Those days the area I live was a secluded place. This was the extreme corner of southern Kolkata and there was a railway track nearby divided us between two districts. Walking about two hundred meters one would reach the main road – the bus plying road, though there was not too many buses.
I was barely 7 years old and was not supposed to cross the main road. Thus the only Durgapuja arena I was allowed to go was this Pal Durga Bari. Pal Residence was a huge mansion, with many rooms, complete with a large play ground, two ponds and several shops. Central to the mansion was this Durga Bari with a large courtyard.
The festivity used to begin two weeks before the start of the Durgapuja at this Pal Durgabari. Image makers from distant Kumartuly (prime image makers colony) arrived with the raw image structure made of wood, straw and bamboo sticks. The image makers at first pasted clay on the structure, allowed it to dry and then paint the entire image with white paint. It took several days. I, along with boys of similar age, gathered daily, quite early in the morning, to watch the act patiently. We used to spend hours here and could really feel the festive mood in the air. The image being made was Ek-Chala ( mono-structure), meaning multi-images placed in one large structure. Within a few days images were re-painted in different bright colours and decorated with silver coloured foils.
Finally there was this day of creating the eyes of the images. This was the time when the images was put under a white curtain and only the chief image artist was allowed to cross the curtain to draw the eyes, the last act of the image creation. Normally this special act was done at late night. The next morning we all used to rush to see the all-complete image, and, every year we were mesmerized by seeing the glittering colours of the creation. Watching image making always was an
interesting part of the celebration, and we surely got the same thrill year after year.
From Shosthi Day, the Pal Durgabari became a crowded arena. Many relatives of the family gathered together, and, the local neighbours joined too. There was now Dhakis (drum beaters) playing different rhythms at regular intervals. Some enthusiastic urchins performed spontaneous group dances.
At the end of the Pal Mansion was Noni Babu’s sweet shop. Noni Babu too belonged to the Pal family. We used to walk up to the shop to buy two specific sweets, specially made for Durgapuja festival.
Naarkol Chhapa – a round white sweet made of lot of sugar and some bits of coconut, with a dash of camphor. The price? 32 pieces per Rupee (you read it right !)
Chandra Puli – a moon-shaped, camphor flavoured, yellow sweet made of refined sugar and finely ground coconut, costing 16 pieces per Rupee.
I and my group-mates belonged to middle class families and our humble budget for the festival would normally be around half a Rupee a day. Thus we would spend about two anaas (one fourth of our daily budget) at the Noni babu’s shop.
In the afternoon there would be Vastra Daan (cloth distribution) when a large number of local poor men and women would make a long que to receive the gift.
Pal Durga Bari is celebrating the Durgapuja for 140 years now. During this year’s Durgapuja, to re-live the nostalgia, I took my grandson to the arena. The celebration is more pompous now with more colourful lighting added. The long duration image making function is now replaced with a short duration act – with only the add-ons like eyes drawing, foil decoration on the images are done at the arena.
(Noni Babu’s Grandson – Shashanka) (Noni Babu’s shop is the family puja room now)
Noni Babus sweet shop is now an image making shop – run by his grand sons (all of them are reputed image artists).