Three days with the goddess



January 2017

Prajnaparamita Padhi writes about the rapturous experience of receiving, enlivening and bidding farewell to Goddess Durga in the attic of an artist devotee and the company of his Bohemian friends

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Lanes, bylanes and a charming set of old houses are stitched together to form an old architectural panorama. Clothes of daily use strung along timeworn balconies, trucks and autos on bumpy tramways; water overflowing from a dhobi’s large clay pot, street urchins racing bicycle tires – controlling speed and balance with a stick –  these are pictures of a long wearied yet unvanquished Calcutta, a locality audaciously high on enthusiasm in spite of its tumbledown appearance.

In its midst is a young man working assiduously in his roof-top studio, kneading and preparing precious clay to make an idol of Goddess Durga for the auspicious Durgotsav in Bengal.  Halley Goswami is pouring his soul into sculpting, painting and embellishing his goddess, for the 15th time in a row. This year he has chosen the Shabeki style of pre-British Bengal, lost for 150 years until now! His research on ‘pratimas’ (idols) of Mughal India revealed certain distinctive features of the goddess. The Durga idol of Bengal in the 1700s had a beautiful tribhangi posture with narrow waists, and small breasts. She wore a mekhla (an Assamese garb) instead of a sari, and  had two stocky frontal arms to hold the trishul, while eight arms, four on either side, were clasped together and raised upwards. She wore a simple crown without a chura, a garland wound around the contours of her body. She rode a stylised lion, more like a horse with a glorious lion’s mane. The European influence of realism came with the East India Company and slowly got absorbed in the Durga idols of the later years. The shape of the beautiful chala behind the pratima was inspired by the thatched roofs of village dwellings, a semi-circle encircling the goddess and her four children like a halo. Halley paints the chala too with stories of Shiva, Parvati and her four children on their way to her mother’s earthly home from that of her husband’s in Mt. Kailash.

On Maha Shashti, Maha Ashtami and Maha Navami (the seventh, eighth and ninth days of Navratri), the three days of Puja, Halley becomes the purohit of his goddess, built so gloriously from plain earth.  Artistically and knowledgeably he begins ‘bodhon’ – the invocation or awakening of the goddess, inviting Her to dwell in the idol. Halley uses every object, nuance and drop of passion in
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