Adorning the Goddess: Durga Puja of a different craft

Durga-puja sholar kaaj

A few some days of celebration, a month long rendezvous with fanfare, a quarter year’s time immersed in the magnificence of the preparations and a forever rush of excitement availing from the heartfelt anticipation of the arrival of this annual fiesta of grandeur and color and reverence, Durga Puja is a joy of a measure that few things in life matches up to. A countrywide celebration witnessed in similar strands of gaiety and devotion, even when it is most essentially and almost exclusively even, attributed to the Bengalis, it indeed is the charm of the Durga Puja vibes and the endowment of blessing in profusion from the Goddess herself that makes this socio-cultural-religious affair a mandatory joyous occasion for all who have experienced firsthand the incredible medley of emotions that only these days of the Pujo can conjure up. And yet despite such all inclusive, no holds barred, very universal celebration of a sentiment as steeped in the glory of culture as it is in the ethos of religion that Durga Puja amasses a fond reputation of, there inevitably rests in the essence of what is one of the biggest extravaganza to ever take place anywhere in the confines of our vastly incredible India a certain connect that needs to find its prominence among the Bengali masses for whom this event is the most dearest of all that is to ever follow in the course of their life.

The fact that Durga Puja is inextricably tied to the ways of life of the Bengali populace, even when it spans in totality just ten days of the entire yearly count of 365 morns and nights, is no secret. Which is why it emerges as no surprise that some of the very essential elements attached with this frenzied mode of celebration happen to be uniquely Bengali in origin as well. A festival pertaining to the religious realms of Hinduism and therefore one that invokes the idea and ideals of idol worship, Durga Puja is standout in a wide range of visual assertions that are grand even in their simplicity, that inspire devotion even in their profuse display of the material kind and that spurs a spree of splurging indulgences among all irrespective of the faith of their adherence. Characterised by rituals and customs and traditions ranging from the sounds of the dhaak and the smoke of the dhunuchi to the accompanying dance of them, the pious realisation of the arati to the prosperous call of the ululudhvani, the divine blessing in the form of the puspanjali to the divine offering that makes up the puja bhog, the pre puja shopping spree to the post puja depression blues and of course the unmissable experience of the excitement that catches on during the pandal hopping exercise to the wide mouthed gape of wonder at the mere witness of the glory of the Goddess emanating from the carvings of her in the many pratimas, Durga Puja is the conglomeration of a wide many nuances of culture and life and continuation that holds their relevance still in the times of today.

In such assertions of it that the obsessive endearment of Durga Puja means for all and specifically a bit still more for every Bengali, it therefore is apt that the explorations of this particular occasion of myriad hues and many meanderings manages to lay bare every time its deep seated Bengal connection. Harbouring one such exclusivity of the Bengali kind happens to be the very lifelike idols of Devi Durga bearing along their presence an aesthetic that can very well be defined as a cultural component of Bengal. And while this vision of the radiant image of a Durga descending amongst the mere mortals of the earth along with her cohort of equally godly prominence finds interpretation indeed in a number of different ways, not necessarily exclusively traditional or even wholly new age, there happens to be a rather striking manifestation of this visual extravaganza that still is religious all the same.

The crafting of every Durga idol is an exercise in immense pursuit, with the most skilled of artisans taking time to painstakingly bring to life Maa Durga through efficient working out of her every divine feature, that too in certain ritualistic adherences of their pertinence. Of particular mention should be the ritual of Chokku Daan, a custom which require the eyes of the idol to be painted last, after all other finishing touches have been lent to this statuation of the Goddess. Remarkable also is the tradition of this endowment of the eyes on Durga stipulated to be performed in complete darkness in the presence of only one sculptor. But unlike this customary dictum of religious basis, there exists another more prominent and less ritualistic ‘code’ of what makes the many an idols of Maa Durga reveal forth in all immaculateness. Decking up the Goddess and her entourage to be worshipped at the pandals is as essential a part of the months long pursuit in the perfection of the pratima. And a very cultural, in fact folk means of lovingly adorning the idols in all beauty and grace happens to be a rather ingenious practice of a Bengali craft. Asserting a vision of pure white divinity happen to be some of the idols of the Goddess that are draped and decked with a certain working of what is the extraction from a kind of weed. Known as sholar saaj and deriving from the namesake sholar kaaj or sholapith craft that which makes up this process of the artistic is this very Bengali element still beautifying the realms of rule of many a resplendent Durgas of the world.

Believed to be mythical in its origin and divine in its essence due to the craft manifesting as a form of beauty spotless white in its appearance, the sholar kaaj therefore finds expression across a repertoire of Bengali customs in its purity and auspiciousness. Whether it be as the white crown-shaped headgear (mukut) of the bride and the conical white headgear (topor) of the bridegroom so integral to the weddings of the land or as a range of decorative items, the sholapith craft presents a very discernible image of Bengal. Imbibed therefore also within the essence of the Bengali lifeline of the Durga Puja is this form of local craft that finds place of prominence as the process through which the many ornaments and accessories of the idols as well as certain elements of decor of the entire pandal itself is crafted.

Known as herbal ivory due to its brilliance in immaculateness and also the premises of which allow for very intricate designs to be etched out, sholapith is essentially a milky white material extracted out of the aquatic shola plant, the term pith referring to this inner white and spongy core of the stems used for crafts. A wonder material indeed, that otherwise however does not yield any significance beyond their existence as mere reeds of unimportance, sholapith itself is very versatile a medium to work with. Natural and eco friendly as well as biodegradable is this porous material of delicate beauty that still is durable enough to make way for fine designs to be eked out along its expanse, these pieces of pure whiteness also shine in a slight lustre of their own, lending themselves therefore extremely well as being the basis of many a decorative entities. Resembling also of thermocol in its visual characteristics, sholapith though is associated as well with some other eastern states in India, most notably Orissa and Assam across the expanses of which too Durga Puja tends to be as grand a rendezvous in celebration. But it still is the Malakars of Bengal who are traditionally linked with the intricacy resident in this form of the crafts and who indeed are masters of it, displaying their brilliance in execution particularly across the exuberant expressions of the spectacle that Durga Puja has forever proved itself to be.

Despite being irrevocably connected to Bengal and by that connection to the Bengali fervour of Pujo, sholar kaaj though isn’t the most original of decorations pertaining to the festival. In fact, the precursor to sholar kaaj as concerns the puja decor had been the daaker saaj that made use of beaten silver foils to deck up the idols and their settings. Hailing all the way from Germany from where they arrived through post (daak), the name Daaker saaj found eminence, giving way for the sholar saaj to take over around the time of the second World War when mail services were disrupted. Thus ensued a unique tradition of decking up Durga idols and pandals with this substance of completely natural beckonings, steeping the pujo identity further in the essence of a land that has forever avowed its deep allegiance to this religious reverence and cultural adulation of the Goddess.