Mud and Magic

Cultural, Creative Industry, Photo Essays

Mud and Magic: The Transitory Images of Navratri

Finn, Patrick J.

The atmosphere is thrilling in the makeshift studio constructed by Bengali craftsmen, adjacent to the dusty road south of the village of Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. An ephemeral haze surrounds the sculpting of the deities for Navratri, the nine-day Hindu festival in honor of the Divine Mother. The dates are calculated according to the lunar calendar and held annually in September or October; beginning on the first and ending on the tenth day of the bright half of the lunar month Asvina. A fleeting magic fills the air – from the wooden skeletons covered with straw and mud to the polychrome paint and bejeweled crowns. Not only is the workshop short-lived but also the lifespan of these beautifully handcrafted works of art. In early September, Mangal, his wife and craftsmen travel eighteen hours by train from their small village near Kolkata, to arrive in time to make over sixty statues for Vrindavan’s Navratri Festivals. They’ve brought their tools, various essential ornaments and over forty years of experience to create a celestial pantheon. Most of the statues are prepared on-order from the surrounding neighborhoods; although a few are produced in hopes that a “last-minute priest” will eventually stop by. The workshop is quickly set up with wooden poles to support a layered plastic roof. Then Mangal’s team immediately sets to work. Wooden stands are fitted with armatures that form the skeletal framework for each sculpture. These frames are stuffed with straw, secured by string and covered with local earth mixed with water. Layers of mud build up until the body of each...
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