A Vanishing Essence

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Being a somewhat embittered man fast approaching middle age, it is difficult for me currently to have the Puja Spirit – as they have the Christmas Spirit in the West. Still, even bitterness must have its place (because it is there); one perhaps ought to give vent to it from time to time and on different occasions. And what better occasion than the Pujas: what better context? The essence of Durga Puja is supposed to be the celebration of a cleansing and a new hope. I refrain from using the word regeneration since the killing of evil only shows a new beginning. The only regeneration in this context was by Raktabeeja .


Well, we have our own ideas of cleansing today. We call it culling. We also do it in front of children, and even employ children to do it: to hunt down and wring the neck of a live hen or duck in lieu of money and the obvious fun involved. Many years back, there was a television serial, which showed the events that led to the Partition. One of the ways that the extremist outfits were depicted as employing to toughen their young recruits was to ask them to kill a hen – by chopping its head off with a sharp weapon. Either they had not thought of the more primal (or modern) method of using the bare handed wringing technique or the director/scriptwriter had not.

We also cut down trees for progress and plant saplings. We do many other things, but that is hardly the point. The point is that nobody seems to care. When an ‘Artist’ displayed a live dog as an exhibit and starved him to death, he was invited by a reputed organization to repeat his ‘artistic feat’. Acts being endorsed, carried out and applauded make me wonder if I am the one who should seriously consider changing – for the better, of course. Some years back an advertisement emphasized the value of its product being small and compact. To drive home the point, a young lady was shown shoving books off a shelf like so much rubbish and replacing them with compact disks with a smile on her face that spoke of some supreme achievement. A Television Channel has put up an advertising campaign recently. Huge billboards on roadsides mention incidents and persons in irreverent manner and dubious rhyme and say that none of them is news unless this channel broadcasts it. One such billboard has Rizwanur’s photograph, and his name rhyming with another, with the very same message. An Advertising agency (with real life people who would perhaps like to call themselves artists) created the campaign, and the Channel in question found it appealing.

Which brings my ramblings to the incident last year when a certain Puja was inaugurated by Rizwanur’s mother. She allowed herself to be turned into an exhibit because she is a mother. Every little bit of public exposure helped to bring her that much closer to getting justice. And the Puja Managing Committee must have been beaming with the brainstorming that added such a unique twist to usual celebrations. This is creative thinking today, and Aesthetics.

I have this idea about a civilized society: that it is primarily defined by its public transport system and by what it does that it does not absolutely have to do, like realizing that animals deserve a decent life as much as we do, and acting upon that realization. Fortunately for a lot of people, I am a rather insignificant person, or they would all be uncivilized.

When we were children, the Puja season could always be felt, and smelt. There it was in the air, in the sunlight, in the sky and the lacey clouds and in the green of the trees. It was all pervading, and no matter what one’s station in life, pretty much everyone felt it too deeply. Before the advent of Satellite Television and ‘Promoting’, time moved relatively slowly. It only picked up pace during the early ‘90s. For me, it was as if I lived in a different place altogether, not just time. Perhaps I did. The landscape has changed so much that it is difficult not to believe that that was a different world altogether. I am not exactly waxing nostalgic here: anyone in their mid thirties would know, especially if they grew up in the suburbs. Change, they say, is inevitable. The more things change the more they are supposed to remain the same. I disagree on both counts.

When we were students of Literature, there was this question that demanded a thorough discussion: Why Does Tragedy Please? One of the answers to that question is what might justify this acerbic piece of writing during a time of imminent festivities. Without going into Academics proper, it probably pleases because it makes us think. We don’t often do that. Just as we don’t often realize that we are breathing. When we do, the process so instinctive becomes almost laborious. Try it and see for yourself. Clutton Brock’s essay on Art is still in the Calcutta University curriculum. The author says that the most significant point about Art is that it allows you to stay in the present and appreciate that moment without your thoughts wandering off into the past or the future. Art is still taken very seriously, but like car owners, artists are numerous today. For those of us that drive two wheelers, the roads are a trifle distressing with so many drivers and so little driving ethics. Today everything, including income, is valued by how much it is disposable. Things are not built to last. They are built to serve, and make way for newer models with more functionality. Sometimes it is a good thing too. Welcome to the age of ‘free’ gifts where one has to wait holding a token to receive the gift. And one is, or shall I say, more than one is happy to do just that.

Art and Aesthetics were seriously reflected upon at one point of time, and there used to be lots of debates around what Art is. Today, probably because the artists and art critics of the yesteryears have already talked so much, we tend to DO. There seems to be less thought involved, because there is this deadline lurking somewhere in the next minute or so, and of course, the question of novelty. Even in tradition, there must be novelty. In this age of TRP, Success and failure are defined by how many sponsors one can draw, and how many advertising slots one can successfully offer. Tradition by itself has become meaningless. Not just tradition, the old value system, whatever flaws it might have had, has been, quite simply and easily forgotten and wiped out. No one seems bothered about anything anymore. Art is everywhere, in the billboards, in your drawing room in the form of television commercials and masterclass prints, in your carefully landscaped housing apartments, and in the clothes that you buy from the many boutiques that are so easy to find today. Everyone is constantly thinking about Art. Artists never had it so easy. It is irrelevant what is produced as Art so long as it sells. I am not an Artist per se, but I do my doodles, and one budding agent had once asked me to copy my own painting for sale. I was flabbergasted then, but learnt later from one of my Artist friends that it was a common enough practice, especially among Bengali Artists.

Holding an Art Exhibition at the Puja site is nothing criminal. Somehow, it brings Art closer to the masses and demystifies it. Much as today’s Television Channels and its Talk Shows have demystified the big screen actors. However, whether it is Art on Canvas or on screen, the illusion that is integral to it makes it what it is. Demystifying it, even if it is essential somehow, also robs it of much of its charm. Almost like explaining the tricks a magician is going to perform before he does it. This also makes it a commonplace. Elitist as this may sound, Art is not supposed to be a commonplace. It is supposed to bring out the best in you; it is supposed to be a creative force that transforms reality and transmutes it through an alteration of the viewer’s perception. A whole new world is created when a painting is viewed, really viewed, in a gallery or simply hung on the wall in all its dignity. There was a reason that the Mughal architecture employed and encouraged the use of actual space, space that made you realize that where you stood gaping was grand, and you were not. The sheer vastness of things, their exclusivity, and their own niche is what adds to grandeur, and class. If you merchandise something that is supposed to be part of a long standing heritage, you are bound to market only that part of it which is marketable and lose the essence of it that in fact is IT.

Senior Artist Shri Niranjan Pradhan was seen answering a few queries on the modern ‘artistic’ depictions of Maa Durga these days. What he put so succinctly is what I have been trying to get at thus far: the myth of Durga is that of a warrior, a destroyer, and above all, a Mother. The question that one should ask while appreciating the novel efforts is whether the popular ways of depicting the idol have been successful in incorporating all the elements. The answer is perhaps easy to find when you look around yourself even without looking at the efforts (which, admittedly, is unfair to the artist and the puja committee members). This trend began with the advent of colour television when the traditional audio rendering of the Mahalaya was so exquisitely transformed into the visual medium and broadcast triumphantly. It continued with marketing of Mahalaya cassettes and then compact disks to enthusiastic consumers who broadcast the same loudly on their own audio devices continuously both before and after the Pujas, and yes, even in the afternoon. The essence of a thing was fast losing importance, and soon it was completely forgotten.

This is the new world of freedom of personal choice where one is not compelled to wait with anticipation for the moment when it time for the ritual to be heard in the pre dawn state and in between waking and falling asleep again. I don’t know if there are many people of our age who heard the ritual in its entirety without falling asleep somewhere along the way and then waking up to its magical strains nearing the end, heralding the beginning of the wait. Those seven days following the Mahalaya seem to me very different from the seven days that we have now.

For me, this year, the Puja has already happened when workers at a certain factory worked one extra day to contribute their pay as well as almost the entire amount collected for Vishwakarma Puja (the usual budget is around two lakh rupees) to victims of flood in Bihar. Apart from the obvious self importance that a published work gives to the author, this, more than anything else is probably why I have even bothered to write this article at all.

(Published in Utsav 2008, a Hindustan Times special supplement magazine).

Written by kapush

March 12, 2009 at 9:35 am

Posted in musings

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