Battleground Bengal: At Kumartuli in old Kolkata, the artists want Didi back

Bengal Election

Bengal and Kolkata are still much better off when compared to UP, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, among other states. However, with Covid cases rising up to 8,000 plus per day in the state, the streets of Kolkata were desolate and lonely on Sunday. People chose to be indoors and the big markets, including busy Park Street, was quiet. The long phase of the elections, imposed on Bengal by the Election Commission, has been tiring and eerie, and the heat and humidity is not helping at all.

However, as is the case with the ‘Mahanagar’, even the uncanny solitude on a scorching and sticky Sunday seems deceptive when you enter certain zones of the city of joy. These tucked away areas which refuse to accept defeat, where life goes on, pulsating as ever, through the four seasons. Here there is no sense of fatigue or tiredness of the polls, the tense expectations or lack of it, even as the prime minster and his home minister continue to collect crowds amidst the super-spreader pandemic in their relentless and bizarre obsession to capture Bengal at any cost.

At the famous Princep Ghat, the river Ganga flows serene, quiet and steady. However, in the stark, post-noon scenario amidst the heavy humidity and heat, there is no lack of lovers. Most of them do not really seem to like or afford the upper-end, expensive air-conditioned restaurants, or the Cafes which are frequented by rich kids. These are young girls and boys, coming from ordinary families, perhaps some of them have a weekend off, who are now braving it out on the benches next to the river, romancing openly and happily in the afternoon.

Indeed, this is old-fashioned romance, with tears, much cajoling, angst, anger and passion, kisses, hugs and holding hands. Here it is as normal as it has always been in Kolkata’s inheritance of lovers in public places. The trees give shelter, the river flows eternally, the boats are empty, and passersby don’t give a damn.

A young couple is much more far-sighted than the others – they have brought an umbrella along. And even under a tree, with no rain or sunshine, the blue umbrella protects them from the public gaze and gives them their precious weekend privacy and a few hours with each other. No one wears a mask, surely, not the lovers.

Young boys from the suburbs wearing tight jeans and swanky T-shirts bought from the pavements on Park Street, with blue and red goggles, are hanging out, hugging each other, eating orange ice creams, cracking jokes. Despite the fear of Covid, at 3 in the afternoon, three old women wearing ironed white sarees, wearing masks, are sharing their ancient friendship under a big tree near the stairs of the ghat. A jhaal moori seller sits alone and lost near the railway lines, waiting for a buyer.

Here, at Princep Ghat, it seems there is no fear of the pandemic or the lockdown. There is friendship, shared bonding and love in the air. And election fever seems far away.

Not so at the famous Neemtala Cremation Ghat near Ahirtala, again next to an old railway line, close to the many historic bylanes of old North Kolkata with its beautiful, elegant, kaleidoscopic architectural heritage with big, designed windows, crafted doors and ornamental balconies, as much as crumbling buildings holding onto aesthetic memories of the past and living humanity with an obsessive attachment.

People are thronging the Neemtala ghat. Not because of Covid deaths, but due to the routine ritualism of life and death.

At the Neemtala ghat and around, the exquisite old buildings are crumbling as much as the old decadent buildings opposite where some poor people have taken refuge. There is a hustle and bustle of life, even as death passes by. In this heat, a cup of tea in a bhaar (kulhar) with a smoke is still welcome. There is no terror of Covid, in life or in death. As yet.

Across, near Rabindra Sarani, the Sunday solitude is missing and it is old Kolkata once again. Crowded with men, women and youngsters, people are out, surprisingly, very busy and occupied at this post-afternoon siesta time for Bengalis, many of them wearing a mask. When asked the way to Kumartuli, the internationally famous craft, sculpture and pottery hub, a gentleman explains to us the entire map of the area with an enthusiasm which is infectious.

We are close to Sobhabazar and Sutanuti, the oldest parts of original Kolkata. The gentleman wearing a mask falters on a certain mapping landmark; thus he stops a bearded gentleman without hesitation, who is not wearing a mask. Both of them thereby explain the local map with greater, sharper detail.

west bengal election

They obviously know the place like the back of their hand; surely, they love the place as much. This is the human bonding of invisible, old Kolkata shared by strangers and unknown people on by lanes and streets, where people are too eager to help and reach out, share maps, exchange notes, show you the way. We say thank you, and we are indeed grateful and enriched, and they seem so happy to have helped two lost journalists find their way on a scorching summer afternoon.

Kumartuli has lanes and bylanes which enter into incredible rediscoveries of unfinished and crafted sculptures of gods and goddesses, especially goddesses, because Bengal worships its goddesses with deeper passion and relentless emotion; there also huge statues of Chaitanya, Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore, among others. The lanes are full of Trinamool flags, interspersed with the Lion flags of the Forward Bloc.

The BJP is all but absent around here as in North Kolkata which will vote in the last phase. Its candidate, Sandipan Biswas, has a couple of posters here and there, and, by all reckoning, is not in the race.

In the race and leading is ‘Shashidi’, Dr Shashi Panja, twice elected MLA from the area, and locals say she will not only be elected yet again with an overwhelming margin, she will actually do much better work than what she did in her last two terms. Her work is remembered, especially during the harsh period of the pandemic and the lockdown last year.

Dr Panja is a highly respected and admired leader of the entire area in Kumartuli and around. She was the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Women and Child Development and Social Welfare in the outgoing government of West Bengal.

“If you are in distress. If you need medical help. If there is an urgent need for financial help. If there is a crisis — Shashidi will herself come, reach out, and help,” seems to be the unanimous opinion here among the craft-persons and sculptors.

Her modest office is located in one of the lanes in Kumartuli. Throughout the lockdown, locals says, she and her councillor, Malati Saha, painstakingly and relentlessly organised food, medicine and other help for the people living here, and not only for the poor, but all others, including those who run small-scale industries in little spaces, like a Sandow Banyan shop, or a small factory for spare parts, etc. She made strong and enduring structures of providing relief with local crafts-persons and their organisations, voluntary groups, and the administration, and she never failed or faltered, say the locals.

“She reached out to the poor and people across the spectrum. She never discriminated. She never failed us,” said Ronno, the young manager of a shop of decorative goods for festivals and marriages. “She even organised fish for the people, including prawns.”

Apart from the universal adulation and admiration for Dr. Panja as their own candidate from Trinamool Congress, there are three other unanimous viewpoints in this famous and humble abode art studios here which has faced difficulties due to the absence of festivals and marriages, post-pandemic and the lockdown, though the artists remain resilient, stoic and steadfast, don’t show apparent signs of despair, and are optimistic about the future.

The first viewpoint is that Didi must come back at any cost because the kind of development and relief-work she has done has not been witnessed in several decades in the area. Kumartuli stands for Didi, well, almost.

The second viewpoint is that Didi and Dr Panja did their best in adverse circumstances when the Centre did not move one inch to help the people of Bengal, nor the artists in Kumartuli. “They did not come here even once during the lockdown even while they are spending crores in helicopters and road shows during the elections now. Did Modi or BJP leaders come here to help the people – no, they did not. Didi did. Shashi Panja did,” said an artist.

“Didi is not responsible for the draconian lockdown, the mass migration of migrant workers and their suffering and the pandemic. Didi did not order demonitisation and bring GST. Instead, without her it would have been difficult to survive during the lockdown and after. We want her back,” said a shopkeeper selling ornamental goods, such as dresses for the goddesses, and stuff needed for marriage rituals.

And the third, very strong and unanimous viewpoint is the universal dislike and disgust at the daily conduct of the BJP and its two top leaders from Gujarat in splashing so much of money and muscle during such hard times when people are economically in dire straits and everyone is struggling with their savings. Besides, they say, Didi stands for peace among all communities while the BJP stands for nothing but ‘Hindu-Muslim’ polarisation.

“They don’t know our culture,” says one artist Kumartuli. “We stand for art, craft, a shared society, and peace. A peaceful co-existence. They believe in just the opposite.”

Said an elderly gentleman, a stoic shopkeeper with no business these days, smoking a cigarette, “When did you last hear a prime minister speak like this… in such an uncultured language, against a woman chief minister…”

He, was, of course, talking about Narendra Modi taunting Mamata Banerjee in his rally, a rather crude refrain which has offended large sections of people in Bengal, both men and women: “Didi… O… Didi!”

(To be concluded)

(Photos by Snehasish Mistri)



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