Tag Archives: United States-India Educational Foundation

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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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.