Calcutta Corner

Durga Puja, 2017

I don’t think any festival is celebrated in any part of the world the way Durga Puja is celebrated in Bengal, particularly Calcutta. The celebration of the arrival of Goddess Durga from her abode in Mount Kailash to our homes in Bengal is not merely restricted to a certain religion or group in the city. Though chanting of  stotras in reverence of the goddess, fasting and worship of the goddess’s idol form an integral aspect of the puja, they are far from being the only aspects of it. Rather Durga Puja encompasses all aspects of culture- art, literature, music, movies, etc. with preparations for pandal decorations beginning in the city almost a year ahead of the puja, craftsmen coming from remote parts of Bengal to the capital to display their trade and earn a living, literature being published at its finest in esteemed Bengali magazines like Desh and Anandamela a few months prior to the puja, new “commercial” and “art” movies being released at the theaters a few weeks before the puja and the city dressing up with meticulously crafted pandals, housing both traditional and modern sculptures of the divine, at almost every corner for the four days of the actual festival.

Though Durga Puja in Calcutta had been an integral part of my childhood and college days I haven’t been in the city or the country during the puja for the last seven years, so Durga Puja 2017 was really special to me. Here are a few photographs and short reviews of some pandals I visited, some new novels and stories I read in Desh and Anandamela and some new Bengali movies I watched at the theaters during this year’s puja.

Pandals/ Street Art: 

There is street art at almost every corner of the city during the four days of the puja, in the form of puja pandals. I visited some pandals both in North and South Calcutta this time, the decorations and Durga idols of which ranged from traditional to modern (“theme pujas”). Here are some photographs I took of the pandals I liked the most with brief descriptions of each.

Best idol:

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The iconic Durga idol of Bagbazaar Sarbojonin on the left- every year it’s a newly made idol but it is exactly the same as last year’s. Some things in life don’t change!!
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Durga idol of Chetla Agrani club sculpted in mahogany wood
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Mesmerizing idol of the divine in all her tranquility at Shibmandir Sarbojonin

Best exterior decoration: 

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Thailand’s White Temple, mimicked at Deshpriya Park, dazzling in white light.
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Colorfully decked bird’s nest at Jodhpur Park.

Best interior decorations:

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A musical performance at Kasi Bose Lane
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Nalini Sarkar Street (Real houses on both sides of a typical narrow lane of North Calcutta become a part of the puja pandal)
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Colorful interiors at Selimpur Pally
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A regal atmosphere at Mudiali Club. The background music beautifully added to the interior decorations.

Best lighting: 

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Ekdalia Evergreen’s street lighting as gorgeous as ever.

Literature:

I read this year’s Pujabarshiki (Puja edition) Anandamela (most popular magazine for new Bengali teenage fiction) almost in its entirety and also some of the novels from this year’s Sarodiya (Puja edition) Desh (most popular magazine for new Bengali fiction) and Anandabazaar Patrika . These are the novels/ short stories I really liked.

Nihsabda Mrityu (Silent Death) by Sukanta Gangyopadhyay (teenage detective novel):

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A very popular opinion currently in Calcutta is that Bengali literature, particularly children/ teen’s literature, is in decay. It is not hard to buy the prevalent opinion given the demise of Satyajit Ray (creator of Feluda) and Sunil Ganguly (creator of Kakababu) and aging of Sirshendu Ganguly (creator of the “Odbhuture”  series) and Samaresh Majumdar (creator of Arjun). However one detective/ adventure series that stands out in today’s teenage literature is Sukanta Ganguly’s “Dipkaku” series. It probably started about a decade back in Pujabarshiki Anandamela and I had always liked it. This year’s Dipkaku novel was no exception. The plot was quite intriguing, innovative and unpredictable. I know my opinion would raise many eyebrows but I would still go on to state that Dipkaku is the best sleuth that Bengali fiction has produced after Byomkesh and Feluda. Kakababu and Arjun, despite their popularity, were never really detectives. Their stories were mostly adventures with very few elements of puzzle solving characteristic of a typical detective story. Things just happened in those stories- the villain revealed himself to Kakababu and Arjun at some point, they didn’t really follow clues to reach the villain.  On the other hand, Sukanta Ganguly’s Dipkaku series is a textbook example of detective fiction, with the detective Dipkaku following each and every clue at the crime scene to get to the villain. It is probably time to lift Dipkaku from the not so read pages of Anandamela to the silver screen for next year’s Puja season.

 Tuatara by Debashish Bandyopadhyay (teenage adventure novel)

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My first impression of this novel is that it is extremely dense. That’s probably a good thing particularly because the setting of the novel is also a very dense forest in the Garo Hills of north-east India. Not only is this short novel full of facts about the geography and folklore of Garo hills which were unknown to me before but also it is jam packed with action. I often turned back the pages to keep track of all that was going on.

Passages to the abstract world, of which I talked about in the introduction post of my blog, are present here in abundance disguised as tales in Garo folk lore. However keeping in mind the young audience or probably out of his own lack of interest about the abstract realm, the author did not let the readers indulge themselves in those mind altering trajectories. The monologue and actions of the main villain deep inside the cave towards the ending of the novel were still too violent and trippy for the teenage readers but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

One issue I had with the novel was that the story of the bad guy killing his twin brother and taking his place had been repeated too many times in Bengali teenage fiction, making the plot quite predictable. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda short story “Kailash Chowdhurir Pathar” had that plot and so did a Suchitra Bhattacharya’s Mitin Mashi novel, published a few  years ago in Anandamela (forgot its name, the setting of the novel was the Sundarbans).

Loukik (Real) by Samaresh Majumdar (short story)

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With Samaresh Majumdar being a veteran Bengali writer who mostly wrote about relationships and political activism in his novels, I did not anticipate this short story to be surreal at all when I started reading it. But to my surprise, it turned out to be an extremely well written surreal story of cops visiting a woman’s apartment and never getting out. The passage to the abstract world is present in full form in this short story that lasts only a few pages. Hats off to the writer and Bengali literary culture in general for this hidden gem!

Tarabhora Akasher Niche (Under a starry sky) by Srijato (novel)

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This novel by the famous contemporary Bengali poet Srijato tells the stories of Vincent VanGogh and a schizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta in parallel. The scrizophrenia patient was introduced to Vincent VanGogh and the famous “Starry Night” painting during his childhood. Since then he pursued painting actively and dreamt of becoming a famous painter one day, but had to give up on his dream owing to a lot of unfortunate and heart breaking events- death of his teacher and mentor from childhood who had actually introduced him to “Starry Night”, an act of plagiarism committed by his best friend and colleague, and of course discouragement from his middle-class family due to the uncertain future associated with pursuing a career in art. The suppressed desire of becoming a painter, coupled with the death of his dearest brother due to a misunderstanding between them, started making him hallucinate. The novel reached its climax when his wife, in order to solidify the distinction between reality and imagination in his mind, brought him to the Museum of Modern Art at New York so that he could see the actual “Starry Night” painting with his own eyes.

This novel probably epitomizes the journey of the human mind through a constant battle between solipsism and empiricism, which is the central theme of my blog. The novel has all the elements necessary to take the readers on that journey- post-impressionist art, a “crazy” painter, the experience of solitude, the nuances of brotherly love and sexual love, mental disorders and of course death. In my opinion, this is a landmark novel in modern Bengali literature and no Bengali reader should miss it. Also it certainly deserves a read by people who don’t know Bengali. I am hoping for an English translation of the book to come out soon.

Sparsha (Touch) by Krishendu Mukhopadhyay (novel)

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This novel by Krishnendu Mukhopadhyay is similar in style to Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. It also narrates two stories in parallel- one story set in the historical past and the other set in modern Calcutta. However the stories are very different in flavor from that in Srijato’s novel, but they are still equally serious and intriguing.

The first story here is of a Bengali pilot fighting for the Royal Air Force during World War II who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The second story is that of a young lady in modern day Calcutta who interrogates several surviving family members of the pilot to figure out why an old Jewish lady left a huge sum of money for the pilot at the time of her death. The novel is brilliantly written. It is extremely informative and has several touching moments that poignantly bring out the horror of the largest war fought in the history of mankind and the atrocities committed in the Jewish concentration camps.

In my opinion, these two novels perfectly bring out the contrast between two subjects I always found really fascinating- philosophy and history. Philosophy, particularly philosophy of the mind, analyzes events in the mental world of one individual much more than events in the physical world. Since it’s much harder for multiple individuals to agree upon details of events in their own mental world-s than agreeing upon events in the same physical world they all share, philosophy ends up having way more interpretations than facts. Also extraordinary events in the physical world like world wars don’t feature much in philosophy.

Srijato’s novel, which is of extremely philosophical nature and largely dwells on issues connected to the mental world of two individuals- Van Gogh and the scrizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta- whether the world we live in is real or is an illusion, what is the nature of absolute reality, what is the purpose of existence- talks of very few relatively ordinary events in the lives of some people and yet scrutinizes those events with great precision in order to obtain deep insights regarding the mental world .

On the other hand, history is largely a study of events that happened in this physical world- mostly extraordinary ones which impacted the lives of multitudes of individuals, and hence deals largely with facts. It’s true that history also involves the act of interpretation and hence also deals with events in the mental world that ultimately trigger extraordinary events in the physical world. But still, history, as far as I understand, has way more facts than philosophy and the interpretations used in history are more simplistic than that in philosophy, at least at the level of an individual or relationships among a few individuals. For example, history books don’t deal much with how consciousness flows within an individual, how their thoughts move across in time, etc. and argue about the purpose of existence unlike philosophy books.  Instead the history books kind of assume that people living together in peaceful times are happy and only deal with extraordinary events like wars, famines, tyranny etc. that adversely affect the lives of those people and perturb their happiness.

This novel “Sparsha” also implicitly makes some simplistic interpretations about the meaning of life, on which philosophers have argued for ages. For example, it assumes that the purpose of life is to be happy and make your near and dear ones happy. Hence the Jewish family which was living together in a picturesque European village was indeed a perfectly happy family. Under that assumption the novel is all about how an extraordinary event like the Nazi attack of their village during World War II made their lives more complicated and miserable. On the other hand, in the other novel, Van Gogh, who also lived in Europe in peaceful times surrounded by mostly ordinary events, and the scrizophrenia patient who lived in a peaceful modern day Calcutta, both went through several periods of depression and existential crisis, and eventually killed themselves pondering over issues related to an abstract world that existed in their minds.

I myself have spent a lot of time over the last few years making myriads of interpretations about existential issues and the mental world with not much happening in the physical world, quite similar in spirit to the theme of Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. After reading “Sparsha”, I have also become quite interested in learning more facts connected to extraordinary events in the history of mankind like World War II and then making some interpretations regarding how such a massive event in the physical world was caused by some events happening in the mental world of some extraordinary individuals and how it affected the mental world of the millions of individuals who suffered from it.

 

Okay now let’s stick to my promise of not making this blog too dark and grave, and get back to lighter stuff. Talking about that, the cover page of this year’s Pujabarshiki Anandamela deserves a special mention. I scratched my head for quite some time to figure out why there is an elephant in the picture given that the elephant is not the vahana of any of Durga’s family members. Wonder what staying away from Calcutta for seven years, doing a PhD and indulging too much in the trajectories to the abstract world does to your head!!!

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Movies

Kakababur Obhijaan, directed by Srijit Mukherji

Srijit Mukherji’s movies have apparently become an integral part of Bengali’s Durga Puja celebrations. Every year he makes one movie and releases it the week before Puja. This year he made his second Kakababu movie. It is based on the novel “Paharchuray Atonko”, which I read in a month long high school break between the end of final examination of fifth grade and start of classes of sixth grade. Nothing much happens in the first half of the novel- only Kakababu and Santu sitting in a dome on the top of an extremely tall mountain in the Himalayan range in freezing cold and making observations connected to the giant teeth of a mysterious animal often called the Yeti. Then suddenly in the middle of the novel Santu (or probably Kakababu) falls through a fissure and then the plot takes a sharp turn. The rest of the novel is jam-packed with action. As a kid, I loved that slow build up to that sudden twist and gave the novel several reads as a result.

The same thing is repeated in the movie much to my delight- the first half is pretty uneventful and the second half is jam-packed with action. The movie can be watched just for the sake of Aryan Bhowmik, playing the role of Santu. Equipped with amazingly good looks, martial arts skills (he is extremely comfortable in the fight scenes because he actually knows karate), dance skills (he is also a good dancer in real life but there was no scope to exhibit those skills yet in Srijit’s Kakababu series) and decent acting skills, he is certainly the next Tollywood megastar in the making.

The most memorable part of the movie for me is the theme song. The lines “Dur Digonte Prosno Hajar, Mati te pa tai porlo Rajar” have stayed with me even after I left the theater. Unless you read a lot of Kakababu in childhood you would probably not get why those lines are so special, or why is even there a mention of Raja (king) in a movie with urban middle-class protagonists.

 

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