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Susanta Paul, famous installation artiste juggling themes in 3 major pujas of Kolkata

21 October, 2020 12:16:22
Susanta Paul, famous installation artiste juggling themes in 3 major pujas of Kolkata

As the countdown to Durga Puja 2020 begins, one thing is clear – it is going to be a very different affair from what the festival has been known to Bengalis for so long. In the initial months of lockdown, the situation was so grim and confusing that puja organizers were in the dark about the fate of Durga Puja this year. But as days went, people gradually adjusted to the changing times and began to continue with their lives despite the fear of the pandemic looming low. Puja organizers too, decided with trepidation, to go ahead with the autumnal festival, even if in a scaled down manner. The big-budget puja organizers contacted installation artists they wanted for their respective clubs and requested them to start on the project. Durga Puja was then just a month later.  But the brave creative heads took up the challenge.

Artist Susanta Paul

Since the mid-1990s, professionally qualified artists have been creating spectacular installations and adding newer dimension to the festival in the city. Today, it is a one-man show -- the decorations, themes, idol, music, lighting everything is decided by the artists. Pandals are now viewed as works of art. 

There are 30-40 artists involved in the pujas and Susanta Paul is among the top bracket who is really pushing the envelope. “I believe the professional artists working in the puja arena today contribute to enrich the larger visual culture of Durga Puja. While the sponsors and organizers of a puja usually have a voice in the making of a pandal/idol, its conceptualization and execution primarily depend on the artist,” says Sunanda K Sanyal, Associate Professor of Art History and critical theory at The Art Institute of Boston, Lesley University .

Paul is a student of textile designing and operates a boutique.  He has won a National Award for costume design in Rituparno Ghosh’s film, Chokher Bali. He is a costume designer, textile designer, sculptor and above all, an installation artist who knows every bits and piece of his Installation. An installation artist par excellence, there are very few artists who would dare to match Paul’s level of innovation. Watching his Puja installations seem like watching a colourful canvas.  This year, Paul has been busy with three large-scale Pujas – 95 Pally Jodhpur Park, Vivekananda Park Athletic Club (both in south Kolkata) and Tala Park Prattaye in the north.  

We all are aware that planning for mega pujas begin a year ahead. Soon after immersion of idols, club committee members and artist sit and discuss the next year’s theme, tentative budget etc. The artist gets a year’s time to plan everything, procure materials gather manpower and then executes the installation in three to four months’ time. Last year, everything had been planned for this year on a sweeping scale, themes had been finalized and a tentative budget too, had been worked out but then the threat of Covid-19 suddenly crushed all plans. Finally, when it was decided that Puja would be a scaled down affair, precious time had been lost. It was just a month left for the pujas when Paul was contacted again. He rose to the occasion and took the challenge. 

Artist at work

When Paul was asked to identify and discuss the kind of problems he faced and how did he manage to strike a balance while conceiving and executing his work under present circumstances, he explained his perspective very lucidly. “The pandemic-imposed lockdown was a unique situation for the entire human race. Prior to the pandemic, life was a rat-race in the fast lanes of life. We were all pre-occupied in this race that was creating a vast void in our lives. We were hankering for superficial things and fretting if we failed to procure what we wanted. All traditional institutions and relationships were eroding without us realizing it. However, everything suddenly came to a halt abruptly. We were forced to lock ourselves within the four walls of our homes for our own well-being. This sudden pause once again made us look at ourselves and ponder. I, as an artist, developed. My perspective underwent a transformation and when I took up the assignment this year, I worked on my altered perspective. This time the Puja is like a thread, the leit motif, and the three installations are like beads in a garland, all conveying the piety that is at the heart of this festival. The themes are thus ‘Loukik’ (indigenous) at 95 Pally Jodhpur Park, ‘’Lokhit’ (for the welfare of others) at Tala Park Prattaye and ‘Sankalpa’ (Pledge/ Determination) at Vivekananda Park Athletic Club.   

‘Loukik’ is the religious aspect, ‘Lokahit’ is the service or the ‘Karma’ aspect and ‘Sankalpa’ is the determination to complete the journey and be one with the Almighty. There is a tradition of worshipping the ‘khunti’ (a symbolic bamboo pole signifying the backbone on which the entire puja is conceived) before initiating preparations for Durga Puja. This year, Paul informed us, the three clubs did it differently. This year Vivekananda Park Athletic Club is celebrating its Golden Jubilee and had plans to do things in a grand scale earlier. But instead of the ‘Khunti Puja,’ the members decided to utilize the money to buy an ambulance for Covid-19 patients and donate it. 
 
95 Pally Jodhpur Park bought new clothes and donated to 600 artisan families of Krishnanagar whose livelihoods have been severely affected due to the pandemic. This was worship of the human soul, the abode of the Almighty. Tala Park Prattaye club has the tradition of ‘Chakshudaan’ (the ritual of drawing the Goddess’ eyes) to formally herald the coming of Goddess Durga. This year, the club members decided to launch a mobile sanitizing van that would go to different parts of the city for sanitization. The vehicle has a tableau in the form of eyes. A ‘Lokhit app was also launched on the occasion. The app has detailed location sites of city landmarks, emergency numbers and virtual Puja parikrama. 

95 Pally Jodhpur Park

Paul says, “The pandemic situation has been a learning experience for us all. It has made us aware of the people around us and taught us to be an inclusive society as we were in the past.”

When asked about the number of people he expects at the three venues, Paul is non-committal. “I would definitely like more people to see my work but since the present times are not conducive for large gatherings, I would expect most people to stay indoors and watch the proceedings virtually.  This too, would be a new form of communication between us the creators and viewers.” He continues, “We artists are part of this society but we want to create something that leaves its mark in the annals of history. The clay idols will be immersed but the thought behind the art amid pandemic times  will leave its mark and it is this worship of the ‘Chinmayee’ (the soul)  that we all do through our ‘Mrinmayee’ (clay models) avatars. Nothing can stop us from this strong urge to join in the annual event. This year, I am not taking a penny from any of the organizers. I am answering my inner call and joining in. Calcuttans, too, will rise up to the occasion during the Pujas under ‘new normal’ situation and join the festivities.

Story Tag:
  • Durga Puja Installation, Susanta Paul

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