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Light Makers of Chandannagar and legendary Sridhar Das. How illumination art changed

12 September, 2020 16:27:56
Light Makers of Chandannagar and legendary Sridhar Das. How illumination art changed

Once a French colony, Chandarnagore aka Chandannagar is a thriving French language and cultural hub of Eastern India that flourished in Bengal even before the British laid their colony. But Chandannagar is also famous for another reason --- it’s Light Makers. They who illuminate the world of festivals and have made Chandannagar’s Jagadhhatri Puja a world-class phenomenon. It is synonymous with huge installations decorated with illumination. 

Creating magic

But how are these people who enlighten our lives through their artistic eye, doing? Come October, and there’s something in the air, believe Bengalis. They do have a point though – from the months of October to January, the streets of West Bengal’s towns and cities dazzle to usher in a number of festive occasions — beginning with Vishwakarma Puja to Durga Puja, Jagadhhatri Puja, Diwali, Christmas, and then New Year. The remarkable illuminations one witnesses in Bengal, especially Kolkata and Chandannagar, owe much to a 60-year tradition, harking back to the world-renowned light artiste, Sridhar Das.

Sridha Das, the man behind the magial lights

Unfortunately, the beginning of the five-day Jagadhhatri Puja festival in Chandannagar has not been chronicled so far but it is generally believed to have been introduced in the late 18th-century by a local zamindar. Chandannagar’s association with the growth and development of lights as a form of art and decoration has its roots steeped in history but has never been recorded. Many senior residents of the town reminisce about the time when they heard from their parents and grandparents the trend of taking out procession with lights during festivals started in the 19th-century. Previously, gas lamps would be set on bamboo frames to illuminate during processions. Much later, when electricity came to Chandannagar, innovative designs were created with lights and the art picked up fast and many got hooked to this new and unique for of artistic expression. 

The illumination was originally meant for decorating the festival venue, but gradually, it developed into an art form all its own. And the festival has turned more special due to the incredible and innovative light-art sculptures created by the artistes of Chandannagar.

Illuminated faces

For more than six decades now, the artists of this erstwhile French colony have been playing with light, to create magnificent art – from fireworks in the sky to underwater illumination, pre-historic animals like dinosaurs strutting or heritage buildings like the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, Howrah Station, Victoria Memorial and so on and so forth. Folk tales are narrated through illuminations and even social messages like the importance of education, women’s emancipation, are conveyed through illuminated installations. They could be amusing tales from folklore or socially relevant messages on topics such as pollution, driving safety and women’s safety.

Land of lights

Chandannagar’s fame as the birthplace of innovating illumination was not built in a day. Sridhar Das’s name is synonymous with this art. He is the man who not only made Chandannagar’s Jagadhhatri Puja a globally acknowledged lighting phenomenon but his innovation made him a much sought-after artiste in Kolkata and even abroad. The octogenarian artiste has been honoured with numerous awards for his outstanding work. 

Let there be lights

Das’s fame preceded him and he was flooded with assignments. ‘I saw this as an opportunity for generating employment locally. I took a large number of young aspirants under my wings and trained them and then allowed them to work independently,’ he said. The current big names in the field — Babu Pal, Sukumar Biswas, Dipendu Biswas, Pintu Das — were once employed and trained by Sridhar Das. As Babu Pal mentions: ‘I am never tired of proclaiming my gratitude to my guru and I have been successful in this trade only because of his guidance and training.’

Lightworks

However, times have changed. Lighting is no more an art but a business. As Sridhar Das laments: ‘These days, anyone with a basic understanding of themes, and making use of Chinese LEDs, can get a big tender. I no more feel connected with the Light Maker community. I cannot relate to this mad race for money without even thinking of the aesthetics.’ True, Sridhar Das’ era saw artistes work with 6.2 lights, and not with LED lights.

Partners at work

Kashinath Neogy is another well-known sorcerer of illumination. In 2005, Neogy introduced LED lights, to reduce power consumption. Old-timers like Sridhar Das preferred the age-old practice of using tiny bulbs that made up a single unit wrapped in colored paper by hand. He created a giant dragon with 180000 LED lights, 30 feet long and 12 feet high. Today, usage of LEDs is a standard practice for lighting artists at the festival.

The lights will guide you home

Modern light artistes believe this reliance on new technology is needed to make the art go global. After all, changing with the times is the need of the hour, else how can someone compete and survive in the international market? Another well-known light artiste Sukumar Biswas also shrugs off the art versus commerce debate. He is very specific when he shoots the question, ‘Who can afford to do things for just passion these days?’ He is nonchalant when he defends his position and says, ‘We may be termed unskilled but if you look at the bulk of work we all have been assigned to do throughout the year, won’t you call it a success? Nothing comes without a price. There could be ideological differences but the amount of work we put in is the same.’

Chandannagar is a glowing example of what a group of self-taught artisans can do when they combine their imagination and creativity with advanced technology. It is sheer magic that they create with lights and the show goes on.

Story Tag:
  • Chandannagar, Craftsmen of Bengal

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