Let there be light:Chandannagar's masters of illumination have brightened up festivals for years

Satwik Paul

Over the months of October to January, the streets of West Bengal's towns and cities light up for a number of festive occasions €" beginning with Durga Puja and Diwali, to the Jagadhatri Puja, Christmas, and then New Year's. The dazzling illuminations seen in Bengal, especially Kolkata, owe much to a 60-year tradition, harking back to the world renowned light artist Sridhar Das.

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(Sridhar Das with his granddaughter)

It was Sridhar Das who made Chandannagar's Jagadhatri Puja world-famous, got numerous awards for his outstanding lighting for Kolkata's Durga Pujas, and also representing India on a global platform. What makes his achievements even more remarkable was that his many wonders were made possible with zero use of advanced electrical mechanisms.

As a student, Das received a budget of Rs 10 from the headmaster of the Narua Siksha Niketan to pull off a Saraswati Puja celebration, in competition with other schools, in 1955. Hoping to win laurels for his school urged Das, then in Class Seven, to do his best. His vision saw the face of Goddess Saraswati come alive with the use of small, coloured lights.

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(Above image: A light art installation spotted near Helapukur Jagadhatri Puja in Chandannagar)

Recounting his first triumph, Das, now 78, tells me, "I always had a fascination with electrical instruments€¦ I have also always been kind of khyapa [mad, in Bengali]."

Slipping back into the past, Das remembers his first experience with setting up running lights, in 1965.

"Using a flat wooden board, running lights were first created for Narua's Jagadhatri Puja. I single-handedly created a couple of 10 feet high arches at the entrance," he says, adding with a laugh, "But the Puja Committee had them removed because people thought they weren't bright enough!"

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(Here: A Jagadhatri light model in Chandannagar)

The next year, when he designed the lights for the Vidyalanka Jagadhatri Puja, however, was a different story. People queued up in huge numbers at the pandal, drawn by the stunning light displays Das had engineered. It proved to be a career milestone, as it helped Das now had the confidence he needed to truly pursue his creative ambitions.

By 1969, he was experimenting with running naked lights through the middle of a pond for another Jagadhatri Puja celebration €" while ensuring the water wasn't electrified.

Years later, you can almost see the glow of the illuminated pond reflected on Das' face, as he speaks of his feat. "People from not only Chandannagar but also all the neighbouring areas started visiting. The electric company actually sent officers to verify if the pond indeed had been lit up!" Das says.

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(Seen in this photo: A man fixes a light model created by Babai-Bubai lights during the Chandannagar Jagadhatri Puja)

While Das happily tried out his lighting experiments, his family was quite upset by his decision to devote himself to the practice full-time at the cost of abandoning his formal education. "I was in seventh heaven, but my mother was quite unhappy," he recounts, chuckling. "I was often not given food at home because I had stopped studying!"

But Das was too deeply engaged in his creative pursuits to be put off by such hurdles. Soon, he was making his Durga Puja debut at one of Kolkata's biggest pandals €" College Square. Then, in 1970, he got a commission for the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Siddhartha Shankar Roy's puja.

Das' granddaughter Samragngi Roy takes up the strands of his tale when he falters:

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(A man works on a LED light gate)

"Dadu had a severe burn injury that year, just two days before the Pujas. But his professionalism came before anything. He left the hospital soon after his wound was dressed, and straightaway reached the venue of the Puja, completed his work, and only then took rest. No one could stop him," she narrates, proudly.

Sridhar Das's name soon became synonymous with the best for Kolkata's Durga Puja organisers. MLAs and state ministers would wait for hours outside Das' house to catch hold of him. And he was an elusive man to get hold of indeed, busy as he was with pursuits both in India and abroad.

"In 1985, Dadu represented India at Russia's 'India Festival'. The organisers were amused to realise that all of his running lights were done on a wooden roller. They requested a roller to display in their museum," Samragngi Roy says. "Then festivals in Ireland, London happened. Dadu also created 'Bula Di' €" an AIDS awareness mascot made with lights, in Los Angeles."

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It wasn't just about his individual success. Sridhar Das was a pioneer in the community of light artists, and many other bright talents would emerge from the same field.

"As I started getting a lot of assignments, those generated employment opportunities. I have trained several artists who are working independently now. I would manage 200 workers each year and send each batch for international tours annually," Das says.

Times, now, have changed. Lighting is no more an art but a business, Das says. Anyone with a basic understanding of themes, and making use of Chinese LEDs, can get a big tender. "I feel disconnected with this community," rues Das. "They mean money which I can't relate to€¦"

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(Above image: Babu Pal, one of the biggest light dealers of Chandannagar, at his workshop)

The current big names in the field €" Babu Pal, Sukumar Biswas, Dipendu Biswas, Pintu Das €" were once employed and trained by Das. And as is the natural order of things, slowly, the new generation has replaced the old.

Babu Pal says his success would not have been possible without Sridhar Das' guidance and training.

"I forayed into this business 30 years ago. I earlier owned a metal shop in Kolkata's Burrabazar area," Pal says, of his beginnings.

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(Seen here: LED light work over a pond in Dharpara, Chandannagar)

His first assignment was under Sridhar Das. Pal trained with the master for over a year before deciding to strike off on his own. "I feel proud to say I won the first prize for Best Lighting in the Jagadhatri Puja that very year," says Pal.

Pal now gets the contracts for the biggest Durga Pujas €" be it Sreebhumi or Suruchi, has lit up Amitabh Bachchan's house for various festive occasions, and also worked on the weddings lights for the Ambani family and also the Priyanka Chopra-Nick Jonas nuptials.

Sridhar Das' era saw artists work with 6.2 lights, whereas Pal introduced LED lights in the field.

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(In this photo: Sridhar Das at his residence)

Pal doesn't see this reliance on new technology as being "sell-outs" though. "Sridhar Das was my and is my idol. He has shown the path to so many artists like me. What he used to do at that time with limited resources was amazing but now we could expand, use technology and various advancements of electronics. I don't see any harm in that. After all, changing with the times is the need of the hour, else how do you compete internationally?" Pal asks.

Another well-known light artist Sukumar Biswas also shrugs off the art versus commerce debate. "Who does things for just passion these days?" he asks. "How is it even that possible to maintain unless you have money [sic]? We may be termed 'unskilled' but if you look at the bulk of work we all have been assigned to do throughout the year, won't you call it success? Nothing comes without a price. There could be ideological differences but the amount of work we put in is the same."

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(Above photo: Various 3D light models ready to be shipped off across the globe)

In whatever form or style, it is indisputable that the art pioneered by Sridhar Das continues to shine brightly, providing employment to many in and around Chandannagar, lighting up India and its festivals.

€" All photographs by Satwik Paul

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