Germany,  Kolkata,  Travel

The Unlikely Twins – Oberammergau in Germany & Kolkata

Kolkata Konnektion – My Soul Konnektion!

Kolkata is my city, my home. It stirs up my emotions, it stirs up my soul. The city at dusk through the heavy dark thunder clouds, the incessant noise from the crowded streets, the familiar faces, the multiple options of local savouries, the hurting riot of colours – all these rejuvenate me. I get confused when my non-Bengali Indian/Foreign friends ask me what they can do in Kolkata. Can I ask them to just experience a city in its own chaos?  
Wherever I go, whichever city I live in and call that my home, there is always a reference to something or someplace or somebody or some incident in Kolkata. It amuses me sometimes as well as it irritates me. I cannot severe my soul Konnektion!

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ImageSource: IshitaPhotoIdeas – Kolkata, Oberammergau

I call myself a specimen sometimes. It is not in a derogatory manner, I really take it as a compliment. It is indeed a compliment because a specimen represents a whole class. And I am that specimen who represents that whole class who try to connect everything – from food to fun derived in any part of the world to that derived in that same city/place on this earth where he/she grew up. It is peculiar and really odd how I try so hard and finally manage to find similarities between Mr Gyanendra Roy, our Mr Bengali with Mr Giuseppe Rossi, their Mr Italian. Or say, between Pancakes and ‘Patishapta’ (I think they are really the Bengali version of pancakes!). Or trying to match a street corner in Innsbruck with a particular street corner in Kolkata, just because the tram lines and the electric wires overhead the tram lines look familiar! Worse still, as my husband and I hold each others hands and snuggle into each other on our romantic gondola ride through the Venetian canals, I exclaim ‘Hey! Doesn’t this look like the water-logged streets of North Kolkata during the Monsoons?’

Ah-h-h, more than a hundred euros dumped straight into the Venetian canals! Have I lost it?

I don’t think so. I am very sure that there are other specimens like me.

This article is a toast to those specimens. And an initiation for those who still think that they are not! And in the course of their lives, they would surely turn into that specimen, even if it is for just 2 minutes…

Oberammergau, is hard to pronounce. It is a small Bavarian village/town in Germany, very close to Europe’s most beautiful village, Mittenwald. I have already written about Mittenwald earlier. Yes, it is where we had touched Rainbows and tried pinning down dancing clouds (Ref: A previous article of mine – Rainbows, Violins and the Disney Castle) Oberammergau is no different. Only, the town’s cultural history makes it more alluring.'Luftmalerei' in Oberammergau, Bavaria'Luftmalerei' in Oberammergau, Bavaria'Luftmalerei'  in Oberammergau, Germany

The entire town of Oberammergau is sewn with ‘belief’ and ‘passion’. The town is famous for its ‘Passion Play’ where more than half the inhabitants of Oberammergau takes part. About a 2,000 villagers brings the story of Jesus to life. This is not a mere enactment of a story that has captivated religious and spiritual beliefs for centuries.

The town, which at other times is serene, at the time of the ‘Passion Play’ vibrates with an enormous energy. Audiences flock from all around the world. The population swells up almost 20 times. Everyone seems to be in a daze as they immerse themselves in the play. The play starts with Jesus entering Jerusalem and continues with his painful death on the cross. In the finale as the resurrection takes place the crowd is totally exhilarated. People faint, people cheer, people cry – as they see the drama unfold.

The Oberammergau Passion Play was first performed in 1634. The inhabitants of the town vowed that if God spared them from the effects of a plague that had been sweeping the region they would perform a passion play every ten years. It involves over 2000 actors, singers, instrumentalists and technicians, and all of them are residents of the village.

Now comes my part where I uphold the tradition of being that hilarious specimen where I compare everything to Kolkata.

Yes, Oberammergau reminds me of Kolkata! There is no physical resemblance between the two what so ever. Oberammergau is visibly and literally beautiful. Kolkata is beautiful only to the selected onlooker. As if, the former is a beautiful girl, the latter is a girl who has a beautiful soul. The similarities lie in the strength of ‘beliefs’ of their residents. Every autumn when the festive mood hits Kolkata, the palpable energy and the feeling is same as that sweeping through Oberammergau during the Passion Play. The inhabitants of both the places are in the same fervour – there is this enormous ‘belief’ in the idols that they pray to. Goddess Durga, comes to life in Kolkata, whereas Jesus comes to life in Oberammergau. Everybody is involved. Everybody is touched. Everybody feels blessed. Everybody is strengthened in their beliefs. Everybody feels that they belong to each other, they know each other and they care for each other.

Damn the financial drainage! The Oberammergau Passion Play takes place once in a decade. The costs are enormous. The sets are built from scratch. It involves a huge task force – creative and otherwise to come up a play of such a huge stature. Is there any corporate sponsorship? I have no idea. And the costs in Kolkata? Again, I do not want to even make an estimate. Thousands of Puja Mandaps, thousands of ‘themes’ on which these Mandaps are built. The lightings, the structures, the extravaganza…

The Passion Play takes place once in a decade. Once a decade? Kolkata hasn’t heard of a concept called ‘once a decade’. We have the Durga Pujas or the ‘Durgotsav’ as it is called every year. And for 5 days! Goddess Durga has a complete family with 2 sons (Ganesha & Karthika) and 2 daughters (Lasksmi & Saraswati). All four of them belong to the family of Gods and Goddesses (henceforth, I will be referring to ‘Gods and Goddesses’ as G&Gs. Not inspired by D&G (Dolce & Gabbana), I assure you. G&Gs are an elite group. They are not like us, mortal human beings with surnames wagging behind our names. I am Ishita B Saha. My surname ‘B Saha’ follows my name. It tells everyone that probably my husband is a Saha and my dad has a surname starting with ‘B’, or my dad could be having a surname ‘B Saha’! Basically, it tells everyone where do I come from and what’s my lineage?

G&Gs don’t need these surnames which would give an inclination of their lineages. Goddess Durga is not known to have any surname. They have ‘forenames’ if I may term them as that. They have tags like Goddess and God as forenames. So it is Goddess Durga, Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Saraswati. But you can’t be having God Ganesha and God Karthika. You have Lord Ganesha and Lord Karthika. This is when we are mentioning the G&Gs in English. The male Gods seem to be have an affinity towards the English culture – they prefer to be LORDS!

There is a whole department in G&Gs office who make sure that each G&G is addressed with their proper forenames. Goddess Durga is Mother Durga (Ma Durga), when addressed in Bengali. We have Ma Lakshmi, Ma Saraswati etc. It works a bit differently for the Gods. We do not say Baba Ganesh, Baba Karthika. Neither do we call Lord Shiva who is the father of Lord Ganesha and Lord Karthika as Baba Shiva. Instead, we call him the Old Shiva (Buro Shiv). I never ever understood how we got the audacity to address the angriest Gods of all, Lord Shiva as an old man!

It is very complicated. It makes our lives complicated as well. We will have to play the matching game in our brains – matching the tags to the G&Gs before we fold our hands and close our eyes to pray! I have never been able to explain this to my non-Indian friends.

I have already mentioned that we have the Durga Pujas or the ‘Durgotsav’ as it is called every year. In between we have one Puja each for each of the 4 children of Ma Durga. Then we have various ‘Avatars’ of some G&Gs. And we have also assigned each day of the week to some G&G. So, on the whole we can be busy every day of a year, worshipping our selected G&Gs!

I am awed by Oberammergau. I am impressed with the control that the town has in not falling into the temptation of putting up the Passion Play every year. They have an USP which they could sell every year. But no!

Very unlike Kolkata! We like to surpass every statistics for the thrill of breaking the previous statistic.

Starting with the history of Kolkata. Kolkata is a metropolis now, but way back in the 18th century Kolkata was a small conglomeration of only 3 villages – Kalikata, Sutanuti, Gobindapur. See, how we have surpassed that and have turned into a huge metropolis. (According to Wikipedia, the Kolkata metropolitan area, including suburbs, has a population approximately 15.7 million, making it the third most metropolitan area in India and the 13th most populous urban area in the world!)

The name ‘Kolkata’ has been twisted from it’s initial ‘Kalikata’, which was believed to be a version of ‘Kalikshetra’ ie. the ‘Land of the Goddess Kali’ (yes, another Goddess whom we address as Ma Kali)! Bengalis, as confused as ever haven’t been able to exactly pinpoint the origin of the name. Is it from the Bengali term kilkila (flat area)? Or, from Khal, a natural canal followed by Katta (which may mean dug), ie a canal that has been dug? Or is it from kali chun (quick lime) and kátá (coir rope) that this place used to specialise in? Then it became Calcutta when the British ruled and now it is back to Kolkata!
If nobody knows the origin of the name of a city and has so many theories as to how it originated, can the residents be spared of this confusion? Hence, we Bengalis who are from Kolkata are always debating. About everything – politics, both international and domestic, food, culture, education, sports, entertainment – almost everything. We are good debaters. And we are always questioning. I always ask ‘Why do you ask?’ when my husband lovingly calls up to check on how my day went! It is not my fault. It is my environmental adaptation to the city where I was born and where I have spent most of my childhood in.

Oberammergau has been called ‘Oberammergau’ ever since Oberammergau came into being. There has been no major confusion with it’s name. It was named Oberammergau with all its German precision and will remain Oberammergau till the end of time! Since the name will never undergo any change the Germans have tweaked the name and have come up with a tongue-twister that is very popular! So much so for a name which has been stable since its inception. Unlike the fate of the name ‘Kolkata’. It is not even certain till how long Kolkata will remain Kolkata. There is no guarantee that the new political parties who come to power every now and then would like the sound of the name. In that case, a legislation will be passed after again so much of a debate, and then the fate of the name of this city called Kolkata will be sealed.

Both the places stun me with their artistic inclinations and the religious beliefs. Hinduism and Christianity – these are two different religions altogether with no apparent connection between the two. What connects both is the simplicity with which the residents display their undying religious belief. In Oberammergau, the dedication of an entire town to build up sets for the difficult play, the preparation that goes in – the music, the costumes, the performers etc is beyond imagination. It reminds me of Kolkata and all it’s preparations for the Pujas. The collection of money, the theme selection for the construction of the Puja Mandap (structure where the idol worship takes place) in each locality, the adrenaline rush through the nerves and the veins of the entire city as the dates for the Pujas draw close, the anticipation of the gossips, the absolutely bustling crowded streets and alleys, the eagerly anticipated road-side kiosks vendoring out the most delicious snacks and savouries…

Aroma of pancakes filtering through the alleys, the smell of butter, bacon and sausages, the over-filled trash bins with empty cans and beer bottles (in Kolkata you would most probably not be finding beer bottles though!) in Oberammergau builds up the same mood as in Kolkat. A visit to Komortuli, the potters’ quarters in North Kolkata is a visual paradise. It has a surreal feel to it as the artisans give form to the G&Gs as they layer and almost caress the basic straw structures of the idols with clay. There is a main artisan and there are small tiny artisan assistants surrounding the main artisan. The tiny dark alleys look like they are the small paths that would probably lead to heaven – mammoth structures of G&Gs block the tiny doorways of each artisan’s studio. You work along the alleys, you see the G&Gs being made by human hands and you feel quite strange that these idols will be worshipped with so much of fierce belief and faith, only a few days later! It is this same faith going around in Oberammergau’s air. Human hands build a stage where the play is enacted by mortals. But it is amazing how such an act enacted by humans (in both the Passion Play and the Durgotsav) translates ultimately into acts of the Immortal. It is with this unchallenging faith that sparks the creativity reflected in the making of the idols. In Kumortuli as well as Oberammergau, tradition plays an important role. Though there have been variations in the  ‘look’ of the play or the ‘look’ of the G&Gs, most artisans and craftsmen still want to hold on to the early traditions. The new generation wants to deviate from their traditional roots and venture into more lucrative career options. Kumortuli is more plagued with this outward migration than Oberammergau. But as you talk to the talented artisans you realise that the older generation does worry about their respective traditional art form dying a natural death. Since Passion Play takes place once a decade, there is still option for the younger generation to pursue other career options before they are homeward bound before the play, atleast once a decade, giving all the support required. Kumortuli however is not so lucky. Come Autumn and the demands for the idols pour in – not only from the various ‘themed’ Pujas or traditional Pujas taking place in the various ‘Paras’ (localities) in Kolkata and its neighbouring areas but also from abroad. Kumortuli’s clientele has extends upto America, Europe and Africa, among the Indian communities living there. Bengalis flock to Kumortuli from Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia, Austria and Poland. There are agents in Kumortuli to source the various NRI clients! The idols traveling abroad comes with various USPs – they can be ultra-light (I have heard of a 3kg entourage for entire Ma Durga’s family); they can be easily dismantled, folded, unfolded, boxed, flat-packed and what not! A combination of a desirable mobile phone and the the swedish technological innovations at IKEA! It will be miraculous if I knew that Ma Durga is traveling with us in an Air India Flight XXX to say, New York. Or Ma Durga flat-packed into the cargo of British Airways flight scheduled to London! Phew, that is amazing. Who says Bengalis are only intellectuals and cannot do much business when we have managed to export Ma Durga and her entourage to so many different parts of the world? That is almost like Shakira and her entourage on a world tour! Considering that, I think Bengalis have managed to do business but whether they can earn enough money from their businesses is another story altogether. Ma Durga is being sold worldwide but the artisans in Kumortuli still scrounge for a living. Creativity unfolds on the streets and each generation passes on their skills but yet the younger generation is trying to escape to a better future. The very well known, almost pioneering artisans with ‘Pal’ as their surnames, are still reigning in Kumortuli. They belong to the ‘old school’ and Puja organisers queue up in front of their ‘workshops’ as they place their orders, booking years and years in advance. Many might not agree with me but I do like to visualise them in air-conditioned studios creating these heavenly G&Gs while the younger generation design the variants in their swanky laptops (preferably Macbooks since I am a hard-core Mac fan). I am not asking for eradication of tradition, but I am all for empowering the new generation with technology and comfort so that they may withhold this great art tradition for generations to come with great anticipation rather than reluctance.

Making of clay idols of Gods & Goddesses, Kumortuli, KolkataMaking of clay idols of Gods & Goddesses, Kumortuli, KolkataI take my girls to Kumortuli for a visit. A chapter in their education and initiation into their cultural roots. It seems afternoons are strictly siesta time and invisible banners saying ‘no entertaining visitors’ hang in front of the workshops. Some artisans are taking a break. The others who are not taking a break takes a break from talking. As the girls ask innumerable questions, they look at me with disgust and disbelief that we are actually asking questions and we are actually curious. They ask us to collect ‘permission slips’ from the small Police post comprising of one table and one chair and one policeman sitting in one dilapidated workshop in one street corner. Now, I gather that we can ask as many questions as we want. With these ‘permission slips’ we gather all our courage (you need courage to speak when you face a reluctant-to-speak person, isn’t it?) and re-switch on our curiosity mode. Again the same reluctant face and the lackadaisical look.

‘Do you have ‘permission slips’’?
‘Yes, we do.’
‘What do you want?’
‘We just want to know how you get inspired?’
‘Inspired? I don’t have to answer.’
‘But we have ‘permission slips’!’
‘Who gave you permission?’
‘The policeman sitting over there.’
‘Then go ask him questions!’

Phew! We walk into a shop which sells accessories that will adorn the G&Gs. My elder daughter wants to buy something, just about anything from Kumortuli as a souvenir.

‘Excuse me, Dada’… The shopkeeper is counting notes as the blades from the ceiling fan revolving above him from a shaky asbestos ceiling provide the background music. ‘Excuse me’… No reply. ‘EXCUSE ME’ – I shout. He looks up in a slow motion and looks down at his notebook where he is probably keeping a track of what he has/is/going to earn.

‘Arre – DADA. Can you not hear the child speaking? Can you not answer her?’
‘Ya, I heard.’
‘The least you can do is to answer her.’
‘What will I answer?’
‘Acknowledge her.’
‘By answering her.’

I clench my fist in my mind and do kicks in the air (all in the mind!) to dilute my exasperation. The whirring sound of the ceiling fan brings me back to reality.

‘We want to buy something as souvenir.’
‘Maybe a small something?’
‘We are not selling now’
‘Because it is afternoon. The shop is closed.’
‘But the shop is open. And you are there.’
‘Please don’t disturb. Come back in the evening.’

Did I hear it right? We have come to Kumortuli consciously in the afternoon so that we don’t get trapped in the evening traffic. We will go back now and come back again? That is absolutely impossible. The thought of going back from a place without a tiny souvenir saddens me the most. How will the girls remember this place? I am not going to open my computer and show them the pictures all the time. Since the digital camera has come into my life, I have stopped taking prints literally. A very bad habit indeed. Still a small souvenir perched on a tiny space in the shelf is a good enough solution to this and brings a smile and happiness on my face as I remember the good memories associated with that place.

On the other hand, maybe not having a souvenir is not a bad idea at all. I will not remember the conversations with the shopkeeper. I will only remember the fabulous creative experience that I had while walking through the alleys and being awed by the overwhelming G&Gs shaping up by mortal human hands. I will only remember the strength that fills a person as they put all their faith and belief of the Almighty in these clay structures. I will remember the delicate crowns and the hand embroidered clothing that were being made in the dark workshops that would ultimately adorn the G&Gs. I will also remember the peculiar manner in which the idols were being created. The heads and the bodies of the G&Gs are created separately. The heads are kept upside down, all in a line to dry up. The bodies are created separately. Once the clay is lapped on the basic straw frames and the structures actually starts resembling a face or a body, the heads are plopped onto the body frames.

Are we created in the same way? I wonder!

I feel inspired by just roaming around the streets of Oberammergau and Kolkata. I am inspired in many ways – creatively, emotionally and spiritually. In Oberammergau, I see old couples dusting the wooden structures that once were used as stage decors – they touch them, they feel them with their hands, their eyes closed, lips parted, perhaps chanting a prayer. Faith in their religious beliefs convert mere wooden objects into objects touched by the Almighty. In Kolkata, I see the same faith converting clay idols into the Almighty.

I have seen the dashboard of Kolkata taxis converted into an alter. Red, fresh hibiscus garlands hang from the rear mirrors as the taxi-drivers put the chances of their very existence in their chosen G&Gs on the dashboard. It is of course a different matter that they have to entrust someone with the responsibility of their existence, considering the number of odds that act against them while they are on their jobs – the road conditions, the local mafias, the Indian Budget, the rising prices of fuel etc. And lastly, how could I forget, the difficulty in keeping the eyes on the road straight ahead of them when they are tempted to see in the rear mirror what the couple sitting in the back seat is upto!

So, the small town, far way in Bavaria becomes so similar in my ‘specimen’ eyes, to the bustling chaotic city of Kolkata. The ‘faith’ and the creativity binds the two of them as one.

As we take leave of Oberammergau, I see the old couple who were holding those wooden planks in hand, wave at me and bless me as I smiled. They must have been sharing a part of the blessing that they must have derived from holding a mere stage decor which had been used in the Passion Play.

And as we take leave of Kumortuli, a little boy runs towards us as we are about to step into the car.
‘Do you want to buy a souvenir?’
‘Yes please!’
‘You can take these small Ma Durga with family, or may be these clay musical instruments – small clay miniatures of Harmonium, the Tabla, the Tanpura, or maybe these miniature clay fruits!’
‘Can we take all?’
‘Rs 170 in all; Rs 50 for Ma Durga, Rs 20 for….’
I hand over Rs 200 to the little boy and ask him to keep the change of Rs 30.
‘I’ll go and share Rs 30 with my other friends. God bless you!’

Thank you, my child, for sharing some of the blessings that you have must have acquired by roaming around the streets where idols of the Almighty in so many various shapes and forms are being created. And thank you for making sure that I had some souvenir from Kumortuli.

But most importantly, I want to bless you for being such an unselfish human being. And I pray that you grow up to be a human being in the Gods’ land!

UnBlogging it all… Ishita

Ma – Mother
Durgotsav  – Festival where Durga is worshipped
Mandap – Traditional structure where the idol worship takes place
Harmonium – An Indian instrument like the reed organ
Tabla- An Indian instrument like the drums which is played by hand.
Tanpura- An Indian stringed instrument where you can only play 4 notes.

Suggested links –
Oberammergau Passion Play

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