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Imagery, messaging for Durga Puja undergoes shift as Kolkata's creative industries contend with COVID impact

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya
·6 min read

Last week, images of an idol created for this year's Durga Puja, depicting the Goddess as a migrant woman, went viral. Rintu Das designed the idol as one of the three Pujo projects he's handling for the festive season; he made her in the image of one of the many mothers who made the long, brutal march home with their children this March, as the nationwide lockdown to counter the coronavirus pandemic triggered a humanitarian crisis involving lakhs of stranded, unemployed migrant workers.

"I believe she is the one who needs to be worshipped, she is the goddess," says Das, who endowed the idol's hands with packets of food and other essential supplies, instead of the usual weapons and religious symbols. Das and his associate Pallab Bhowmik developed the artwork for the idol at Kolkata's Barisha Club. The installation includes a sound simulation of a COVID-19 relief camp for migrant workers.



Das' installation is just one of the many ways in which Kolkata's art and culture community is responding to an unprecedented Pujo, navigating their way around the question of what it means to observe Durga Puja during a pandemic.


The crisis has already intervened in the form of the recent Calcutta High Court order banning the entry of people into pandals. (Last month, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had decreed that all pandals be open-air and adherent to COVID-19 safety guidelines.) Amid the ensuing collective dismay, the court relaxed norms, allowing a specific number of individuals to be present within a pandal, depending on its size.



"If crowds are a health concern, then I don't know why the focus is only on the pandals. The same should apply to people on the roads, on metros and buses," says Piyali, one half of the artist duo Saumik-Piyali. The duo conceptualised the marquee at East Kolkata's Arjunpur Amra Shabai Club this Pujo and their theme centres on Goddess Durga as the mighty feminine force of nature €" a force that can nourish all other living organisms, or cause untold destruction.

Titled 'Kaalchakro', Saumik-Piyali's artwork looks at nature's cyclic attributes through which it evens out earth's disproportions, irregularities and imbalances €" be they ecological, societal or economical. Piyali lists the COVID-19 safety protocol the Arjunpur Amra Shabai Club is following: "They have arranged for virtual screening of the inside of the marquee, cinematically shot; the marquee itself has been designed to enable streamlined transit where people can come in, look at the pandal, and walk/drive out from the other side."



Practically and thematically, COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of the Durga Puja celebration.

For Partho Dasgupta, renowned painter, sculptor and ceramist, it manifested in the idea of 'Jibon Juddhobigroho' when designing the marquee for Thakurpukur State Bank Park in its golden jubilee year. "Essentially, this autumnal Durga Puja represents war, and we are at war right now," says Dasgupta. Owing to the COVID-19 regulations, Dasgupta's pandal isn't really welcoming visitors onto the premises but provides a virtual or on-the-go experience. Located along the Diamond Harbour Road, the pandal has a 70-ft opening for passersby to see the idol and observe a light-and-sound recitation by noted theatre exponent Debshankar Haldar.

In normal times, conceptualising and executing the design of a pandal occurs over a four-month schedule. This schedule has been compressed into a mere 30 days in light of the pandemic and lockdown. Dasgupta says the crisis has presented both challenges and learning opportunities: "I couldn't work with my outstation team as they couldn't travel. Unskilled labour comprises more than 70 percent of the task force that collaborates with me otherwise. I had to work with local artisans this time," he says.



The fact that the pandal would be viewed virtually posed its own problems. "Suddenly, I lose a dimension: my 3-D art pieces now appear as 2-D and the scale of viewing gets distorted immensely," Dasgupta notes. "It is like putting the Gulf War and a video game at the same level!"

Award-winning visual artist Sanatan Dinda has focused on a moral he hopes will emerge from these times: that a self-absorbed existence is a vice. His artwork is based on the hypocrisy reflected in our use of social media; Dinda aims at presenting the harsh realities of our times via the shining reflections of our smartphones. "Behind my Durga there are many Durgas hidden. Their blood-smeared feet have left imprints on numerous mirrors which only present distorted images," Dinda says of his concept.



A post-pandemic Pujo has shaped artists' inspirations in less outwardly visible ways as well. As a Firstpost article previously stated: "Durga Puja is not just a time of revelry, the climax of Kolkata's cultural calendar. It's also a huge economic high point. A 2013 Assocham report estimated it at Rs 25,000 crore and growing at 35 percent CAGR." An expert observed that if Durga Puja was an industry, it would rank as the second-largest (after agriculture) in West Bengal. What this translates into is an intensely competitive spirit among the city's sarbojanik pandals to outdo each other. But not this time.

Bhabotosh Sutar, among the state's leading installation artists, articulates this sentiment. "I wanted to steer clear of the whole competitive rat race during Pujo and instead play along with my associates and collaborators of more than 20 years," he says. "Many of them have been unemployed and depressed over the last several months due to the pandemic, followed by Cyclone Amphan. For this Pujo, more than anything, I wanted to look after their financial and mental well-being."



Above: Wunderman Thompson's pujo campaign for Exide Industries. Image courtesy Sourish Mitra; Other creatives by Rupak Neogy.

Freelancers have seen their work volumes dry up, although some have been more fortunate. For instance, Prasenjit Bera, the creative controller in a leading Kolkata advertising firm, designed for a website presenting a 360-degree view of city pandals to viewers across the globe. "The first thing I noticed was how we could flip the GPS pointer to resemble the third eye of Durga," says Bera of the project.



Above: Prasenjit Bera's ad campaign for The Puja App this year.

Bera and his colleague Arindam Lahiri also worked on two big TV commercials this year €" one for a leading apparel brand, and the other for a competition to judge the best Durga Puja pandal in the city. Both commercials incorporated strong, heart-warming messaging about staying indoors and bringing the Pujo inside the home. Lahiri admits that striking a celebratory and inspirational note at a time of general gloom wasn't easy.


Above: Screengrabs via YouTube for Bera and Lahiri's TV campaigns this year for Durga Puja; (Right) Design for the makeshift gates of Pujo pandals this year. Courtesy: Sourish Mitra for Wunderman Thompson.

"Under the current circumstances, the biggest challenge is to stay happy," echoes Calcutta-based visualiser and illustrator Rupak Neogy who worked on several campaigns this Pujo under the title 'Bhaalo Theko (Stay Happy)'. Neogy has dedicated his campaign to "those professions which would have been hit the hardest had Pujo not been celebrated this year".







Above: Rupak Neogy's Bhaalo Theko campaign honouring idol sculptors, decorators, lightsmen, pandal artists, dhakis etc.

€" All rights reserved.

Also See: Durga Puja in the time of COVID: Kolkata's sarbojanik pandals must keep out the faithful, for community's welfare

Kolkata's Durga Puja organisers seek modifications in HC order barring entry for visitors to pandals

Calcutta High Court says Durga Puja pandals to be 'no-entry' zones for visitors across West Bengal

Read more on Arts & Culture by Firstpost.