Tag Archives: West Bengal

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.

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.

Mahalaya

The countdown to Durga Puja is well underway by Mahalaya,  which is observed seven days before (September 23rd for 2014).  It’s on Mahalaya that preparations for Durga Puja reach their final stages, and it’s believed that on this day Durga, the goddess of supreme power, descends to earth.  One older custom still observed by some is the painting of Durga’s eyes on this day, as a symbol of her invocation and impending presence.

On Mahalaya, my husband Stan and I paid an early morning visit  to the Shovabazar Rajbari.  Dilipda’s Durga sculptural tableauxl had been painted and dressed, but final details, such as hair and weapons or instruments that the gods and goddess hold in their hands, have not yet been added.  While we were there, we encountered Sri Krishna Deb, the community organizer for the Shovabazar’s pandal presentation.  Sri Deb graciously invited us to attend the community’s Mahalaya celebrations that evening!

When we returned in the evening, the celebration was getting underway with a beautiful ceremony in which many small oil-filled clay dishes were lit.

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After the lamps were lit, Sri Deb rang the puja bell.  Far in the distance (center of the  photograph) you can see a priest sitting on the ground and performing the evening’s rites.

 

 

 

 

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Then began a lovely musical program including members throughout the Shovabazar community, beginning with the youngest members, and progressing to the most accomplished dancers and musicians.

 

 

 

IMG_2218Invoking Durga through dance!

Vishwakarma, the Divine Architect

It’s September 17th as well as my fourth visit to the Shovabazar — now Durga Puja is less than two weeks away!  Dilipda’s sculpture has fully dried, been painted with a white undercoat, and now the application of color on the figures, as well as additional painted imagery, has begun.

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Heading out to other workshops of Kumartuli, I again saw images in every stage of creation, from straw and bamboo beginnings to the the finishing stages of paint, clothing, jewels, and other accessories.

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Today  is also Vishwakarma Day.  Vishwakarma is the god of engineering and tools,  He’s also called the divine architect or divine carpenter, and his day of reverence is observed in a number of Indian states, including West Bengal, by engineers, architects, mechanics, artisans, craftspeople, factory workers, etc.   His devotees pray for success, increased productivity and for the smooth workings of their machinery/technical processes; many also worship the tools of their respective crafts.

The Mahabharata, one of the two great Sanskrit epic poems of ancient India, describes Vishwakarma as wearing a crown and loads of gold jewelry, and holding a water-pot, a book, a noose and craftsman’s tools in his four hands.

As I moved through Kumartuli today, I saw many shrines with statues and pictures of Vishwakarma.  A few examples follow.

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I also enjoyed seeing the shrine below, which was created by the engineers and mechanics working at the United States Consulate.

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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!