In my observations the Bengalis (and other Indians) love a celebration. When we went to Kolkata in 2004 we arrived on Christmas Day; expecting to find the city doing its usual city-thing instead we found an air of celebration, decoration and choruses of “Merry Christmas!” “Happy New Year!” greeted at us from passers-by. I have since learnt that any holy day is as good a reason as any for a holiday. Why not?
This year I arrived in Kolkata the day before the Saraswati Puja. Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning.
Pujas can be fun, but they also have an annoying way of interrupting city life and all the plans made for a brief time in the city. Airfares go up, project prospects go down. No-one works. And even when the holiday is supposed to be for one day, it usually spills over into the day before and the day after. Saraswati had intruded on my plans; but she is my sort of goddess, encouraging knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning as she does, so I had to give into the swing of her day.
Lake Market was bursting with effigies of the goddess – a full spectrum ranging from the beautiful to the garish; shops were selling small-sized golden sarees for young girls and everyone, it seemed, was in the mood for a celebration buying new clothes, food, flowers and decorations.
Nothing quite prepared me for the enthusiasm of the local community for this goddess and her passions. Strolling up Rash Behari Avenue was a feast for the eyes – everyone was dressed up for this special day – the women, spectaculous in sarees of every colour and hue. Oh Melbourne Black is so dull in India. I encountered highly and individually decorated shrine after shrine and many invitations to come and join in the celebrations. It seems each small community bands together to create their own unique homage to the goddess. Saraswati sits serenely with her sitar and white swan, decorated and styled, surrounded by marigold garlands, handmade sculptures, incense, lamps, books, and and all manner of individual offerings.
Many people beckoned me to come to admire their handiwork; distorted bollywood beats blasted from pumped up speaker systems up and down the street in a cacophony of celebratory noise. I’m not sure that this is quite what Saraswati, goddess of music, gently strumming a sitar, had in mind, but on the other hand, music is music.
I especially loved this shrine (below), with its carefully created papier mache students learning at the feet of the goddess. Although most of the statues are mass-produced, there is still plenty of room in India for individual styles, and a hand-made touch that I love, but see less and less of in Australia.
One group of young people lead me down a lane way to the see their shrine. They were part of a youth club and had created two larger than life female sculptures that dwarfed the goddess. These sculptures possibly saying as much about their own passions as those of the goddess. Their houses were on either side of this narrow lane at the edge of the Ganges River; not the picturesque flowing river of the stories, but one that caused concern to these environmentally sensitive young people. One of the girls was a keen drawer; we sat down on the front step of her house with the entire community watching as she showed me her years of sketching.
The school, a few doors down from the flat where I stay, was awash with colour and art, and alive with people celebrating this festive day. Hundreds of tiny cups – usually for street chai – were painted and filled with coloured sand. They drew visitors in from the street to a magnificent sand and marigold design on the school ground – what joy!
In the evenings music not all Bollywood wafted up from the streets, firecrackers popped and fizzed. I didn’t get to do all the things I that I was planning as I flew into Kolkata – but I did thoroughly enjoy these friendly and creative encounters thanks to the goddess Saraswati.