BANGALORE: The crisp Sharad sky is corn blue and there is a light breeze fanning the dusty trees on the arterial roads of Kolkata. There is a particular smell in the air as the season begins to turn. The kaash phool (which is actually not a phool or flower, but a species of invasive perennial grass) makes its appearance on empty fields and abandoned lots, dressing them up in beautiful white. Rendered immortal through Tagore's poetry and captured for posterity in Satyajit Ray's lens, the bobbing white heads of the kaash phool are nature's way of ushering in the Devi Paksha or the fortnight of the goddess.
Every year during Durga Puja, the old city heaves a sigh, tucks its ungainly bits under her and rolls over, presenting her best face to the world. Just like Ma Durga who returns to her parental abode every year bringing renewed hope and joy, for those five days, Kolkata also transforms into the grand doyen, reliving her remembered past as the proverbial big city with bright lights.
Durga Puja is entirely unique in its scope as it transcends its religious connotations and becomes a social event celebrating the arts, the culture of the city and its people. Ma Durga is a goddess for all and as sweaty faces jostle against each other, eager to catch a glimpse of her multi-hued glory at the various pandals (temporary structure housing the idol or protima) dotted across the city, the invisible curtain between communities and classes falls away.
I was just like all the hundreds and thousands of people from various walks of life, dressed in their Sunday best, milling about on the once familiar streets of the city, now rendered entirely unrecognizable with the decorations and the lights. And despite being a witness to the goddess year after year, I am still as wide-eyed as when I saw the first idol inside the first pandal in my neighbourhood. From my point of view as a knee high toddler, Ma Durga was a study in perspective. Nothing loomed larger or appeared grander in my universe. And surprisingly, every protima and every pandal I saw in the subsequent years continued to inspire the same feeling in the years that followed. I have seen the work of visionaries and lunatics, touches of genius and touches of the absurd — from a Harry Potter-inspired Hogwarts pandal to one created out of Maggi noodles, from the US presidential campaign represented through lights to a goddess bedecked in a see-through white sari, from an edible biscuit pandal to a 3D printed goddess battling a centaur, there are no boundaries and no inhibitions as far as interpretation is concerned.
The colours of the Rio de Janeiro carnival, the splendid costumes and craftsmanship of the Venetian masked festival, the music and gaiety of the New Orleans Mardi Gras and the spectacular floats from the French Riviera — all fade in comparison to the spectacle that is Durga Puja. The sheer scale and magnificence of the craftsmanship that defines the festival, the reverberating frenzied tempo of the dhaak (local drums), the journey of the exquisitely cast idols from the lanes of Kumartuli (the potter's lane in Calcutta which has been making idols of gods and goddesses for several generations) to the Byzantine streets of North Kolkata, the modern thematic twists of South Kolkata and reimagining of the tableau in which the Mother slays the buffalo demon, Mahishasura, the image of married Bengali women resplendent in their white saris with red borders smearing each other with the bridal sindoor — each sense is engaged in this celebration and they all seem to come together in one perfect and unanimous whole.
Greasy food, noisy cap guns, joyrides on ferris wheels, old fashioned flirtations in Puja pandals and a wonderfully dressed-up city and her people — this festival celebrates the goddess and her great feats as well as art, life, youth, nostalgia and hedonism with equal gusto. Armed with a camera, good walking shoes and an appetite for the offbeat and the unusual, Durga Puja in Kolkata is right in the heart of the madding crowd, where the pulse of the city lies. For five days, the city does not sleep and the sounds, lights and excitement that is Durga Puja keeps spiralling upwards from Shashti to Saptami to Ashtami to Nabami and finally ends with the bittersweet immersion on Dashami.
The city sleeps thereafter reeling under the weight of her acquired persona. But then there is the rallying cry of Aashche Bochor Abar Hobe (It will happen again in the coming year) and I return to a different city, a different life with the assurance that I too shall return to my homeland in the coming year to witness yet another visit from Ma Durga.