Ladies in waiting : MODERN TIMES

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Despite what appearances might suggest, these bald, big-bosomed, cudgel-bearing figures are not queueing to board tram 16121. They are, rather, clay statues of Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning and arts, and are quietly drying off in the Calcutta smog while they wait for their hands, which, like other finicky components, are made separately and added later.

This mass production of Sarasvatis happens every January in Kuartuli, the religious statue building quarter of Calcutta, just before the Sarasvati Puja, a festival in the goddess's honour. Later in the year, the quarter again turns out hordes of female statues for the puja of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and again, for the big puja for Durga, wife of Shiva. This perhaps helps explain the utter lack of surprise on the faces of the passers-by in this photograph.

When the hands are finally attached and the cracks all sealed, the statues will be painted, and dressed in shining saris and acrylic wigs. As the personification of all knowledge, Sarasvati should be possessed of exquisite beauty, so the statues are painted and their faces heavily made up. And thanks to the paint, it will then become clear that the cudgels are in fact vinas, a seven-stringed lyre associated with the goddess.

Look closely and you can see birds' heads poking out among the crowd of statues. Traditionally, Sarasvati rides a swan to signify control of the passions, and a peacock as a symbol of the world in all its glory. The most elaborate representations of Sarasvati show the goddess holding: a rosary, a book, a noose, a conch shell, a discus...and more and more accoutrements.

The figures shown here will be put on display in shrines in the sitting rooms of middle-class Calcutta or on make-shift street altars which blare out music from distorted speakers and block the already crowded thoroughfares of the city. Figures of this size will cost 300 to 500 rupees (£6 to £10) and thus represent a substantial sum for many households. However, by local standards, the statues are small fry - a truly commanding Sarasvati will stand 12 or 15 feet high and have a tent built to house it.

At the end of the Sarasvati Puja, the figures are taken down to the Hooghly River, turned round several times, and finally cast into the river where the clay will dissolve back into silt. Then, in another great recycling of sorts, the poor waiting on the river banks dive in, and come back clutching damp wigs and rolls of sodden material. Amanda Mitchison

Photograph by David Klammer