Sensual India

This is one of my favorite pieces and it took a while to write.
It appears in a magazine called Eat Stay Love that is the in house magazine of Aman, Four Seasons, and other luxury hotels in India.
Some time ago, a lady from a custom publishing group contacted me. They do the magazines for the Oberoi and Taj group. This was for the foreign brands, she said. Would I write a column for them? This article is the result.

I am happy with it for several reasons. Defining the Indian aesthetic has become a pastime/obsession for me (and countless others from the sound of it). It allowed me to “name-drop” all my favorite brands without having to appear pseudo. Once I registered that the people reading this piece would be primarily foreigners and I had to “unlock” India for them using the brands they were familiar with, it became easy.

Thank you, Radhika Misra for introducing the group to me. Click the link below and it is pasted below without the photos

122-123 LOVE – Shobha Narayan

For Eat, Stay, Love

How do you define a nation’s aesthetic or style in one word? Some are obvious. Japan’s minimalism as epitomized by Tadao Ando’s architecture, or the tea ceremony. Dutch avante garde product design, witness Maarten Baas’ smoked furniture or Marcel Wanders’ crochet chair. German perfection, as seen in Jil Sander’s clothes, Dieter Ram’s products, or automobiles such as the BMW. Swiss precision as in Akris’ dresses, Jaeger LeCoultre’s complications, and Patek Phillippe watches. French insouciance– think of Jane Birkin mixing a Dior suit with a casual cashmere scarf, or Catherine Deneuve’s je ne sais quoi. America’s sporty casual chic epitomized by J.Crew clothes, Ralph Lauren suits and Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dresses. Korea’s street style, also known as Gangnam style. Latin sexiness as seen in Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem’s brooding looks. Italian flamboyance, Chinese economic clout, Australia’s easygoing nature, and the Middle East’s wealth. These are instant associations that we make with a culture and country.

What about India? How to describe India’s style credo in one word? The Indian government tried it with its successful “Incredible India” campaign, which encapsulates the varied marvels of this land. But it didn’t delve deep into the Indian aesthetic; its notion of style and luxury. All this requires a much more specific moniker. After months of pondering, I believe I have come up with one: sensual. India is supremely sensual. Put another way, India’s sensuous aesthetic, as reflected in its people, places, ways of life and behavior is unparalleled and hard to find anywhere else in the world, save perhaps Bali (and Bali’s sensuality comes from a Hindu root that came from India). Isn’t this what we call culture?

Let me elaborate. Sure, India is colorful, chaotic, a study in contrasts, expressive, emotional , spiritual. But if there is one stylistic statement that unites us as a nation, it is our sensuality. A Gujarati banker may wear bespoke Zegna suits to meetings in Mumbai or New York. Come Dussehra, he will dance the sinuous dandia under a moonlit sky in Baroda or Amdavad. A Tamilian executive may wear Jimmy Choo heels and Prada pants to client meetings; but she will also walk barefoot on Chennai’s dewy grass wearing Kanjivaram silks, and braid mogra jasmine into her curly hair. A Sindhi entrepreneur may entertain using Baccarat, Reidel and Versace, but when at home, he will eat Sai Bhaji on a simple stainless steel plate that Subodh Gupta used to make million-dollar sculptures. A Kashmiri shopkeeper may sell pashmina shawls and handwoven carpets with brisk efficiency to tourists; but he will slowly savor fragrant Kahwa tea with slivered almonds and saffron during his break. The Delhi socialite may carry her Hermes Kelly bag to garden parties but she will lounge at home in soft diaphonous muslin while getting a sandalwood oil massage. The Rajasthani prince may have turned his palace into a hotel but he sees nothing wrong in wearing inherited Cartier necklaces with giant emeralds while greeting guests. India is over-the-top; supremely sensuous; and the opposite of the less-is-more Bauhaus or minimalist aesthetic. As others have noted, India is about more-is-more. Regardless of region or social class; regardless of state or stature, Indians are extremely fond of and comfortable with sensuality. Indeed they seek in in daily life.

It is this exuberant sensuality that dazzles tourists when they visit India; and it is what a discerning traveler should seek in this land. Enjoy your body being turned to pulp with an ayurvedic massage beside the beach under rustling coconut palms in Kerala. Dine on a Petrus paired with freshly caught fish after. Listen to the plaintive strains of the Manganiyar singers while sipping a pepper mojito. Drape yourself in a Sabyasachi woven sari from his flagship store in Kolkata. Visit the boutique stores of Bombay where contemporary chic meets Indian aesthetic. Go gallery hopping in Lado Sarai, Delhi and buy the young artists on their way to becoming superstars. These are the pleasures of India. They can be uber-expensive, or they can, like a paan, be had for pennies.

One way to access this sensuality is through products that you buy: a small vial of pure sandalwood oil that costs about US$150 at Cauvery emporium on MG Road, Bangalore. I mix it with almond oil imported from the States and use it like a moisturizer. Another way to take home a piece of sensual India is through its handwoven textiles, each in beautiful jewel tones with evocative names: blushing rose, eggplant flower purple, tender leaf green and other. Saris symbolize India and you can take home a traditional Benares silk sari that feels like heaven and costs a few thousand dollars. What comes across in all these purchases is India’s astounding regional variations. We may speak in English but we sing in Telegu, recite sonnets in Urdu, serenade in Hindi and argue in Bengali. The expressiveness of our tongue epitomizes a very particular aesthetic. Through our language, we convey our spirit.

Sensuality is an Indian art form, perfected since the age of the kama sutra. It is what India lives and dies for; and it is what, you can– if you are lucky– seek and experience.

Shoba Narayan is the author of “Monsoon Diary” and “Return to India.”

Profile of Sabyasachi

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

Clad in a khadi kurta-pyjama and Ferragamo flats, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, 37, is having lunch at the ITC Sonar, Kolkata. It is 4pm. We are at the coffee shop. He orders lal maas. I have already eaten. I order jhalmuri.

“You can’t have muri (puffed rice) in a five-star hotel,” protests Mukherjee, who calls himself a “street food and puchka (panipuri) connoisseur”. He dismisses the famous man near the Park Hotel as selling “Marwadi puchka with snow peas and chana in it”. The bestpuchkas, he says, are in south Kolkata, near his parents’ home. But then, every Kolkatan I know says the best puchkas are near where they live.

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Mukherjee is also a “biryani freak” and will only buy it at Rahmania or Nizam’s for their “sinfully greasy biryanis”. Fish, he says, has to be eaten at home. He tastes myjhalmuri and finds, to his surprise, that it is “fantastic”. I bite into gravel while chewing. Perhaps, the hotel buys the dish from the street and sells it to its patrons. We order two more portions.

Started with a Rs. 20,000 loan he took from his sister, Payal, in 2002, Sabyasachi, the label, has grown into a behemoth, employing over 600 craftspeople, 32 assistants, including one from Harvard, and revenue topping Rs. 52 crore in 2011. Part of the reason is Mukherjee’s talent, but a bigger reason is his shrewd business acumen that allows him to spin fantasies out of this City of Joy.

“I am not India’s most talented or creative designer. But I am India’s most influential and powerful commercial designer,” he says matter-of-factly. There is context, of course. I asked him to rate himself. The man doesn’t go around making such pronouncements. Yet his smugness is galling.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

I stare at him from across the table. With his long, wavy hair, Cheshire cat smile, and well-argued opinions, Mukherjee is hardly the angst-ridden, self-destructive designer along the lines of John Galliano or Alexander McQueen. Though perfectly courteous, he doesn’t pander or charm. He doesn’t seek to be liked and, frankly, is a bit too “sorted” for me. But after two days in his company, I end up with grudging respect for his fashion sensibilities. I like his reverence for textiles, his love of artisanal craftsmanship, his pride in being Indian, and the fact that he knows his mind and isn’t afraid to speak it. He slams the Hermès sari, waxes eloquent about the Dabu mud-resist hand-block print techniques of Rajasthan, and bemoans the fact that Indians don’t embrace native handmade traditions with the fervour that they do foreign brands.

“In airports, sometimes I will see African women dressed in their traditional garb—turbans and robes. I know that they will be travelling first-class because they have that confidence,” he says. “Why can’t we Indians take pride in our native clothes?”

When his sister got married, Mukherjee bought her saris from every region of India. His favourites are the weaves from Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, and the south. He has little use for socialites in their bandage dresses. “A Queenie Dhody will never influence fashion the way a Vidya Balan, Rani Mukerji or a Sonia Gandhi can,” he dismisses—somewhat self-servingly, given that these particular celebrities (the first two anyway) wear his saris.

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity: Frida Kahlo, Mira Nair, Deepti Naval,Mallika Sarabhai, the dancer Shobana, Sonal Mansingh, Rekha, Gulzar, Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, and get this—Usha Uthup.

He describes Uthup attending one of his food festivals, wearing a Kanjeevaram sari and Adidas sneakers. “She had glued pieces from her old Kanjeevaram blouses on her sneakers. She could only wear sneakers these days, she said, and wanted them to match her saris. That, I thought, was true innovation,” says Mukherjee. “They looked likeManish Arora shoes but I don’t think she had heard of Manish. She is a true original.” As for the socialites who throng his stores: “They are of no consequence to me. I don’t care if they buy my clothes. I don’t make it for them.”

You sound like a businessman, I accuse. He doesn’t budge. “I am first and foremost a businessman and only then a designer,” he says. Providing a livelihood for his artisans gives him satisfaction and keeps him up at night. When the right time comes, he says he will hire a designer to take over his role and do other things: Design hotels, public spaces; make movies; music; do art projects—all the things that his brutal schedule doesn’t allow him to do. “Sabya has been saying this for years,” says a fashion designer friend of mine.

Mostly, he works. He is at his workshop in Kolkata from 9am-10pm every day, except when he travels. He doesn’t like to socialize—he thinks compliments “mess up your mind”. He relaxes by sleeping; likes to live in isolation, and ploughs all his money back into his business. He rents a one-bedroom apartment that has a large terrace and bathroom to indulge in the two things he likes to do: take long baths and gaze at the stars. “There is so much give and take in my business that I like to relax in isolation,” he says.

His family is intimately involved in the business. His beautiful sister, Payal, is the “bedrock”, says an assistant. His father, a chemical engineer, manages the finances, and his mother, an artist, has been asked to step aside and “take rest”. Mukherjee confesses that he still keeps his splurges on shoes from his dad, and accountant. “I mean, dad knows that his son earns a lot of money but I don’t want him to think that we have changed as people. So I tell my sister that when we do some indulgent shopping, it’s nicer for him not to know. I don’t want him to think he has raised two monsters who have completely lost the plot.”

What about romance, I ask? Are you gay? “Yes,” he says in the tone that we say, “Duh,” this destiny’s child. He is not in a hurry to find a soulmate. That will happen, he says confidently.

We talk style. He likes Dries Van NotenStella McCartneyMarc Jacobsand Coco Chanel: all designers who’ve never pandered to fashion editors. He dismisses Sonam Kapoor as a model and clothes horse rather than a style icon, unlike, say, Zeenat Aman. “What today’s celebrities don’t realize is that you need to be consistent to be an icon. You cannot do sari one day, pants the next and a dress on the third. If you look at style icons, you’ll see that they all have a very consistent style—Audrey Hepburn in her Givenchys; Mrs Kennedy in her sheath dresses or even Madonna in her crucifix and underwear.”

I make a mental note to wear the same style of clothes consistently. But what—sari or sheath dress? That’s the question.

After two days in his company, I go from disdain to dislike to grudging respect to wanting to be liked. I want this man’s respect. Who is your ideal customer, I ask. “The woman who doesn’t need Sabyasachi the brand but understands Sabyasachi the product,” he replies. “Secretly every designer in the world hankers for that kind of customer.”

These days, Shoba Narayan walks up to strangers everywhere and compliments them on their woven saris. Someday she will wear India’s weaves on a regular basis. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


Sabyasachi Mukherjee

I spent two days hanging around Sabysachi.  He’s an interesting man.  Here is a story about him that appeared in The National.  Also pasted below.

The sari warrior

Shoba Narayan

Nov 26, 2011
Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee wants his customers to take pride in wearing Mukherjee saris and weaves.

The fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is sitting on the floor of his sprawling workshop in Kolkata, surrounded by 10 people. All around are piles of fabric. There are rich brocades in pink and purple, hardy indigo-dyed cloth, swatches of airy beige voile, rich Benares silks and nubby cotton. Two men sit on a desk, drawing floral designs that will end up as borders on his saris and skirts. A PR person walks in, stating that a Bollywood star, Priyanka Chopra, is at his Mumbai store and wants to use an outfit for an awards show.

“Sure, let her take it. Why do you need to ask?” says Sabya, as he is universally known. Three assistants surround him with patterns that need approval. Mukherjee, 37, knows his mind. He tells the sari designer that the embroidery needs to start at the waist, where it will catch a woman’s curved silhouette; instructs another assistant to flip a pattern so that the richly textured paisley print will come at chest level rather than at the waist; and tells a third that the design needs a complete revamp.

An assistant walks in and announces that he has won the Elle Fashion Designer of the Year award. Mukherjee barely registers the praise. “What happened to the blue khadi sari?” he asks the American Harvard University student who is interning with him.

Mukherjee the label (not the man) operates out of a giant three-storey white building in the outskirts of Kolkata. The lucrative bridal collection occupies the ground floor. Here, mannequins clad in sumptuous, intricately woven lehengas (skirts) that are the mainstay of north Indian weddings stand in the dim light. Gold jewellery lines the glass counters. Rooms are full of weavers, tailors and fabric dyers and sorters.

“I am not just a designer. I am a businessman,” saysMukherjee. “One of the biggest challenges that I grapple with is workflow. I have over 600 people who depend on me for their livelihood, not to mention weavers all across India.”

Mukherjee is often called the most successful fashion designer operating in India today, with, he says, an annual turnover of US$11 million (Dh40.4m) – small by global standards, but large in terms of the Indian fashion industry, where labels die after a collection or two. After graduating from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in 1999, Mukherjee began his label with three employees and money borrowed from his sister, Payal. She still works with him, as does his father, who takes care of the finances. His mother gave him his creative bent.

“We are four dysfunctional people in a very functional family,” he says with a laugh.

With long wavy hair and an easy smile, the designer cuts a slim figure that belies his prodigious talent and ambition. “Sabya is a seminal designer, who, along with Anamika Khanna, took fashion from Kolkata to a higher level,” says the Bangalore-based fashion consultant Prasad Bidapa.

After showing at Milan, New York and all across Asia, including the UAE, where he retails, Mukherjee has embarked on an ambitious project: to make fashionable Indians appreciate Indian weaves. He has initiated a project called Save the Sari, where he retails hand-woven Indian saris and donates the entire proceeds to Indian weavers.

“My goal is to make Indians aware of our country’s resources,” he says. “No machine can replicate what Indian hands can achieve with textiles. The trick is to make consumers take pride in wearing our saris and weaves.”

At Mukherjee’s beautiful flagship store in Kolkata, he has commissioned weaves from the southern textile capital of Kanjivaram and embellished the saris with his own designs. Each sari sells for close to US$2,000, and rich Kolkata matrons and their Prada-clad daughters are lining up to buy them. Mukherjee stands amid them, giving advice on colours and patterns when needed. He likes to sell. He likes helping women pick out clothes. No reclusive, angst-ridden designer, this.

“You hardly ever come across design individuals in India with such a strong DNA imprint in their work,” says Kallol Dutta, a younger fashion designer based in Kolkata. “I was gobsmacked when I saw his collections.”

Mukherjee’s latest pet peeve is the Hermès sari, which, he says, has been launched by the famed French house for an unseemly price of US$9,200.

“India offers beautifully handwoven and handprinted saris, but the sad thing is that we Indians don’t realise their value. This is why a brand like Hermès can dare to come into this country and sell a $9,000 sari here. The sad thing is that Indians will queue up to buy an Hermès sari without realising that they are simply wearing a price tag.”

And with that, Mukherjee goes off to help a lovely Indian bride pick a rare Kanjivaram weave for her trousseau.

Kolkata Durga Puja for Mint

This piece came out in Mint Lounge this week.

When Kolkata Turns into a Temporary Museum

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan
 It is 1am, but the Shiv Mandir para(neighbourhood) in Kolkata is hopping. Shorts-clad young men named Deb and Dickie are working alongside about 20 artisans who are erecting what seems to be a gigantic bamboo stage set, but is in fact a homage to Ma Durga. Tall tribal musicians made of bamboo are hoisted upright as five men anchor them to the ground. About eight bamboo musicians stand at the entrance to the pandal, serenading a multi-hued peacock made by sticking coloured wrapping paper on circle-cut bamboo. Can you imagine staple-gunning red, yellow and blue wrapping paper cut in small circles over bamboo that has been fashioned to resemble a peacock’s tail? That’s what these artisans did over the last three months.

The man in charge, artist Subrata Banerjee, walks around, cigarette in hand, smiling at our compliments. He’s done the Suruchi Sangha pandaltoo, he says, and used the theme of Kashmir. Inside the pandal, on a red-oxide floor, white alpona designs are being drawn under the watchful eye of the club’s general secretary, Partho Ghosh. The volunteers have day jobs—they run cable companies, work in the tea industry and teach in colleges. Every now and then, they sit in cane chairs beside the pandal, and have—what else—an adda. Yet, they have assembled here, night after night, for the last three months, erecting apandal that will open on Sunday to a mass of humanity that will dwarf the carnival at Rio.

“For us, Durga Puja is over on the 30th,” they tell me. “After that, we plan for next year.” Planning involves collecting money from the neighbourhood, finding sponsors, hiring the right artisan group, building the idols and accoutrements—off-site at first and then on-site, vying for the prizes that are on offer, and then pulling it all together days before Durga Puja officially opens on what Bengalis call Shasthi, which is on Sunday. There are more prizes than pandals these days, laughs my friend Ghoshi (who didn’t want to be named). Some say Rs. 500 crore is at play in the market during Durga Puja in Kolkata.

How much did it cost to put up the pandal at Shiv Mandir? “Rs. 12 lakh,” says a man called Indranil. For the whole thing? We look up and around. It is like Arabian Nights meets Rajinikanth’s set. Dim lighting, lovely polished floor, elegant Durga. We are sceptical. “How much will bamboo and wrapping paper cost?” Indranil insists. Ghoshi and I bet that Shiv Mandir will win a few awards. At Mudiali, another para, about 50 people are hard at work. Ma Durga is tress-less. Her long black locks are being washed and blow-dried nearby, an artisan tells us. Another is tying a red glittering dhoti for Lord Ganesh. Ma Durga’s sari and make-up are done but her family is being ministered by a few artisans. There are giant pillars with intricate drawings all around, each one different from the other. A policewoman sits swatting flies outside. Why she’s keeping watch, I don’t know. I have never felt this safe in a neighbourhood after midnight.

The 66 Palli has created a chess set made of coir. They have wrapped the coir rope in tight circles to create the bishop, king, queen and pawns, all of whom lead up to Ma Durga, who is covered, while men paint her surroundings. It is subtle and very elegant. Last year, they won an award for the safest para. Others compete for the eco-friendliness, recyclable materials, sustainable, creative (of course), traditional, safe, and pretty much every calibration you can think of to rate human endeavour.

Badamtala is hopping. There is music. Women are chewing paan and drawing designs. Men shave wood for last-minute adjustments. In a nearby gali (lane), the entire pandal is made of what seems like paper. But it cannot be, for it rained last week. A broken fort has been erected, the entire thing made of thermocol.

The Dhirendranath Ghosh Road pandal is covered with grass. I am not kidding you. The entire building is a deep verdant green. The entrance has an agricultural theme. There are carved-wood scenes of farmers sowing seeds. Inside, lipstick is being painted on Ma Durga by fourlungi-clad, bare-torsoed men. Nandan Park is way behind. Their Durga hasn’t even arrived. And so it goes, lane after lane, till my head spins.

All the pandals have colour, intricate designs, stupendous sets and a Ma Durga. They use topical themes, says Ghoshi. In the past, paras have woven current news—the twin towers, saving tigers, the Taj Mahal hotel, cricket World Cup victories—into their pandals. We speculate on this year’s themes.

“Bin Laden,” shouts Ghoshi as we bounce over the Howrah Bridge, simply because they insist a first-time visitor has to see it. “Bin Laden as an asur (demon). Definitely.” “Anna Hazare,” shouts his wife. “Anna Hazare praying to Ma Durga along with Kiran Bedi and (Arvind) Kejriwal.”

“What about Mamata (Banerjee)?” I ask. “Mamata celebrating her win by vanquishing the demons. If Hema Malini can become Durga, why not Mamata?” We ponder the idea of Mamata as Durga as we turn around and ride back over the bridge because the pandals are on this side. Mamata as Durga? Doubtful.

The pandals take a lot of creative licence, says Rakhi Sarkar, the force behind the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art. It is just after noon. We are in her car, driving towards the Ekdalia Evergreen Club, where a German artist, Gregor Schneider, is creating the pandal. “Kolkata has become a temporary museum,” says Sarkar as we drive through the by-lanes, all of which seem to have a pandal. “It is as if the city is filled with installation art. There are concepts, visual imagery, and the paras take a lot of creative licence in how they depict the images.”

 

Religion meets art: German artist Gregor Schneider’s road-themed pandal for the Ekdalia Evergreen Durga Puja radically interprets the concept of a pandal as an artwork. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Religion meets art: German artist Gregor Schneider’s road-themed pandal for the Ekdalia Evergreen Durga Puja radically interprets the concept of a pandal as an artwork. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

 

Ekdalia Evergreen has taken a fairly large creative leap and is in the local news because of it. Schneider has created a pandalbased on his grandmother’s house. There is a road going straight up, a staircase going sideways and segments of a room. When we arrive, Schneider is out to lunch but the club’s general secretary, a Sikh, escorts us around. How does he think Kolkata will take the German’s installation, I ask him. “We are in an anxious moment because we cannot predict whether the people will like it,” he says. “We have to make them understand it. Because, you know, the German brain is a bit different from Kolkata people.” 

His comment defines the question I have been mulling since I arrived in Kolkata: How does tradition evolve? The Durga Puja celebrations epitomize the best of Indian festivals. They bring the community together; allowing people to take time off to celebrate and for creativity to flourish. Or do they? I saw dozens of pandals over three days. But I saw nothing that blew my mind in the way installation art can. Mostpandals were extraordinarily artistic, meticulously executed, and used materials creatively—rope to create a chess set, for example. But there was no huge differentiator in terms of content and creation. They were, at the end of the day, just pandals. Except the German’s. He was trying new things. He was creating a vertical road. This is my question: Is Ekdalia Evergreen to be lauded for taking such a brave approach to an ancient tradition? Or is it a foolish attempt at change just for the sake of it? Taali yagaali (brickbats or bouquets)? What is the verdict?

Some of my Kolkata friends think that Ekdalia Evergreen’s pandal will “bomb” because they are taking such a radical approach. Evolved art connoisseurs such as the Sarkar sisters who run the Centre of International Modern Art in Kolkata can appreciate such an attempt. “Only in Kolkata will you not have an agitation because a German artist is doing a pandal,” says Pratiti Sarkar. It’s true.

Ekdalia Evergreen’s model could be taken so much further. In a creative city like Kolkata, the pandals can be a way for collaborations to happen. I can see fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee or Anamika Khanna designing a pandal—locals both. How about if local artist Shreyasi Chatterjee, who stitches on canvas, designs a pandal? Artist Sumitro Basak says they do get involved. But not in any significant way. The thing that I am not clear about is whether getting a Sabyasachi or a Schneider involved in the making of a pandal is a good thing or not. Personally—given my taste for radical installation art, the more cutting-edge the better—I would love it. I think getting big-name artists to design the pandals would transform the artistic landscape of the city. It would be a game changer and show artisans what can be done. It wouldn’t be easy; it would take years of gaalis from the locals before a smattering of applause would begin.

It would need a visionary director of pandals, if such an office exists, to make it happen. But it would—and I know I sound impossibly arrogant here—lift a city’s creative sensibilities from the realm of tradition and connect it with what’s happening on the global art scene. And it can only be done in a city like Kolkata, with its highly honed instinct and appreciation for beauty. But should it be done? Should artistic traditions evolve by consensus or should they be jump-started by visionaries? Should a pandal go from year to year through communal give-and-take, artistic and otherwise, or should an Anamika Khanna or Aparna Sen take over the making of it?

Actor Parambrata Chatterjee would fall into the “don’t mess with tradition” camp. I meet him at a director’s adda (more on that in another column), and like a movie star, he lights up the room as he enters. Two pegs down and we are friends. “Bengalis are the sixth most spread out race all over the world,” he tells me. Only in Bengal will a male movie star give me gyan (educate me) on human migration patterns. “This festival connects people all over the globe, somewhat like Ganesh Chaturthi in Maharasthra, but much much bigger. More like Mardi Gras. Bengalis of every religion and community come together to make the pandals. The artisans painting the Goddess might happen to be Muslim.” Why mess with it, is what he leaves unsaid.

It is this passion that Durga Puja evokes that is the biggest obstacle to any wholesale redesign of the pandals. I might want a Paresh Maitypandal or a Rituparno Ghosh designed pandal, but for that, I have to get past how much every Bengali is invested in this. It isn’t a myth. I saw it with my own eyes.

Around 4am, Ghoshi has a crisis on his hands. We are still pandal-hopping in his Toyota Innova, but there is a problem in his para in Salt Lake. They don’t have a sponsor for the entrance gate and they want Ghoshi to sponsor it. A heated discussion ensues in Bengali. Ghoshi tells them he will sponsor the gate but he doesn’t want his fledgling company’s name on it.

The marketing and communication strategy for his firm is being done by Ogilvy in Mumbai, he pleads. We have a plan and deliverables. We can’t put our company name on Ma Durga’s pandal at first shot. The ad guys will walk out if we supersede their communication.

The pandal organizers are adamant. We already have made a space for the sponsor at the entrance gate. We can’t leave it blank.

We are standing on the side of a road beside the high court that serves the best street food in Kolkata. Stately white buildings glow in the dark.

In the distance, the Hooghly or Ganga river (call it what you like) flows through the City of Joy. At that moment, as I watch artisans painstakingly draw Ma Durga’s eyes in black, and my friend Ghoshi argue over sponsor names in Salt Lake, there is no place on earth I’d rather be.

Shoba Narayan thinks Kolkata has the sexiest taxis in all of India. And Bengalis drink superb Darjeeling tea. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com