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The City of the Mind: Transformations in Space and Time

Written by: Vyusti Agarwalla

Columbarium for Pandals

Waking up to the faint sound of the dhak, playing at a distance, azure autumn skies, a slight chill in the air, Kash swaying to the gentle wafts of breeze, mornings drenched in the mystical fragrance of Shuili; a strong sense of Deja-vu almost dream-like. A dream that the city yearns for throughout the year. A dream that stems from a faint memory of pure ecstasy.

And just like that something changes, the city whose whole being is pervaded by a dreamy languor, is stirred. No one really notices it, but the city slowly begins to expand and contract. It adjusts the width of its narrow lanes and expands the limits of its open spaces, making place for the change that is imminent. How else does a mother prepare for the homecoming of her beloved daughter and her bandwagon of children?

Pallab Bhowmick's stunning workmanship of Ma Durga for the Pujo this year, as a migrant worker with her children. | Photograph by: Vyusti Agarwalla

Durga walks into the city, her children in close tow, to find that the city has completely transformed again. This is what she likes so much about this homecoming, nothing is ever the same, an irony, some would say for the city that is said to be stuck in time. Every time she returns home the city transforms into a whole new world which she could explore. The only thing that remains constant year after year is the sound of Rabindra Sangeet that is blasted through speakers in every neighbourhood, the intoxicating smell of delicious food being cooked, the laughter of the people who throng the narrow streets, the smoke from the Dhunuchi that engulfs the air and the everchanging kaleidoscopic inserts that take over the fabric of the city.

The three-storied palatial household is the destination of a 150 years old Durga Puja started by the Zamindar Badan Chandra Roy himself. The gleam of the lit courtyard reaches the depths of the mansion illumination the broad stairways and the ceiling curvatures. With a tip finished chessboard floor and a large thakurdalan this Bonedi Badi is located in North Kolkata. | Photograph by: Vyusti Agarwalla

One month prior to the homecoming, the buildings that were neglected throughout the year and as a result gathered dust, receive fresh coats of paint. The lanes are cleaned and traffic diverted. The city purges the old out and welcomes the new even if it is temporary. Anyone who visits the city at any other time of the year fails to recognise it at a glance. As one moves through the narrow lanes of the city, there is a loss of the sense of place and time. The dilapidated buildings cease to exist as they are completely hidden by the banners and advertisements that line the streets on bamboo frames, trying to lure people into buying their products with attractive offers that will last only for a limited time. The city is swarmed with all things temporary. Ephemeral structures called pandals that take different forms as locals compete to craft grand homecoming offerings, made of all kinds of material available, for the city's daughter. Pandalhoppers venture from pandal to pandal (the temporary inserts) without realising which lane or area of the city they are in; all that remains is the utopia of being in an alternate reality; removed from the streets that seem to be frozen in time.

Mudiali Clubs mesmerising pandal for the Durga Puja of 2019. | Photograph by: Vyusti Agarwalla

Inside Hindustan clubs pandal crowds throng to get a better picture of the goddess. | Photograph by: Vyusti Agarwalla

These alternate realities are painstakingly crafted in the workshops and houses of local artisans and idol makers who plan their whole year around the pujo and heavily depend on it as it is the primary source of income for the majority of them. Passed down through generations, their work has transcended the boundaries of craft and has surmounted to worship. The journey starts from crafting the chal, the backdrop of the idol, and is followed by bringing the idols itself to life with the only medium being bare hands and clay. Durga riding her lion or tiger, Saraswati seated on a swan and Lakshmi with her owl, flanked by Karthik on a peacock and Ganesha with his mouse. The monstrous Mahishasura lies trampled below the feet of the goddess who holds up artillery in her 10 hands. Each of these sets of idols are fashioned in a particular style according to the brief given to the idol maker. In Hindi, Durg stands for the fort, which is uncanny because the massive construction undertaken by the idol makers is astounding.

The idols come to life once they are hand-painted and adorned with the finest silk and intricate gold jewelry. A great deal of attention is also paid to how and where these idols are housed. They may vary from massive bamboo structures constructed thematically to more humble abodes. Watching these bamboo structures being built is reminiscent of viewing a movie set come to life. Each one of them is so different from the other. Artists and organizers plan and guard their themes to ensure that their pandal is unique and stands out in every way. The attention to detail is high the whole experience of the pandal hopper is designed to transport them into the world the artists want them to take a glimpse of. With some artists choosing to replicate famous landmarks for their structures to others who chose to make a social commentary through their design on more pressing matters, the city becomes a canvas for expression. No wonder it is dubbed as the largest man-made arts and crafts festival of Asia even compared to Burning Man and Coachella. Meandering through the lanes of the city, pandal hoppers can find themselves looking up at durga inside the pyramids of Egypt or floating on a lotus in a pond amidst a forest or in a castle made of mirrors and bangles and light where the idol is reflected in each element. The idol can be made of clay or paper or cane or even straw. There is no telling what you will get to see and where you will get to see it nor will you be able to take it all in at once as you get to catch only a glimpse of everything before you're nudged to move ahead or pushed by the crowds eager to click pictures.

The pandal at Hindustan Club for the Durga Puja of 2019 acts as a sculptural insert into the narrow lanes of South Kolkata. | Photograph by: Vyusti Agarwalla

The City thus becomes a visual treat where the lines between reality and dreams blur and merge, like in a carnival with music, food, and novelties; a dreamscape. The Pujas, act as a plug-in to the palimpsest of the urban fabric that already exists. The nature of streets changes, from just conduits for vehicles to appropriate commons that act as an open room for all. As the city expands and contracts, to accommodate the various degrees of ephemeral insertions, it temporarily loses its identity while retaining its permanence and strong local associations at all times. Leaving a sensory and visual impact on the subconscious of the people living and visiting the city. A city where the city actually comes to life. A city one revisits on gloomy monsoon evenings. A city full of hope, dreams, and joy. A city of novelties. A portable city of the mind. To believe it you would have to visit it but there are no guarantees of who you will be once you return as a part of your mind will always be in the city and a part of the city will forever live on in your mind.

- A labour of love


Note to the reader:

The writing is inspired by the writing of Italo Calvino in his seminal book titled Invisible city. The city written about in the piece needs no introduction, such is the image of the city. However, for those unfamiliar with its iconicity, the city in question is Kolkata. Graphic 1: Columbarium for Pandals Each year, the city of Kolkata sees a lot of Pandals being made as a tribute to the goddess Durga. However, at the end of the festivities, the pandal is torn down and the city returns to a state of tabula rasa. The Columbarium acts as a museum for the pandals that have been built over the years and can be revisited by its residents.

The graphic is a playful re-imagination of Soviet Architects Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin's Columbarium Habitable, 1989.

To read more about the original art piece, click here.

The original painting depicts a columbarium (a room or building with niches for funeral urns to be stored) for old houses and their inhabitants that have been built over by skyscrapers in a large modern city.

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