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Italian colours at North Kolkata’s Durga Puja Pandal

Kolkata: Jean Blanchaert would have visited India, if not Kolkata, 47 years ago had it not been for a bout of cholera in Afghanistan.

But the wait has been worthwhile for the 65-year-old Italian calligrapher who is in the city for Durga Puja, “considered one of the biggest festivals in the world”.

“Back in 1972, I wanted to come as a hippy. But here I am for work,” says Blanchaert, who is in the city as part of a project initiated by Basu Foundation for The Arts to promote puja street art. Basu Foundation is a non-profit organisation that “encourages, promotes and supports innovative work in the field of visual and performing arts”. It also provides a platform to art collectors across the world to display their collection.

Blanchaert said that he first met the founder, Abhishek Basu, in Italy and their friendship grew stronger over the years. It was at the invitation of Basu that the Italian artist has come to India.

Blanchaert is adding international hues to the Bengali festival by exhibiting his art on the walls of the city that is known for its unique wall writing culture. He started with Duer Pally in Ahiritolla where the pandal is the creation of an Indian (Malay Das) and a Spanish (Antonya Marest) artist.

italian artist kolkata durga puja pandals
Jean Blanchaert (right), at Duer Pally Puja Pandal

“I will do calligraphy and write some messages in English, Bengali, Sanskrit and probably Italian,” said the artist who has done an elaborate homework on Bengali culture and tradition, Hindu deities, the city of joy and its quintessential characters. Blanchaert did his signature work at Duer Pally on Saturday.

“The puja is symbolic of the brotherhood between India and Spain as well as with Italy,” said the veteran artist, adding with a smile that he was enamoured by the city’s traffic. Kajal Bhadra, chief patron of the puja, said it was for the first time that the committee has collaborated with international artists  to design the pandal.

“Basu Foundation connected us with Jean. The youths in the neighbourhood ideated,” he added.

Blanchaert’s enthusiasm defied age as he climbed up chairs on a sultry afternoon to depict Rabindranath Tagore’s profound words, “We cross infinity in every step, we meet eternity in every second.” He crossed miles to come to the “hospitable” city to promote street art.

italian artist kolkata durga puja pandals
Jean Blanchaert’s calligraphy work on Rabindranath Tagore’s quote

The artist visited Kumartuli where idols come alive with local artisans’ Midas touch. “It was beautiful. Though we spent hours on the road to reach our destination, I found the city amazing,” said Blanchaert.

Calling Blanchaert a calligrapher would be a quarter of an introduction. His professional life is divided into four parts. He is a gallerist, curator, calligrapher and journalist. He is also a renowned glass sculptor. The jovial artist, who describes himself as a hybrid of Karl Marx and Santa Claus, talks enthusiastically when asked about his works. One can fathom his dedication from the bunch of files that he carries.

“These are my research materials on Durga Puja and Kolkata. I have been working on it since last year and I am excited to show my works,” said the artist as he picked up one of the files and flipped through the pages.

The Galleria Blanchaert in Milan was started by Blanchaert’s mother, Silvia Rota, an art enthusiast. She started collecting local art works from across Italy at the age of 35.

“During her time, those art works were considered bad taste. But now they are precious and displayed in our gallery. She is a visionary,” Blanchaert said about his 99-year-old mother.

Calligraphy, a visual art related to writing, is not much in vogue at a time when computer is considered the solution to all problems. But for Blanchaert it is a valuable art form that needs to be preserved. One would always find a bunch of special pens peeping out of the artist’s coat pocket. A bottle of ink accompanies the calligraphy pens which are vintage and at least a century old.

“It all started in school where we were taught calligraphy. With time, I stopped pursuing it but my interest in calligraphy persisted,” he said.

About Galleria Blanchaert, the gallerist said he never wanted to follow this profession but became part of it by chance when his mother’s assistant fell ill. He also writes regularly for Arte Dossier, an Italian art magazine.

When asked why it took him so long to come to India, Blanchaert explained his commitment to work. “I do not visit a place as a tourist. I don’t like that. I visit a place only when there is work and this time I finally got the opportunity to come to India.”

Nabamita Mitra

is a freelance journalist and is associated with The Shillong Times

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