Monday, September 21, 2009

Illu & Rangoli - A Very Rare Form of Art That Finally Became Extinct

People who haven't seen the Illumination and the Rangoli competition on Diwali in IIT Kharagpur have absolutely no idea what's it about. Though lately it has been covered a bit in some national media, still it remains an almost unknown facade of IIT Kharagpur, which is unique not only to the rest of world, but also to all the other IITs. It's an excellent example of a mammoth team work, unparalleled intricate project planning & management - accurate to the minutest level, timely delivery of the highest quality with more than 6 sigma precision (it never failed ever) and finally a very high quality of art that you would see no where else in the world.

First let be try to explain the magnanimity of the event. Rangoli is a well known form of art very popular in most parts of India. It's an art with various powdered colors (used in Indian festivals like Diwali and Holi) known as gulal and also some other colored materials like tumeric or haldi powder. In most houses in North India the women folk create colorful Rangoli during festivals. So from that point of view it's not something that's unique. But what's indeed unique is the size. Generally the common rooms of the hostels were used to create these huge Rangolis which used to be at least 20'x20' or even more. As you can see in the above picture, it's not possible to capture a full Rangoli in a single frame of a picture unless you break the walls of the rooms and tale a snap from 100ft. above.

Next let me explain the most unique thing - that's the illumination or more commonly known as Illu in the KGP lingo. The above picture is just a portion of a lighted facade of an Illu of one of the hostels. The entire front elevation of all the hostels used to be lighted like what you can see in the picture. The interesting thing here is that the complete lighting was done with earthen lamps - holding a small quantity of oil which can burn a small piece of cloth dipped in it only for a few minutes. Huge structures, called chatai, stitched out of flattened pieces of bamboo - sized at least 20'x20' - were put up against the walls of the hostels covering the complete front elevations. The three storied hostel buildings stretching some 100 or 200 ft were completely covered with these chatais. Depending on the actual size, at least some dozens of chatais were required to cover the walls for each hostel. Chalks were used to draw marks on each of the chatais such that when all these chatais were put up in the correct order a complete sketch was visible from a distance. The earthen lamps were then tied to the chatais along the chalk-marks, which formed the outlines of the sketch. When all the lamps were all lit together then the sketch appeared on the chatais. From a distance they looked like huge bill boards. That's what we used to call Illu. The sketches used to be generally chosen from Indian mythologies, mainly Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Now let's come to the monumental task required to put up the Illu and the Rangoli. It required serious planning and meticulous execution. I don't think I would ever get to see such levels of project planning and execution ever in my life. The corporates need to take lessons of leadership and team work from this. The entire event required a hierarchical team with an over all project manager, team-leads for various teams, a very detailed project planning with task breakdown to the minutest levels, regular tracking of the project for 2 weeks and finally a fully motivated team of few hundred residents of each hostel working almost round the clock without any grievance and grudge. The over all project manager used to be the president or the secretary for Socio Cultural activities of the hall. You can see this post as the CEO of a company. Apart from him, all the other team leads were selected solely based on their artistic skills. Like during the last two years of my stay in RK Hall of Residence, Pushpen used to be the unanimous choice to lead the sketches and Rangoli because he was the best painter in our hall. There were other guys also with good aptitude for art, but still there was never any confusion or politics in selecting Pushpen as the GM in charge of Rangoli. Most companies fail because they choose the wrong person - mostly due to legacy or internal politics. But Illu and Rangoli never failed.

Next comes the ingenuity required to draw the sketches for Rangoli and Illu. Off course the sketches were drawn first on paper and then Pushpen used to blow it up using a very simple technique that had been passed to the juniors for years by the seniors. Pushpen used to first create a miniature of the complete front facade of the hostel on a paper where 1 cm used to represent 10ft. In this scale a chatai of size 20'x20' was a small square of 2cm by 2cm in his paper. Once the miniature sketch was complete on the paper, each chatai got its portion defined. Pushpen used to enumerate each chatai based on its coordinates in his paper and assigned the other artistically inclined people for each chatai. Pushpen had the complete right to choose his team based on the skills he felt were required to mark the outlines of the sketches on the chatais with chalk. This is again something most corporates miss now-a-days and finally land up in big mess.

Each chatai owner used to first draw his portion on a paper with a larger scale, say 1cm representing now 1ft. As each chatai used to be 20'x20' in size he could fit his sketch on a paper sized 20cm by 20cm. This helped him to blow up the sketch on the chatai very accurately. Pushpen used to keep a track of the progress on each chatai. I still wonder how meticulously the guys used to blow up the sketches that, when all 100 chatais were stitched together, nothing looked out of proportion.

The chalk marks on the chatais were ready a few days before Diwali. The next major task was to put those up against the walls. Enough safety measures were taken to avoid any accident in putting up chatais as high as 30 ft. I haven't heard of any accident during my four years of stay. Once the chatais were put up the earthen lamps were tied along the chalk marks.

The climax was the few minutes before the troupe of judges came for inspection. As the lamps would burn only for 5 minutes in the normal scenario, they had to be lit only when the judges came. We had a team of people giving latest information about the coordinates of the judges. When the judges were just 1-2 minutes from our hostel we started the task of lighting the lamps - the task that required the maximum coordination and involvement. Around 20000 lamps had to be lit in 1 or 2 minutes of time by some 150-200 people. This meant each person lighting 100 lamps in less than 2 minutes - that's at the rate of almost 1 lamp a second. Here also we used a very simple tactic that had been handed over by the seniors for years. Each person, with 100 lamps to light, used to first light 50 alternate lamps in the first minute so that even if he failed to light the remaining 50 still the portion of the outline of the sketch assigned to him would be lit - even though some what sparsely - by alternate lamps. In the second minute he would come back and light the remaining alternate lamps. I don't think there can be any better example of planning for a contingency or disaster management. Those were the days before any of us went to management schools. But still if I look back I find that we used to follow everything that any successful project should follow. Perhaps it's true that management is just common sense!!

It's just fascinating to even think of the scenario where an entire sketch of 200'x30' comes up to light in just 2 minutes of time. The satisfaction was immense and the competition a very fiercely fought one. Even the girls used to put up equal effort.

I've graduated in 96, more than 13 years. But still if I've to mention a single thing about IIT KGP that stands out it's undoubtedly the Illu and the Rangoli. More than the high quality of art involved it taught us the best lessons of team work, obeying the orders of the team lead and completing a project on time. Though nothing was maintained on a MS Project Planner, still each of us knew precisely our tasks. Not a single moment was wasted. Not a single order was contested. We had supreme faith on Pushpen about his abilities. Such a faith came only from the credibility that he had shown in the previous years. We never fought for power, never wasted time in useless discussions.

I wish we saw the same thing in our corporate lives!!

Sadly... this tradition of Illu and Rangoli has come to an end. 2007 was the last time that KGP saw the Illu. We heard that the participation had dwindled down a lot gradually. I feel this had to happen sometime. Even ten years back KGP was in secluded part of the world - it took at least 30 minutes on a bicycle (the only mode of transport other than the rickshaw) from the railway station. Once you're in KGP, we'd nothing else of the outside world. All our entertainment and fun and frolic were within KGP. Even internet connections were things of luxury and were available only in the labs. But with time, every room in the hostel had internet connection - which opened up unlimited entertainment within the four walls of your room. Also I'm sure the seclusion would have ended in the last few years. The very tradition of Illu and Rangoli which used to be our life line became an obligation in later times. Professional competition also increased fiercely. The two weeks spent on the preparation were gradually seen as sheer wastage of time and resources. People would have rather enjoyed spending that time in some academic preparations. What-so-ever be the actual reason it's indeed a sad end to an art that never existed elsewhere and will never exist anywhere else.

Reference and source of pictures

Durga Puja: A closely guarded Secular art from Bengal

Durga Puja is well known as the most important festival of the Bengalis throughout the world. People know that the entire West Bengal shuts down for a week during the Durga Puja. But it's not widely known to most of the people that Durga Puja is also a very closely guarded exquisite form of folk art that has rarely been appreciated or publicized outside Bengal.

I'm not aware of any other form of popular art exhibition, like the one that happens in the form of Durga Puja, anywhere else in the world. And very strikingly these art exhibitions, unlike the elite ones that you would have heard of, are too much well attended.

I don't intend to downplay the artistic superiority of the classy artists whose paintings and creations are exhibited in the art galleries, but the creations of the thousands of unknown artists and painters and artisans and sculptors and craftsmen that are show cased for a week for the mllions of people that throng the Puja Pandals across West Bengal are no doubt of very high degree of ingenuity.

The most important thing is that almost the entire class of people who create these pieces of art are mostly not much educated and belong to the financially weaker sections. But they do have a very rare indigenous skill which they use to the fullest to create authentic miniature replicas of Harry Potters palace, Indian Parliament building, American White House, Meenakshi Temple and many other building and structures with great finesse. And most importantly these structures are created mostly with eco friendly materials. Apart from thermocol almost everything else, like various forms of woods, straws, leaves, mud, that are used are eco friendly. Craftsmen also come up with unique raw materials like earthen lamps, mud cups, ice cream sticks or even the hogla leaves from Sundarban for decoration.

I've written about the economic implication of the entire event in a previous blog. Here I'd like to show case the artistic side of it. In this age where various forms of art are fast declining across the world this ingenious form of popular art, that is surviving solely due to the public interest and enthusiasm is indeed a very rare thing. I'm sure not many such instances would be found where an entire population take so keen interest to preserve a artistic tradition so keenly. Just a small statistic - there are at least 5000 clubs in Calcutta who organize Durga Puja in various parts of Calcutta. Each of these clubs have a budget ranging from a few hundred thousands to a few million rupees and each of them put up pandals of various shapes and sizes and artistry. More importantly the art, though associated with a religions festival of a particular religion, is very secular in nature. The pandals made in the form of a church or other non-Hindu form of architectures are plenty. On the other hand pandals in the form of temples are not that common.

Snippet of craftsmanship involved in Durga Puja

Thursday, September 10, 2009

প্রথম বাংলায় ব্লগ

এই প্রথম ব্লগ সাইটে বাংলায় টাইপ করতে শিখলাম, দেখছি কেমন লাগে। বেশ interesting. আমি একটু অবাকই হচ্ছি এই ভেবে যে এত সহজ ব্যপারটা আমি আগে কখনও চেষ্টা করি নি কেন। একটা ছোট বাচ্চা যখন একটা নতুন কোন খেলনা পায়, তখন তার যেরকম অবস্থা হয়, আমারও অবস্থা এখন সেই রকম। বিনা কারণে লেখা লেখি করে যাচ্ছি। শুধু একটাই দুঃখ থেকে গেল যে বেশীর ভাগ লোকই বাংলায় ব্লগ পড়তে পারবে না।

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Where Devotion Really 'Pays'

It’s no secret that millions of rupees are spent during the major festivals in India. Often it’s criticized that it’s blasphemous to spend so much money in a poor country like us for things of entertainment and fun. People tend to point out that such huge amount of money be better spent on other more constructive things like health and education. Yes, there’s no debate on the point whether we need more expenses on education and health care. We know very well that effective spending in health and education has to be done by the governments. The NGOs and the private parties can’t cover the length and breadth of such a big country like India. The huge amounts of money that are spent in the Indian festivals don’t come from the government’s fund. People may argue that much of the black money is also spent in such events. But then that money won’t have gone to government anyway. So even if this huge amount of money is not spent in the festivals our governments won’t have spent more amounts for health care and education. On the contrary this huge expenditure that India does on these festivals is actually a direct channel through which a large amount of money reaches the relatively financially weaker sections of the society very fast from the comparatively richer people. I don’t see any other channel through which money can change hands so fast from the rich to poor in so less time. So from that point of view, these festivals – which are manifestations of our devotions, actually pay off in distributing wealth in otherwise financially skewed society.

Let’s take some example. I’ve been trying to get an estimate of the amount of money spent in Durga Pujas and the Ganesha Pujas in Bengal and Maharastra, Diwali throughout India and Id in certain areas. Not many festivals in India result in so much of private spending. But unfortunately I couldn’t find any authentic estimate of the total private spending in any of these events. In this blog site there is some realistic estimate of the amount that may be spent during Durga Puja just in Calcutta by the various clubs that organize the Pujas. This expenditure doesn’t include any of the spending that the people do in terms of buying new clothes. As per this blog a very pessimistic estimate would arrive at a figure of $250million. An optimistic estimate can very well reach close to $1billion for greater Calcutta. For the time being we can stick to this figure of $1billion. It’s true that a big chunk of this amount may be black money spent by politicians or local ‘dadas’ (the Bong equivalents of the Bhais of Bombay) who patronize many of these Pujas. That shouldn’t bother us because at least the money is coming out into the Indian economy rather than being stashed away in Swiss Banks.

Now let’s see how this $1billion is being spent and where the money is actually flowing. The first name that comes to my mind is Kumortuli – the traditional Bengali name for the place where the idols are made by highly skilled people who have been doing this job for generations. Without creating the idols all these people would have had absolutely no other job, because the only thing that they know is to create these highly artistic idols. This form of folk art is one of the few surviving old arts in India. Even if the number of people involved in this occupation is not something big compared to the 1.2 billion people of India, still it’s not very insignificant also. More over from the cultural point of view it’s very important to preserve the heritage of any form of art. A good portion of this $1billion goes to these sculptors.

Next comes the thousands of laborers who get employment for close to 100 days just for putting up the pandals. Employment for 100 days for something constructive is something that even the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme fails to provide in many cases. I’m not aware of anything else where people pull in money to create guaranteed employment for so many people. You have to just see the creations of these people to believe what’s the level of skills and creativities they have. Undoubtedly the pandals created during Durga Puja are folk art, technology and creativity at their zenith. I don’t know if there is any other domain where all these unknown faces of the creative world would have shown their skills in this big a scale.

Then there are the people involved in setting up the fabulous lighting. People who have seen the Durga Puja in Calcutta and around would know how fantastic and terrific the lighting is. There also a huge number of people are involved who don’t have much to do otherwise throughout the year. Each of them has some specific skill which can be exploited to its maximum only during the Durga Puja.

The millions of people who throng the various Puja venues are catered to by few thousands of small time vendors who sell snacks, handicrafts etc. Never ever do they get so many customers. They wait for this period of the year for the most brisk business.

Dhak, a form of drum (dhol), very specific to Bengal, is an inseparable part of the festivities in Bengal. You can’t imagine a Durga Puja without the sounds of the dhaak beat. The people who play these instruments are surely as declining as the Royal Bengal Tigers. Lack of proper opportunity is killing these people who have been playing dhak for centuries. If it’s not for the Durga Puja, they would have been a Dodo by now.

Finally, Durga Puja is also a cultural festival. Almost all the Pujas have back-to-back cultural programs for all the four or five days. These give opportunity to many artistes from various fields of performing arts. Even the highest paid singers in Calcutta await these few days of Durga Puja for a good remuneration. There are many artistes who may hope to get some work only during Durga Puja. Their numbers may not be huge, but still Durga Puja plays a critical role in patronizing art – something that has been in a phase of decline since the death of royalties in India.

A very crude estimate says that there may be roughly 5000 Durga Pujas in Calcutta. Even by the most pessimistic estimate, each Puja requires the involvement of at least 20 people for at least a month. This means Durga Puja in Calcutta creates employment for at least 100K people belonging to 100K households, which translates into at least 600K people - a better estimate may put this figure close to a million (160K households), which is almost 10% of the population of Calcutta. This figure doesn’t include the many more thousands of the vendors that put up temporary shops outside the pandals and even thousands more people involved in the industries (mainly cottage and small scale) that supply the raw materials for putting up the pandals and setting up all other logistics involved. Taking the example of one Durga Puja in Bangalore where I’m personally involved, I can say that out of the estimated $1billion spent in Calcutta, close to 60-70% actually goes towards the wages of the people (estimated at 150K – belonging to 150K households of 1million people) directly working for the Pujas and buying raw materials, and 30-40% goes for cultural programs and entertainment – which in turn impact many thousands of households which are not that easy to estimate.

Had it not been for the Puja, almost this entire amount of $1billion would have been either not spent at all or spent for something else which would have taken much longer to percolate to these 1million people. For example, say you pay Rs.1000 towards a particular Puja. Had there not been this Puja then you would have either saved this money or spent on eating out or buying some CDs, or watching a movie or just chilling out in a pub. In all these cases also your 1000 bucks would have percolated to few of these 1million people, but off course not at the rate at which it does in the case of Durga Puja.

The same mathematics would apply for the other festivals also. So all these festivals, which are indirect or direct manifestations of our devotions and religiosity, actually play a great role in our economy. So devotions do ‘pay’ at times!!