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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

5th October 2017 Kolkata, India

The creativity of the Durga Puja

I can’t think of anything to compare with the festival of Durga Puja.  It is not just a religious festival with its own rituals.  It is also a celebration of life. It is a time of renewal and forgiving.  And probably many more things – it’s not an easy task for an outsider to get to grips with all the elements.  For me, it is a celebration of creativity.

Of course, it is primarily a religious celebration – of the return of the goddess Durga to purge the world of evil. There are some similarities with the Christian tradition that I was brought up in.  The festival comes at the end of the monsoon season and it feels like a mix of a harvest festival and Christmas. People exchange gifts, and families and communities come together to celebrate.

What is very different is the making of the Durga and other idols – the centrepiece of the religious celebrations.

At the start of the month, I visited Kumartali with diplomatic colleagues.  It isn’t a particularly remarkable part of Kolkata, and not as spacious as some of the areas in the south of city where I live.  The streets and alleys are narrow and are filled with small workshops.

It was raining the day we walked round Kumartali – high monsoon, with short, heavy showers.  Most of the workshops had canopies over their entrances to keep out the rain.  As it was overcast, they were brightly lit inside as teams of plasterers, painters and other craftsmen (I think they were nearly all men) were busy at work.  Most were sitting and crouching over clay models.  A few were standing up or on ladders reaching the higher parts of large idols.

Most of the workmen looked at our group of outsiders with slight alarm as we entered their workshops.  They seemed to hold their breath as we inspected their creations – clay models of the Goddess and her cohorts.  The face of the Goddess varied from workshop to workshop.  Some had a standard design.  Others had pictures that they were following from different commissions from across the city.  Some of the idols had wide open eyes, and some almost shut.

Since then, bamboo structures have sprung up all over the city.  In truth, there are always bamboo frames being erected somewhere in Kolkata.  Before Durga Puja, their number increase dramatically.

I’m not sure there is any simple translation for “pandal”.  It can be both an open stage that people walk past, or an enclosed structure that people enter with a roof.  Some are attached to buildings, others free-standing structures.  Their main function is to house the Durga idol.  But in Kolkata, they seem much more.

They are spaces to decorate and to display.  Some have painted images on the walls and ceilings of the pandals.  Others are filled with sculptures either specially made or constructed from everyday materials.  Some set out to express ideas or concepts, while others are representations of people and places.  Some exhibit the craftwork of specific groups or regions.  Nearly all the pandals have coloured lights and décor to attract visitors.

The nearest equivalent I can think of are the pavilions of the Venice Biennale.  These diverse structures in the beautiful Italian island city are filled with art and sculptures from countries around the world every two years.  Venice and Kolkata are very different places …

On 26 September I visited four pandals on the north side of the city as a judge in the Telegraph’s True Spirit of the Puja competition.

The first we visited, and which won the competition, was made from wood.  The wood was untreated and cut into shapes.  There was a latticed wall to let light in, and boards on which were painted scenes from the story of the Goddess and her journey.  There were also lots of painted wooden animals sitting in frames.  And the Durga was quite dark except for her bright yellow face and shining eyes.

The second was completely different:  a small pandal made from clay and sand, moulded onto a bamboo frame.  It was mostly in earth colours of greys, browns and yellows.  There were rural scenes carefully sculpted on the walls.  There were even clay buffalo wallowing in a clay waterhole.  The pandal committee told us it was based on traditional village huts.

The third was a large sphere inside which water was dripping down the walls.  The sound and cool were a soothing relief for us judges, and the water was lightly scented.  The idol and her consorts were brightly coloured in contrast to the dark inside of the sphere – a little universe lit up by Durga.

The last was a pandal in an alleyway that was decorated with thousands of letters.  It represented handicapped children, and with mirrors and crutches as fences, it challenged visitors to think about the difficulties such children face.  The letters were beseeching Durga to visit them.

We were only briefly at each pandal.  The welcoming committees were keen to tell us how they provided the necessary facilities – water, first aid, fire prevention and so on.  This is important – the first pandal we visited was on track to have well over a million visitors over the festival.

More interesting for me was the pride with which the representatives of each committee spoke about their pandal.  How they had searched for the right materials;  or engaged a designer to work up a theme;  or how they had raised enough money to pay for the pandal’s construction and its contents.

During the rest of the Pujas I visited many pandals; each as creative and rich as the next.

My work as a diplomat tends to bring me into contacts with government officials, business leaders, academics and so on.  The Puja is different – it brings me into contact with different communities.  I see parts of the city I might otherwise miss.  And it shows me that Kolkata isn’t just the “City of Joy”, but also the city – and a people – of creativity.

For more stunning pictures of Durga Puja visit our photo gallery.

This article was also published in the Telegraph Kolkata.

About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.