By Dane Liebermann on YES Abroad Program from USA, hosted in Kolkata chapter
After a few minutes of working, I stopped for a second to look around at what everyone was doing. I just watched and formed a mental image in my head to look back on. “I am part of something,” was all I could think about. It was the first time here in India, that have I felt so connected and equal to the local people….
Every year, thousands of people flock into Kolkata from all across West Bengal to see the wonderful festival known as Durga Puja. Durga is the famous goddess of power and strength in Hinduism, and this week-long festival is celebrating Durga and victory over an immortal demon. Before coming to India, I had no idea that such a festival even existed, never mind that I would be a part of it. I first noticed all the bamboo structures being constructed a few weeks after arriving, and when I asked they told me they were Pandals. These are simply the temporary structures built to worship Durga. It seemed odd to me that they would go to such great lengths just for a one-week festival, but nevertheless, I was curious.
One day after school, we were taken to see a famous Pandal during its building stage, called the Bakul Bagan Pandal. Stepping inside was like stepping through a portal into a different world. Everywhere you looked there was something being built, like a little factory, all in incredible detail. Looking up, I saw makeshift bamboo scaffolding supporting numerous artists as they scrambled around, working on the ceiling. Since buildings with wood have always been a love of mine, I was beyond excited to see the piles of lumber and sawdust laying around on the floor. They showed us how they were making every little detail with dried Areca Palm leaves, turning the entire place into the beautiful color of natural wood. I was mesmerized. Before leaving, I asked if I would ever be allowed to work here and help the artists with the work that they were doing. I was greeted with a wide variety of responses, as the work that was being done was considered dirty and below me. However, thanks to two of my teachers, I stepped back into that little paradise the following Monday. The lead artist sat me down in front of a pile of dried leaves, handed me some scissors and a small house-shaped template. After a few minutes of working, I stopped for a second to look around at what everyone was doing. I just watched and formed a mental image in my head to look back on. “I am part of something,” was all I could think about. It was the first time here in India, that have I felt so connected and equal to the local people. I wasn’t just another foreigner taking pictures, but I was doing the work with them, sharing the burden. Soon people came by to talk to me, mostly in Hindi, but I liked it better that way. My favorite was the Chai break, where all the artists came to ask questions about where I was from and why I was here. I left there with a new self-confidence on my shoulders that I had not yet experienced.
I returned for five more days after school, working an hour or so each time. Before sitting down at work, I used to walk around to a few of the artists to say hi and ask them how they were doing. One of the last days before the huge festival began, I stopped by to say hello and all the artists were standing together outside the completed pandal in silence, just watching.
The feeling you get after working on something tirelessly and finally finishing it is just beyond explaining in words. Even though I had only spent a few hours there, compared to their hundreds, I could understand that connection, and we all just sat there in appreciation. By this time, the Pujas have since passed, and we have all moved on. Me, to my studies and them to their normal lives and normal homes. Nevertheless, I will never forget the experience that I had working at that Pandal and the feeling of generosity that I felt from that community. I am forever grateful to all the people who made it possible and hope that someday, will be able to return to help build a new one.