Unknown to the Bengali in Calcutta and to Indians everywhere, Durga is not the presiding deity of the Bengali. It is Kali who holds this august position. Durga is worshipped only once a year during autumn after the rainy season is over. Kali, on the other hand, is widely worshipped in formal and informal ways right through the length and breadth of the city and the country and even beyond Indian shores. She is so popular and there are so many temples dedicated to her worship that Kali has, in course of time, evolved into an integral part of the identity of those who live in Kolkata, everyone in general and Bengalis in particular.
Kali has wittingly and unwittingly, seeped into the conscious of the Bengali identity– man, woman and child and is omnipresent in every street corner - on the back of an auto rickshaw, on the dashboard of every taxi driven by a Bengali, in shops selling anything from fast food to potatoes to meat and chicken, on the back of a state bus, and so on. This writer found - a huge painting of Kali’s face on a wall of an iron-smelting workshop, in a small corner shop for repairing car tyres, across the wall of a tailor’s shop, inside telephone booths, small shops selling paan and cigarettes, in sweet shops, snack bars, inside the ticket counter of a cinema hall, on the fencing behind a wayside astrologer’s small, improvised shop where his pet parrot reads your future by pulling out one of the cards he holds and then goes back into its small cage - everywhere.
Once, a huge hoarding using the Goddess Kali was seen as part of a blood donation campaign. Sketched in black against a white background, the hoarding had a line drawing of Kali’s face. The colour relief was the bright red lolling tongue of Kali. This is an interesting example of how even public service advertising makes use of the popularity of Kali. Kali sucks the blood of the Asuras. Was this a litmus test of the common man’s devotion to his favoured Goddess Kali who will readily give his blood to quench Kali’s thirst?
Small Kali temples have mushroomed everywhere. They are so common that a passer-by takes them for granted. She resides more in the mind of the grassroots people who eke out a living from a roadside snack bar or a taxi service. She is not as visible a presence among intellectuals and elite institutions. You will not easily encounter a picture of Kali in a school or college or hospital or office. But she ‘smuggles’ her way in these institutions too, through calendars and calendar pictures, picture postcards and posters that might have arrived as gifts and some devotee of Kali hung it on a wall.
hough Kali, the Goddes is specific to the Hindu pantheon, she has smoothly gravitated towards a universal symbol of worship. History books and documents defining the origins of the city of Kolkata show how even British rulers had begun to believe in her godly powers of creation, sustenance and destruction. Today, Kali is a cosmopolitan, global and secular icon that has crossed the borders of caste, class, community, age, sex geography and race. It is a cultural and a social icon as much as it continues to be a religious one. To quote Gayatri Sinha from a slightly different context: “The goddess has become a free-floating symbol, pulled out of her iconographic associations for expedient use.”[i] Images of the goddess, or, only just the head, in black or in blue, with the red tongue lolling out, are spilling over for sale on the pavements of Kolkata and outside temples across the country, in wall calendars, sold in the form of glossy posters in different shapes, make Kali an integral part of the Bengali and Indian identity.
Strangely however, though popular expectations move around a decline in the consecration of the cultic image of Kali in terms of worship, this has not happened in Kolkata and other cities of India where Kali temples are very popular and considered to be holy. The consecration of belief in Kali has multiplied tremendously over time.
Culturally, the influence of Kali has led to the origin and growth of several art forms. Among these are the Kalighat pata painting, the school of art that has sprung from Tantra called Tantric art. The third is the school of devotional songs perpetrated by a saint-like devotee of Goddess Kali called Ramprasad, followed by Sadhak Kamalakanta. Renowned painters of West Bengal have often used Kali as the subject of their paintings, either in her mythological identity, or as a metaphor used to address larger philosophical and social issues in contemporary Bengali society.
Kali’s representation in Bengali cinema is a logical extension of the omnipresence of Kali in the Bengali psyche on the one hand, and a logical extension of the use of Kali as an inspiration for myriad forms of art, music and literature. One whose name crops up with reference to the metaphorical use of Kali on celluloid is Ritwik Ghatak. Nabyendu Chatterjee, another noted filmmaker has used Kali prominently. In Sarisreep (1986-87), based on a shocking portrayal of poverty and greed by Manik Bandopadhyay, Chatterjee made use of the female Bahurupi at Tarakeswar. The woman paints her body in blue, representing Shyama, is naked and roams around the streets of the holy town to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence, as her husband’s factory has declared a lock-out and she has seven small children to feed. She dies when she eats some prasad from the temple that turned out to be poisonously putrid.
Satyajit Ray’s Devi (The Goddess), (1960), is an illustration of the influence of Kali as superstition that destroys the peace and harmony of a feudal Hindu family in Bengal.
Dreams, visions and legends culminate in complete faith in the power of Kali among all classes of people. She is perhaps the only value-neutral deity in the Hindu pantheon, worshipped as devotedly by the criminal as she is by an ordinary domestic maid, by the industrialist and the beggar on the street; by the leper and the cripple, by the dying and the destitute. In this sense, she presents herself as a democratic Goddess Mother who does not discriminate between and among her devotees on the basis of any social stratification or moral standards set by the human race in general.
Her appearance, despite her blood-red lolling tongue, is far from the ‘grotesque’ she has been described as, by scholars. The highly colonized Bengali mindset that, thanks to the two-century-old British rule, has a strong bias against dark skin, especially in females, does not extend its racist bias to include Kali. Kali in fact, looks quite beautiful, albeit, in a rather unconventional way since her adornment – or the lack of it – is distanced from the traditional bonding of decorative clothes and ornaments pre-ordained for other Goddesses and the other dimensions of her persona such as Durga, Parvati and Uma.
Written byShoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time.