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Kolkata Pandals Showcase Partition and Textiles

Now the pandals are ready and the atmosphere festive and kinetic. The city is abuzz with excitement about the myriad themed installations that house Maa
Nakatala Udayan Sangha Durga Puja 2022
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Last December, Durga Puja in Kolkata was included in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity sites. On September 2nd, seventy to eighty thousand citizens, overjoyed with this global designation, braved the soaring temperatures and intense humidity, to participate in the celebrations to mark Kolkata being placed on this global map. A rally, which started at Jorasanko and culminated in a cultural program of music and dance, was led by the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee. The carnival-like occasion showcased Bengal’s rich artisan traditions.  The inclusion of citizens for all strata of society and from its varied religious communities was remarkable.  This honor was a special prelude to Durga Puja in Kolkata 2022.

Now the pandals are ready and the atmosphere festive and kinetic. The city is abuzz with excitement about the myriad themed installations that house Maa Durga (goddess Durga) who will grace the city for a few days before returning to her heavenly abode. There is much talk about the pandal that replicates Vatican City and two ‘The Starry Night’ themed pandals have also captured the public imagination. While there will be many magnificent pandals across the city, I was drawn to the Naktala and Hindustan Park pandals. Both focus on the women tailors and weavers that keep Bengal’s rich handmade cloth and clothing industries alive, while sustaining their families and communities.

Naktala Udayan Sangha Durga Puja decoration
A giant sewing machine at the Naktala pandal

Pradip Das, the artist for the Naktala Udayan Sangha Durga Puja this year, designed and executed Mota Kapor, to honor the Bengali refugees who settled in this neighborhood in 1971.  From a refugee family, last year the theme he explored was the Partition of Bengal.  Extending his interest in this wrenching period of history, this year he pays homage to the women refugees who stitched, did kantha embroidery and made garments, to establish themselves in their new home. 

As one enters the installation, the everyday items the women used are displayed in glass boxes.  They include coal irons, balls of yarn, reels, and spools of colorful thread, sets of rusted scissors of varied sizes, notebooks with fabric swatches and measurements.  Pradip explains that he sought to honor the tools of their trade that kept body and soul together in tumultuous times.  There are also a few pieces of fabric with kantha stitches – a signifier of their rural embroidery traditions.  

pandal decoration at Naktala Durga Puja 2022
Items related to tailors in glass boxes

A large sewing machine, hoisted on a large panel, is placed before the image of Goddess Durga, yarn in her outstretched hands as though in an offering, comes into full view.  The impressive backdrop to the deity has a map of Bangladesh and there is a huge image of Gandhi spinning his charka – a tribute to the Indian handloom traditions and the role handloom played in the Independence struggle of India.  Having the map and Gandhi’s image juxtaposed speaks to the dual ruptures and anguish that Bengali Hindus experienced.  

In the courtyard figures of women clad in saree, and on the other side, there are large thumb impressions to represent the registering of refugees – each of whom must be counted.  Pradip explains …” thousands of women artisans spent their mundane afternoons and evenings stitching meters of cloth to provide for their families, manifesting a poignant, deep-rooted, enormous labor of love.  Pedaling feet, piercing needles, spinning yarns, aching shoulders, strained wrists.  Such is the invisible work that has transpired in the neighborhoods in the fringes of the city, fueling the backbone of our indigenous textile industry.”  

While Naktala is somber in color and design, Hindustan Park is bright and soaked in effervescent colors.  Huge red hangers and signs for tailoring and fashion shops decorate the outside of the pandal.  As one enters on either side, there are rows of women, seated at their sewing machines, in their dingy shops or home workplaces. The walls, covered with shelves for the cloth they will use, and the readymade garments they have made are proudly presented on hangers.  Calendars with Hindu Gods and Goddesses and naked light bulbs adorn the derelict walls and ceilings.  Women are sewing, cutting fabric, and making cholis. Each woman is faceless, heads covered in cloth.  Their work is mostly invisible.  This is in sharp contrast to the Naktala pandal where each refugee is accounted for – their thumb impressions exaggeratedly large and visible to all.

Hindustan Park Durga puja 2022
Tailoring shops recreated at Hindustan Park puja pandal

The Hindustan Park pandal is titled Jonaki theke agnishikhay. The walls and roofs of the pandal are decorated with brilliantly colored textiles, magnificent creations, for which Bengal is famed. Gorgeous sarees drape walls, and bolts of colorful fabric decorate the roof as do wooden crates of yarn and thread.  It also suggests the endless, heavy load of work that always awaits them.  The Goddess herself, clad in a radiant red and gold sari, is set against the iconic The Starry Night painting by Vincent Van Gogh.  It is fashioned by luminous fabrics that unfurl in all directions.  The many stories of the tireless labor of the women tailors are recounted as one moves through this very moving installation. 

Hindustan park Durga 2022
Starry Night backdrop at the Hindustan Park pandal

As I made my way out, I saluted the man on the footpath, in his makeshift stall, ironing clothes with his coal fired, a very heavy metal iron in hand.  The materials woven, the sewing and fashioning of the garments, the embroidery and decorations, the washing and ironing of our clothes employ countless men and women across the city that we mostly take for granted. Durga Puja is a time to make their toil visible and valued, and to offer thanks for their tireless and mostly very underpaid work. 

Jael Silliman, born in Kolkata, was educated at Wellesley College, Mass., Harvard University, University of Texas, Austin. She received her doctoral degree in international education at Columbia University. She has written extensively on gender and economic development, and women’s movements in the developing world. ‘The Teak Almirah’, ‘Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata’, ‘Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope’ are some of her published works.

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