
The fabulous Kali figure above stunned me outside another shop in Kumartuli! Kali Ma!
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.
The group of people packed into the truck above all work for the same corporation, and they had brought the company’s puja pandal.
Lots of dancing and music to honor Durga and her children before lifting the images out of the truck.
The 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.
Notice 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.
The pandal is spun around several times, before its bearers carry the pandal into the water.
The pandal is once again turned around several times, before Durga and her children are laid down gently into the water.
The immersion is finished.
And, now for the reclamation —
In the morning we can see pandal parts floating down the river.
The cleanup and recycling begins—
Television news teams on location at Babughat to report on the efforts to contain the pandal debris.
By 4pm, Babughat is completely free of debris and prepared for this evening’s immersions.
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.
A Central Kolkata gilded beauty –
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.
Durga’s lion atop Mahisharsura, the Buffalo Demon
In South Kolkata, a hybrid pandal of peacock, boat, and stone temple
the “boat’s” interior decorations
A priest performs the traditional rites at the foot of this pandal’s Durga image.
Waiting in line to go inside this monumental pandal near College Street, the famous central Kolkata street of booksellers.
The Durga pandal, surrounded by the stony-textured interior
The figures of this pandal also include a few image-makers, who are now forever putting the final touches on the pandal.
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.
Enjoying the camaraderie and hospitality of a community pandal.
Stan and I enjoyed a delicious lunch and great conversation with the community members sponsoring this pandal near Park Circus.
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.
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