Arts funding

Like most journalists, I get lots of requests for meetings from people who have ideas to parlay, products to push, locations to publicize, and so on. Like most journalists, I am also prickly about such meetings because I don’t want to be played, as it were. The assumption is: hey, I know you have an agenda, but I’ll be damned if I am going to be your tool in pushing this agenda.
So you go in defensive and doubt everything. So it was with the IFA.
Before I went in, I said, let me write a column about funding for the arts because so many institutions are facing that. It turned out to be a piece about the IFA. Here it is below.

Why we don’t value our arts enough
No arts institution in India pays enough attention to cultivating demand
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Aug 17 2013. 12 06 AM IST
Animation film-maker Aditi Chitre explores visual arts of Nagaland. Photo courtesy: IFA

Arundhati Ghosh, the slim executive director of the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), is telling me about fund-raising, specifically how hard it is to raise funds for the IFA. We are sitting at the French Loaf Bakery in Bangalore’s Richards Town, a lovely neighbourhood with a flavour of the quiet genteel city that this once used to be.
Ghosh says that there are about 400 “Friends of the IFA”, which is arguably India’s only grant-based arts-funding organization. I checked with my art sources in Mumbai and Delhi to verify this claim. There are residencies such as Khoj in Delhi and 1Shanthi Road in Bangalore; art and performance venues like Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) and Prithvi Theatre; prizes to fund the arts such as the ŠKODA PRIZE, which was discontinued recently; arts foundations like Delhi’s Devi Art Foundation and Bangalore’s Tasveer Foundation that sponsor shows and talks. There are private museums like the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and countless galleries that provide an ecosystem for the arts.
There is corporate support for the arts in ways large and small. The Himalaya Drug Company often sponsors theatre performances at Bangalore’s Ranga Shankara, itself an arts incubator and ecosystem. Sangita Jindal of Jindal Steel Works owns and runs the excellent ART India magazine and does heritage preservation in Hampi. The Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) gets more press than the quieter and equally interesting Sanatkada Lucknow Festival that the company organizes. The Tatas have established institutions like the NCPA, but many of their trusts now focus on livelihoods. The Ratan Tata trust, for example, gives only 1% of its funds to ”culture”, according to their website. I couldn’t come up with a single organization that does what the IFA does.
I didn’t plan to write a column about the IFA. I have no connection with the organization and knew little about it till recently. What it does, and has done for the last 10 years, is give grants, ranging from Rs.3-8lakh, to arts projects of dizzying diversity. Gautam Pemmaraju of Mumbai used his Rs.5 lakh to explore the satirical poetic tradition in Dakhani known as the Mazahiya Shairi. Sajitha Madathil used Rs.3 lakh to study women’s participation in three different Kerala performance traditions: Kathakali, Mudiyattam, and Singari Melam. Navtej Johar of Delhi used his Rs.3 lakh to create a dance-drama based on Jean Genet’s play, The Maids. Tejal Shah used her grant to create a video installation that will feature at Documenta, a prestigious arts festival in Germany. Vidyun Sabhaney used his Rs.5 lakh grant to see how patachitra of Bengal, kaavad of Rajasthan and togalu gombeyatta of Karnataka depict stories from the Mahabharat. Kolkata Sanved of Kolkata used its Rs.8 lakh grant to run creative arts workshops with children living on railway stations. Aditi Chitre is exploring the visual arts of Nagaland. And so it goes. This model is problematic because individual companies don’t get brand recognition or PR from contributing to the IFA, although senior executives in various companies underwrite specific projects with a pan-Indian or regional bent. Tara Sinha, a former trustee, for example, funded a conference on Tamil movies, while Sandeep Singhal of investment firm WestBridge Capital underwrote a performance by the Mir musicians of Rajasthan.
By all accounts, the IFA is a worthy organization. Then, why are they having so much trouble raising funds? “The value of the arts is so intrinsic to our lives that it is almost invisible to us,” says Ghosh. “Other developmental needs like roti, kapda, makaan in India becomes more vital to support.” This is true. In the hierarchy of needs that weigh down our society, education, water, poverty, sanitation, livelihood and a whole host of health concerns rise up to the surface. Funding the arts pales in comparison with the exigencies of cancer research or educating the girl child. Simply put, we don’t know how to value art in our society. “Everyone has an idea on what’s art and what is ‘good’ art,” says Ghosh. “If you fund a school, such debates are limited, but not so in the arts.” The income tax exemption of 50% doesn’t help either. Gifts in kind such as land, building or paintings don’t get any exemptions. No wonder more NCPAs aren’t built—nobody wants to donate the land.
I called Lalit Bhasin, a Supreme Court lawyer, and a trustee of the IFA, to find out why he supports the arts. “Every other activity has a support system—not the arts,” he says. “As a lawyer, I can say that we have set up libraries for budding young lawyers. We help with education, medicine and the environment. The arts have been left behind with no one to project or promote it.”
Jaithirth Rao, another IFA trustee, makes a different kind of argument. By focusing on economics and security, he says, we will imitate the Prussian model, and “we know what happened to that model in 1945”. He links the arts to livelihood—I can see the long arm of fund-raising in this. “Our work on Rajasthani folk music, virtually a new genre which seems to be commercially viable has emerged. The work on Tamil Nadu murals could boost tourism. For the next level of economic growth, we cannot be order takers—we need our own creativity. Remember, (Steve) Jobs studied calligraphy in college,” says Rao.
There is another more complex reason why the IFA and other arts institutions are having trouble with raising funds, and it demands another column. Here is a hint: No arts institution in India pays enough attention to cultivating demand. They assume that funding worthwhile projects is enough. It isn’t.

Shoba Narayan is researching demand for the arts for her next column.

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.

On Indian Rock music

For Mint here and pasted below.

  • Columns
  • Posted: Thu, Nov 10 2011. 8:54 PM IST
The (rock) music is someplace else
Someplace Else is cozy and dark. It has uncomfortable bar stools that jiggle when you crane your neck to watch the old-timers hum to the songs

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

I am doing something I haven’t done in a long time: asking a perfect stranger out to a nightclub in a strange city. Now that I have your attention, let me tell you that this piece is about music, not blind dates. His name is Prasanna Singh, and I found him online. He writes a blog called Musings of A Manic Manipuri Metalhead, in which he discusses the music scene of Kolkata with headers such as “The PIT v.5—Rising Fists”. I stumbled on his blog when I did a search on “Rock Music Kolkata”.

For a music lover, Kolkata offers a fork. You can walk down the path of Shastriya Sangeet and Rabindra Sangeet, or you can savour its regional take on Western music. Bands such as Fossils, Cactus and Bhoomi blend a love of rock with a distinct local beat and look—like the bright kurtasworn by Bhoomi. Bengali friends in Singapore and New York would play their music, both out of nostalgia and a desire to appear cool.


Atmosphere in spades: The Someplace Else bar is just the right degree of uncomfortable.

Atmosphere in spades: The Someplace Else bar is just the right degree of uncomfortable.


I emailed Singh primarily because I disagreed with him. In his blog, he writes knowledgeably and passionately about the Kolkata music scene and then complains that it is “stuck in some kind of weird limbo”. Perhaps, but no more stuck than other metros, was my contention. At least Kolkata has annual music events such as “The PIT” where nearly 1,000 crazy metal heads come together to hear local bands such as Dark Ritualz, Burnout Syndrome, Sinful Oath, NoyzeAkademi, Evil Conscience, What Escapes Me, Chronic Xorn and Yonsample, all listed in Singh’s blog. 

I said as much to Singh in my email, and later on phone. We got talking. He laid out the music landscape of the city: who the bands were and what their style was. After a while, we got down to nitty-gritty. I was going to be in Kolkata mid-week, I said. Was there any place where I could hear local bands play live? Perhaps I could tag along if he was going club-hopping with his friends? And that, my friends, is how it is done. That’s how you ask a perfect stranger out to a nightclub.

Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

After a pause, he said, “Well, if you want to hear live music, you should go to someplace else.”

“Sorry. Which place else?”

“Someplace Else. It’s the only place in Cal that has live music every day of the week.”

So it came to be that I found myself on a Tuesday night at a cozy lounge bar called Someplace Else, listening to Krosswindz take their devoted but small audience to a musical high. They didn’t play original music that night, but they played popular rock songs with passion and interpretational integrity. Singh stood me up. Well, not really. We were to meet on a Wednesday, but the government declared it a dry day so I was on my own on Tuesday.

Most people go to bars for three things: great atmosphere, live acts and perfectly mixed drinks. Atmosphere has to do with age, coziness and a certain non-intimidating comfort. Wooden floors are an advantage, particularly those discoloured by cigarette butts and spilt drinks. The place has to reek of music and moods, lovers’ quarrels and sweet nothings. It has to “play it” like Casablanca—the movie, not the place. You know what I mean?

The Village Vanguard in New York has this nebulous construct called atmosphere in spades; as do many of the bars on Bourbon Street, New Orleans. They have human proportions. Bangalore’s B-Flat is fairly large, but uses oversize sofas to make the space seem smaller. Blue Frog in Mumbai, on the other hand, is too big and self-consciously stylish for me. It isn’t uncomfortable enough. You know those smoky, catastrophic places that smell bad but somehow persuade you to get drunk enough to dance on the table? Blue Frog makes you stand up straighter and tuck your stomach in.

Someplace Else is cozy and dark. It has uncomfortable bar stools that jiggle when you crane your neck to watch the old-timers hum to the songs. Over dinner, Jayanta Dasgupta, who transforms from a suburban Dad to the smoky voiced, grinning lead guitarist for The Saturday Night Blues band, recounted an evening when his band was playing at Someplace Else. An American man stood right in front. “He was fanning my guitar and I was like, ‘Dude, what you doin’, man? Get off me,’ and the American guy says, ‘You guys are smokin’, man. I am just cooling you down.’” Dasgupta laughed. He reminded me of Peter Pan.

After midnight, I followed the band members of Krosswindz up to the coffee shop at The Park hotel, where they were having pizza. Lead guitarist “Tuki-da”, or Vikramjit Banerjee, told me stories about the Kolkata greats: Usha Uthup, Louiz Banks, Nondon Bagchi, Bertie D’Silva and others. He estimates that Kolkata has about 5,000 informal bands, 80% of whom play in Bangla. “Bengalis like to express themselves,” he said. “Instead of eve teasing, we compose music.”

If what he says is true, Bengali women are lucky indeed.

Two days ago, at a Bangalore book party for my cousin, C.Y. Gopinath, I listened to a roomful of musicians play the blues—Radha Thomas, Ramjee Chandran, the legendary Suresh Shotam, Aman Mahajan and Chandran Sankaran. Call me biased, but if Kolkata is where the music scene is happening now, and Bangalore is the past or the future, depending on whom you ask, my hometown Chennai is where it all began. A disproportionate number of musicians, including the late genius, Dilip Balakrishnan, and every single musician in that Cooke Town home, save Mahajan, could trace their roots to that humid city so suffused with music. Visit it during the upcoming December season and see for yourself.

Shoba Narayan took Prasanna Singh’s permission before writing about him. Singh is engaged to a Manipuri girl and works in IT. Write to her at

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