An Unexplored Discourse in Kolkata’s Visual Culture

Sunanda K Sanyal

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(3), November, 2010: 52-3)

In its vibrancy, variety, and opulence, Durga Pujo is indeed comparable to such grand spectacles as the Carnival of Brazil. Yet unlike the Brazilian event, which has been closely examined by chroniclers of visual culture, this dynamic Bengali autumn festival has largely been denied serious scholarly attention. From the pandal (temporary sanctuary for housing the deity) and the idol to the neon displays, ad campaigns and fashion, the multi-faceted visual culture of Durga Pujo is remarkably responsive to changing times. Even a brief look at the recent developments in pandal designing can shed light on the inventiveness and adaptability of this creative enterprise.

A conventional pandal, built by urban artisans known simply as “decorators”, has almost always been a simulation of a lavish residence. But since the late 1990s, involvement of art school graduates has brought a new dimension to Kolkata’s Durga Pujo through a diverse array of environments popularly known as “theme pandals”. Along with its religious and mythical identity, Durga Pujo also has a strong secular side, which has been an advantage for the creative experiments in pandal designing. A well-known historic building or site, such as a Hindu temple, co-exists with pandals representing the Bengal countryside. An abstract concept stemming from a song, story or legend can breed a pandal that competes with those celebrating folk traditions from remote corners of India. Pandals even explore the decorative potential of a specific item, like earthenware, bamboo or bangles; or may address ecology, peace and other social issues. Needless to say, such a wide range of experiments has replaced the conventional use of stretched or pleated fabric over an intricate bamboo framework with a range of non-traditional materials —from metal and plywood to Styrofoam sheets— for the desired visual effects. The idol in each of these pandals is often made in a style compatible with the specific environment.

Nalin Sarkar Street, 2007. Designer: Sanatan Dinda

Nalin Sarkar Street, 2007. Designer: Sanatan Dinda.

Tapati Guha-Thakurta is one of a handful of scholars invested in the study of the visual culture of Durga Pujo. As she notes, the festival “serves as a powerful mirror of the changing sociology of the neighborhoods and of the collective public life in today’s Calcutta.”[1] Indeed, largely influenced by a liberalized economy, the emergence and popularity of this new genre of pandals unequivocally echo the key trends in the current tastes and preferences of the Bengali middle-class. In the face of an aggressive urban gentrification, the fascination for rural scenes and folk art seem to cater to a strong nostalgic yearning for an imagined, idyllic way of life. Likewise, the impact of radical changes in global communication caused by technological breakthroughs in the last two decades is evident in pandals drawing on Hollywood movies or distant cultures. They prominently reflect a desire to fantasize the exotic other. Appropriated from stereotypes, the exotic in such pandals is transformed into a visual motif at the service of a familiar spectacle. What is more, this changing scenario of Durga Pujo is responsible for generating various types of new social dynamics. There is as much collaboration as conflict of interest between, say, the “decorators” or the kumors (the artisan community traditionally responsible for making the idol) on the one hand, and the art-school-trained artists on the other. Clamor for media coverage and celebrity status, fierce competition over corporate sponsorship, and mass hysteria over awards and accolades for well-crafted pandals and idols also contribute significantly to the present character of the spectacle.

25 Palli, Khidderpore, 2007. Designer: Bhabatosh Sutar.

What mostly interests an art historian in all of this is the participation of professional artists in the Pujo process. Names like Amar Sarkar, Bhabatosh Sutar, Bandhan Raha, Sanatan Dinda, Purnendu De, Sushanta Paul — several of whom are also active as contemporary artists — repeatedly circulate in the media each year before and during the festival. While some of them prefer to keep their two enterprises separate and treat the Pujo work as a seasonal opportunity for additional income, others are willing to see the pandals and idols they design as an extension of their art. But regardless of their individual positions on the issue, the location of this enterprise within the discourse of Kolkata’s contemporary art is a crucial question that remains mostly unexplored. With its unwavering faith in an obsolete notion of “high” and “low” art, the local art intelligentsia has been unable so far to critically engage the current artistic experiments of the theme pandals in a meaningful dialog. Because of its occasional excesses and flamboyance, pandal designing is commonly categorized as “urban popular art” (read: “low” art), where the “urban” and the “popular” seem to serve as markers of its segregation from (“high”) art, rather than suggest a critical evaluation of its potentials.

The hyper-real is more than just feigned corporeality, produced through faithful emulation. A representation is hyper-real only when its intense realism turns artifice into a reality of its own; yet paradoxically betrays the unreality of the image, its artifice. This is fundamental to what Jean Baudrillard has identified as the simulacrum, a copy or image without a preceding original that exerts its own power as the real. From glossy magazine covers to theme parks, high-definition media broadcasts and the cyber space, urban life is now inescapably governed by an endless array of simulacra; and Durga Pujo, which totally consumes Kolkata’s life with its own sense of reality for a short time each year, forcefully contributes to this phenomenon. Among other things, the rigorous realism, environmental appeal, hybridity and impermanence of the pandals make each of them a simulated, hyper-real space (in fact, these make-believe architectural constructs popping up in street corners and parks give the entire city its hyper-real persona). This simulacral ambiance is all the more heightened in contemporary pandals due to their wide range of subjects and visual strategies, which is enough to make them worthy of art-critical inspection.

Adarsha Palli, Behala, 2007. Designer: Bandhan Raha.

That is not to say, however, that the making of pandals can simply be conflated with the practice of contemporary art, for there are significant differences between the dynamics of the two enterprises. For one thing, the hybridity and impermanence of a theme pandal and its production by a professional artist do not automatically make it synonymous with installation art; because unlike pandal-making, installation as a mode of representation in modern art emerged at a specific art-historical moment in the discourse of the avant-garde. Also, due to the public nature of the festival, one’s artistic freedom in designing a pandal is often significantly compromised by numerous factors, from ritual and iconographic stipulations to public taste. Contrary to one’s studio work, therefore, choices and treatments of themes in this context have their limits. For instance, even though a female deity is the focal point of this annual event, it is hard to imagine images of female nudity, prostitution or pornography in a pandal where exploitation of women is the theme. Finally, the role of the market is vastly different in the two spheres. The art market, which operates all year round, has hardly anything to do with the season-specific commissioning and appraisal of pandals.

And yet, a good look at Kolkata’s contemporary art scene reveals that despite the specificity of their production and use in the context of Durga Pujo, theme pandals are often far bolder and more innovative in exploring new possibilities of subject, form and content than the current art born in the studio. What is more curious, this is often noticeable in the outputs of an artist who is engaged in both practices. It is important, therefore, to examine the nuances of both of them —differences and gaps as well as overlaps— to be able to see the discursive role of the enterprise of pandal designing within Kolkata’s contemporary visual culture. How, for example, can one interpret the impermanence and hybridity of contemporary pandals —which are primarily rooted in traditions and myths— in light of the art-historical legacy of installation art? Such a question should provoke fruitful discussions and debates that would ultimately enrich understanding of both systems.

Durga Pujo is a complex marker of Bengali cultural identity, no less on the secular front than on the religious one. The culture has always reinvented its ideas of tradition and identity through this revered annual event to make them relevant to contemporary life. And now, this historically local festival has opened up to the global experience more than ever. Its visual culture employs fragmented, hybrid cross-cultural signs to override notions of cultural authenticity; yet paradoxically, it also celebrates indigenous traditions and sentiments. At this vibrant moment, it is only logical that the local contemporary art would also want to negotiate its position in a global arena, which is precisely why the production of pandals, along with other aspects of the spectacle, requires serious scrutiny. The onus of this task, however, is not on anthropologists and sociologists alone; it lies, most crucially, on the “insiders” of Kolkata’s art milieu.



[1] Tapati Guha-Thakurta, “From Spectacle to ‘Art’”. Art India, 9(3): 35.