Kolkata: A community Durga Puja here promises to bring back myths and legends surrounding the ancient and now-dying Adi Ganga (original Ganga), a branch of the Hooghly, singing its swan song, courtesy urbanisation and pollution.
Talked about in medieval Bengali literature, the once-navigable Adi Ganga – passing southwards in the state through what is now South 24-Parganas district – is today a strand of water laden with muck, toxins and waste, pointed out the organisers.
To draw attention to its plight, a team of Baishnabghata Pashimpara Sarbojonin Durgotsab (popularly known as Baishnabghata Balak Samity) has put up a splendid marquee on the theme ‘Sroter Panchali’ (Ballad of a Rivulet).
“We are not trying to recreate the history, rather we are bringing back the myths so as to showcase how people’s lives, tradition and culture were deeply connected with the Adi Ganga.
“And now that it has been almost decimated by pollution, garbage dumping and construction activities, we are trying to provoke people into sparing a thought for conserving the heritage rivulet,” artist Basudeb Pal Majumdar, who conceptualized the theme,said.
The marquee is located in Baishnabghata, an area in south Kolkata adjacent to the Adi Ganga. Its entrance is through the belly of a giant mayurpankhi, a decked-up peacock-headed cruise vessel, which was a popular form of river transport ages ago.
Legends of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a religious preacher who took the Adi Ganga to travel to Odisha in the early 1500s, cults of Bon Bibi (the deity of Sunderbans) and Ola Bibi (the Bengali goddess of cholera), still echo in these regions where the Adi Ganga traversed.
The marquee, at a budget of Rs.12 lakh, is an artistic reminder to the intriguing past.
Walk through the tunnel to the main area where a mural awaits you. Pictorially it depicts the origins of the Adi Ganga as well as the Bhagirathi, the name for the Ganges downstream.
According to history books, the rivulet flowed southwards to merge into the Bay of Bengal.
Reduced at present to a 12 to 15 km stretch, it is locally referred to as Tolly’s Nullah, after British Major William Tolly who sponsored the excavation of an old channel of the rivulet in 1775-77 to make it navigable for ships.
And as it thrived – according to 16th-17th century Bengali and European literature – the Adi Ganga spawned important settlements along its banks. Simultaneously cults and folklores proliferated throughout its course.
To add to the narrative, dissident Trinamool Congress MP Kabir Suman, an acclaimed singer-songwriter, composed a song exclusively for this and has also lent his voice to an audio-visual (AV) documenting the places of historic and cultural importance along the rivulet.
“At the end of the tunnel, visitors will learn of the origins of Bhagirathi and Adi Ganga through a mural, a pictorial presentation.
“Through the AV and the mural we have shown the cults of Bonbibi, the settlement of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s disciples (Baishnabs) in this area, the temples, cults associated with goddess Manasa and many more such stories centred on the Adi Ganga,” said Majumdar, also a nature and wildlife photographer.
Completing the effect are terracotta totems and clay horses – resembling the “grotesque” originals in the temple dedicated to Olabibi in Baishnabgata.
“The idol at the end of the marquee is positioned such that its impression can be seen on a water arrangement,” Majumdar said, adding the AV and the composition will be played alternately outside the marquee on a separate dais.
According to Kalyan Rudra, a river expert, immersions of Durga idols earlier had choked the stream further.
“However, the final nail in the coffin was the extension of the Kolkata Metro project from Tollygunje to nearby Garia via elevated platforms over the Nullah. Below it, it is an obnoxious sight with dumped waste floating in the open. It is a public health hazard,” Rudra told IANS.
Mohit Ray, leader of environmental group Vasundhara, said construction of pillars in the middle of the river bed, siltation and the lack of any environmental impact study before the project sounded the death knell of the rivulet.
“Some suggestions include declaring it as a heritage river, replacing the official name of the channel as Tolly’s Nullah before Garia, including it in the efforts to develop the city river-canal system and implementing the recommendations of the Calcutta Environmental Management Strategy and Action Plan (CEMSAP) study,” Ray told IANS.