Way back in 1975, a painter of no less a stature than Nirode Mazumdar agreed to create the idols for a community Durga Puja in south Kolkata and that too for free. The unprecedented gesture gave a cue to the who’s who of Bengal’s art world to follow in his footsteps and create idols for the puja committee year after year, through the last four decades. And all of them, in spite of being revered painters and sculptors, have been doing it for free, just like Mazumdar!
This, for sure, is the USP of Bakul Bagan Sarbojanin Durga Puja. The venue is close to Jatin Das Park Metro station, in the heart of Bhowanipore.
Renowned artists Rathin Maitra and Paritosh Sen, Mazumdar’s compatriots in the famous Calcutta Painters Group, created the idols for Bakul Bagan in 1976 and 77, respectively. The next year, another maestro of the next generation, Ramananda Bandopadhyay, took up sculpting tools and the paintbrush to create the idols for Bakul Bagan.
Now, in its 89th year, the puja committee will focus on folk arts of Bengal. Subrata Chanchal Dey – a student of the Government College of Art and Craft – has been assigned to design the theme.
“Our theme for this year will depict folk art. There will be specimens of traditional art forms from most of the districts. For example, the clay horses of Bishnupur,” said Ramkumar Dey, a senior member of the committee.
The list of artists who have worked for Bakul Bagan till now is in itself a page-turner. Meera Mukherjee created the idols twice — in 1979 and 1990. Sarbari Roy Chowdhury did the honours in 1981. Shanu Lahiri’s creations adorned the mandap (where the idol is placed) in 1984 and 1996. Bikash Bhattacharjee did a wonder with his inimitable style in 1991. In 1992, it was the turn of Isha Mohammad. Shyamal Dutta Roy accepted the request of the committee and rendered his Midas touch in 1993. In 1994, it was Uma Siddhanta. Among contemporary painters, Subhaprasanna created the idols in 2004 while Wasim Kapoor and Deepali Bhattacharya did it together in 2005.
The trend started as a mode of cultural protest against puja committees across Bengal that had started abandoning clay for making idols. The residents of Bakul Bagan decided to get the idols created by renowned artists.
“The idol that Paritosh Sen made is still alive in our memory,” said a septuagenarian resident of Bakul Bagan. Sen created a design based on which artisan Prafulla Pal made the idol. Sen painted it with vibrant colours. The idol became the talk of the town and people from all over Kolkata as well as the suburbs poured in to catch a glimpse.
Working with artists of such caliber has given the organisers some unique experiences. In 1981, when they reached the Santiniketan home of sculptor Sarbari Roy Chowdhury to take home the idol, they were shocked to see that there was nothing but an empty canvas lying in the studio. They were supposed to return with the idol that night and the Pujas were to begin in a few days. Roy Chowdhury, however, looked calm and asked the despondent organizers to stay back at his place for the night.
As the day came to an end, Roy Chowdhury started throwing lumps of plaster of Paris on the empty board, even as Ananda Shankar’s melodious compositions played on in his cassette player. Then he took up a few tools and started carving out the pulp. The canvas was complete before the break of dawn!
In 1990, a few days before the puja, Meera Mukherjee said she did not like the head of Durga. She asked Prafulla Pal, the artisan assisting her, to make a new one. The organizers were alarmed but the work got completed on time.
Two years later, in 1992, the organisers approached Isha Mohammad. He was initially hesitant and doubted whether an idol created by a Muslim would be acceptable to Hindus. The puja organizers, however, brushed off the apprehension and told him that it would not be a problem at all. Rather, after Mohammad’s remarks, the organizers almost immediately decided that ‘communal harmony’ would be the theme of their puja for that year.
“We never had to persuade any artist for conceptualising the idols for us, especially that of Durga. Nirode Mazumdar’s name was enough to convince Rathin Maitra. Paritosh Sen, too, accepted the proposal instantly,” said one of the organisers.
Members of Bakul Bagan Sarbojanin however have two regrets. They had approached Ram Kinker Baij in 1979, the year before the iconic painter-sculptor died. Baij appreciated the idea but said that his health would not permit him to undertake such a project. And, in 2006, the organizers got in touch with M F Hussain. The artist did seem quite interested but soon a nationwide controversy broke out over Hussain’s depiction of Goddess Saraswati in the nude, which finally forced him to leave the country and live in a self-imposed exile for the rest of his life.
In 2010, Trinamool Congress chief (now chief minister) Mamata Banerjee created the design based on which the idol was made at Krishnanagar. Two years ago, it was the turn of Paresh Maity. His theme was ‘Pouranik Durga’. Durga’s idol was placed on a boat inside the pandal, which was created in the style and design of a terracotta temple of Bishnupur.
Last year, the puja committee also held a unique art exhibition. A young artist was assigned to reproduce 20 idols made by renowned artists in the form of painting.
This year, the organisers say their Durga idol would pose like Natraj and yet appear as traditional as possible.
The medium-budget community puja has its expenditure fixed at Rs 13 lakh, two lakh more than last year. But the organisers insist that it is aesthetics and not money that make all the difference. “Don’t go by our budget if you want to judge our puja. Luminaries of the art world have designed our themes. Most of them did not accept money in return,” says Suman Bhattacharjee, general secretary of the club.