It was in October of 2019 when I was in Kolkata, India, to be a competition judge among 13 members of a jury. The International Jury Award took place during the Durga Puja festival to help review 300 hundred pandals created by local artists and artisans. The city was colourful and vibrant in the celebration of the festival, uplifted in a united spirit to bring joy and happiness to the city regardless of religion or political ideas.
On the surface, I found Kolkata a grey and hectic city, with poverty ever-present, roads heavily congested and old rundown buildings. However, you cannot judge a place at first sight. Kolkata has many hidden beauties with a rich heritage overshadowed by its colonial history, ruled by the British Raj from 18th to the beginning of 20th Century. Kolkata is a city of contrast and contradictions, trying to recover from its colonial past and consolidate its ancient roots. Despite being under the influence of a western European power over one century has kept its character. The emergence of intellectuals, scholars and poets such as Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Ramakrishna and many other writers and artists have kept the spirit of the city alive which persists today. The creative works of pandals is an example of livelihood of the city.
The Durga Puja Festival opened a window for me to see the richness of the culture and creativeness of the people in Kolkata. Each pandal represented a unique and different story of life and social matters in and around Kolkata and even went further, sharing stories on a global level by choosing international themes. Jaydeep Mukerjee, a travel agent in Kolkata is the founder of Meghdutam Travels and International Jury Award. He has been a pioneer to promote the Durga Puja Festival internationally. Jaydeep and his family worked hard to showcase the work of local communities and clubs in support of creative pandals which they have sponsored for many years. Jaydeep’s ambition is to showcase the creative works of artists to the world.
Just like in other places around the world, life went on as usual in Kolkata until the coronavirus pandemic hit the world. The city of Kolkata was no exception. India, like many other countries in the world has suffered badly and the poor and vulnerable people have been mostly affected. All sectors of the society face a challenging time to experience self-isolation and quarantine. All projects have been put on hold, and the financial state of companies and individuals is disturbed. Villagers who had migrated from the countryside to the city and the local poor workers of Kolkata who are heavily reliant on events such as the Durga Puja Festival have suffered the consequences of lockdown. These workers used to work for local sports, activities or charity clubs and in neighbourhood communities preparing all aspects, from the design of the pandals to idol-making and the construction and decoration of huge settings of Pandals throughout Kolkata. The workers of Kumortuli quarter in the northern part of Kolkata have become jobless. Kumortuli is a well-known district for all traditional potters and sculptors of Kolkata.
While the world is waiting for a cure from the hands of scientists and people are advised to take shelter in their homes and commit to lockdown and self-isolation, Jaydeep and his wife Swaguna have sacrificed their health, time and energy to help the needy people of Kolkata. Jaydeep has deep sympathy for the children and families of the workers and wishes to do something to help their plight. He arranged a major relief effort through his newly established charity, Meghdutam Foundation. Jaydeep has organised the supplies, contributions and gifts from local communities in addition to private donations. The Durga Puja clubs often requested help from Jaydeep to help the locals. Jaydeep said, “the funds were used to purchase the essential necessities such as rice, potatoes, cooking oil, biscuits and cakes, baby food and sanitizers”. Jaydeep’s wife, two daughters and mother-in-law joined him in this campaign to do all the packaging. Jaydeep and his wife put themselves on the frontline taking the food packages to Kumotuli quarter and Sonagachi area, two of the most deprived neighbourhood in Kolkata. “We covered over 150 families a day,” Jaydeep said.
“We visited orphanages and helped the guys who did the newspaper deliveries, as printing has stopped.”
Jaydeep started another interesting initiative as well: “we will be carrying with us a few boxes of crayons and pencils for young children to encourage them to draw and paint.” Inspired by global events, and as a way to embed it into their art, they created a slogan: “we kill the Coronavirus as the Durga killed the Demon.” Jaydeep said, “they truly believe in what they are doing.” The children had a theme to work on as they have been brought up with the mystical story of Durga, a female character, a ten-armed Hindu Goddess who rescued the earth from an evil demon called “Mahisasur”. The Durga had to kill the demon without shedding any blood, otherwise each blood drop would have reproduced another demon.
Jaydeep said, “the young artists are calling the mother Durga to rescue the earth from the demon”. The paintings will eventually be exhibited and sold to raise funds and help their families and fellow citizens. Jaydeep said that he would continue to provide support until the coronavirus is over.
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