Durga Puja holds the place of ‘utsav’ in every Bengali’s life, making it a festival of fluid celebrations that move beyond class, caste and religious divisions to mark five days of feasting and revelry, philanthropy and familial exchange of gifts, and a whole gamut of interconnected practices. Its roots can be traced back to the seventeenth century, when under Mughal rule in Bengal, a festival of philanthropic observance was started by the local feudal ruling class (zamindars) in the forecourts of their palaces where entire village communities would gather in celebration. Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the festival gradually made its way into the newly-built mansions of the urban aristocracy as an exhibition of the families’ splendour and opulence. In the colonial era, festivities transformed into a more democratic communal event with the ‘barowari puja’ which became a marker of fraternity within neighbourhoods. The latter drew its name from the ‘baro’ (twelve) ‘yaar’ (friends, close associates) who came together to initiate this tradition.
The barowari puja was still marked by a sense of exclusivity. With divisive religious politics actively pursued by the British imperialist policy, and ‘paras’ (localities/neighbourhoods) in urban settlements being clearly demarcated based on their Hindu or Muslim majority populations, puja became a way of reinforcing these differences rather than leading the way for an inclusive ‘festival-for-all’. In a recent book, historian Nabaparna Ghosh discusses the rise of Hindu nationalism in Calcutta and the corresponding role played by Hindu ‘bhadralok’ society in galvanizing an undivided Hindu identity based on certain spatially motivated civic and sanitary practices. The barowari puja fitted well within this rubric of a Hindu nationalist landscape centred around the locales of the paras. But something changed drastically from the beginning of the twentieth century when Durga Puja became a ‘sarbojonin’ (meaning ‘for all’) utsav. This was a decisive break from the religious-political exclusivity entailed by the Hindu para. What was once a show of opulence by affluent zamindars and their urban aristocratic successors for more than 200 years-implying a private festival which secured goodwill for these families by sacralizing the social space of the evil ‘other’-transformed into an act of ‘desacralization of the religious occasion…and the bacchanalian festival of shopping, awards and pandal-hopping’.
Tapati Guha-Thakurta accounts for this process of desacralization, or profanation of the religious-ritualistic festival, with a correlative emergence of a civic-communitarian carnival, set around a strong sarbojonin ambience. In her monumental study on contemporary Durga Puja culture centred around Kolkata, she provides what she calls a micro-historical account of the aesthetics of the ‘public art event’ that takes place every year on the occasion of puja. She delves deep into a wide range of textual and visual sources from newspapers, books, pandal sites, advertisements, posters, and many such ubiquitous objects that are part of quotidian Bengali life and material culture. According to Guha-Thakurta, ‘the corporate economy of the current festival stands inalienable from its cultural and artistic self-image, and the new discourses it generates about community, social collectivity and civic responsibility in the city.’ Indeed, the ‘theme-puja’ that attracts so much corporate money and ‘tourists’ from all corners of Bengal often works around concepts of contemporary social and political interest, ecological crises, folk art complexes or theme-parks based on specific artistic-aesthetic traditions and monuments. For instance, a certain turn towards the usage of the colour green and a promotion of ecological awareness in the 2010 puja pandals cannot be analysed as isolated from the rise of the Trinamool Congress in Bengal’s popular ideology. The evil embodied in the figure of Mahishasura has also taken on meanings and figurations based on current affairs and issues. In 2001 which saw the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, Asura came in the guise of Osama Bin Laden. In 2006, he was modelled on Greg Chappell, the coach who made allegations against Sourav Ganguly, eventually forcing him to renounce captaincy of the Indian cricket team. Guha-Thakurta also gleans material from the colonial past to highlight how Bharat Mata once took the place of Durga, or how her son, Kartick, was made to don a Congress cap. Famous Bengali poet and novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay mined his childhood memories of Durga Puja in his ancestral village of Faridpur to recount how Kartick was decked in full military gear and made to resemble Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose one year. But these iconographies in the city as well as rural pandals have often been met with strict legal orders, and maintaining secrecy to evade censorship has added to the thrills of dissent aroused by them.
As a pandal-hopping spree takes over Kolkata, the city becomes a massive exhibition space. With this, there are new challenges of traffic and crowd management that face the police, civic authorities and the common man. Uncontrollable footfall around a famous pandal often becomes a concern for daily commuters, elderly residents in a neighbourhood, and those suffering from medical emergencies. Since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has added to worries about overcrowding and a rise in the virus count. In this regard, some of the more popular clubs and crowd-puller pandals have been criticized for risking community spread. One such club, led by a heavyweight member of the ruling party, drew ire in 2021 for the massive numbers that congregated to see its pandal modelled on the famous Dubai highrise, Burj Khalifa, and an accompanying laser show. The Kolkata High Court had to intervene and issued an order in public interest to restrict entry into this pandal within two days of its opening.
A few other pandals from this year’s puja are worth discussing for various reasons. The one organized by Dumdum Park Bharat Chakra designed a pandal with artistic elan, upholding the plight of the farmers protesting against the draconian bills that were passed in the parliament by the ruling government in 2020. Another puja in Barisha Club, Behala, brought up the issue of the refugee crisis, harking back to not just the 1947 Bengal partition but also the contemporary anxiety surrounding citizenship and the CAA-NRC-NPR Acts. At the centre of the pandal sat a woman surrounded by her four children. The poverty-stricken images of the malnourished bodies were heightened by the colourless grey textures of the clay models. The main female figure was called “Bhaager Maa” (meaning “Shared Mother” or “Mother of Partition”). Last year, this club had highlighted the plight of migrant workers and their exodus triggered by the pandemic through a pandal and idol conceptualized by the same artistduoofRintuDasandDebayan Pramanik. The 2020 idol was modelled after modernist Bengali painter Bikash Bhattacharya’s moving 1989 painting “Darpamoyee”, which depicts a poor woman standing with her children on a Kolkata street as army men with guns lurk in the corner. It is not sufficient to read in these dissenting artworks a complicity with the ruling government that won the recent state elections and prevented the saffronization of West Bengal. The artworks seem committed to a larger, more consolidated, voice of dissent that has an impact on a subliminal level among the socially marginalized classes, bringing up in their ‘theme’ and thereby facilitating a transference that is functional in any true artistic expression. Furthermore, such interventions also open up a possibility of dialogue between the citizens without which no dissent can ever be formed.
Most of these theme-pandals are conceived and executed by art-school graduates in tandem with artisans and craftspeople. Besides bringing them creative recognition, these projects are also a major source of earning. In a 2010 interview, Bhabatosh Sutar, a popular artist in the theme-puja circuit, succinctly described the current state of affairs: ‘At art college, we were often told about the struggle of an artist. So far, my struggle has been to establish myself in the sphere of Durga Puja.’
According to an estimate done in 2010 by a senior corporate executive, almost 40 crore rupees was invested in that year’s Durga Puja with individual clubs investing any amount between three to five lakhs on their fancy pandals. The average scale of work has only grown over these past ten years as more profitable investment is made from all corners of the corporate economy in the name of the goddess. This heavily commercialized event has found raging success each year as new modes of enjoyment are sought by the common people. On many occasions, the frenzy of consumption has bordered on unsustainable civic practices and abuse of the property of commons. One of the recurrent abuses is also caused by unrestrained activities of idol immersion, a crucial rite of the puja known as ‘pratima-niranjan’, in the river Ganges which also happens to be the chief source of drinking water for large parts of the city. Despite new efforts by the civic body to ensure more eco-friendly immersions where the idols are doused and broken with water sprays before being set afloat, there continue to be public debates and legal orders on an activity that carries on with legitimacy sought directly from the ancient religious tracts.
Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. 2015. In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata. New Delhi: Primus Books.
Ghosh, Nabaparna. 2020. A Hygienic City-Nation: Space, Community, and Everyday Life in Colonial Calcutta. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.
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"Durga Puja 2021: ???? ????? ????????, '???? ?????? ????' ?????? ??????? '????? ??'? Bangla News." Bengali.Abplive.Com, October 10, 2021. .
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