Sunday, November 25, 2012

Durga Puja: National Festival of Bengalis

The year was 1757. After defeating Siraj-ud-Daula, Robert Clive was the new Nawab of Bengal. Raja Nabakrisha Deb, one time Munshi to Warren Hastings and co-conspirator of Mir Jafar and Jagat Seth decided to say thanks to Devi Durga. After all, he was one of the largest beneficiaries of Palashi – he earned 8 crore rupees as his share of the loot and a lot more by selling land to the company in Calcutta. When Robert Clive wondered how he could attend a Hindu religious ceremony –Jagannath Tarkapanchanan, the greatest living authority on the Shastrasin Bengal, produced a ‘bidhan’ authorizing the firangi King to offer his prayer. Thus the first Durga Puja of Calcutta started with a British patron and beautiful Muslim tawwaifs or nautch girls, as Clive would have described them, providing most of the entertainment.

This year's Puja at Shovabazar Rajbari

Very soon other notables of the city also started organizing Durga Puja. It was difficult to say whether it remained an elitist affair because it required large amount of money or it was so designed to ensure Durga Puja’s elite character. At any rate, for the next 150 years, Durga Puja in Calcutta remained a zamindari affair with 10-day long festivities. Success was largely measured by the attendance of top British officials and beautiful baijees. For ordinary folks, there was kabir lorai or tarja(competition of songs/verses), Jatra(folk theatre) and many other forms of popular entertainment. It would be factually inaccurate to say that the Durga Puja originated in Calcutta, but there can hardly be any doubt that the Puja as we know it today evolved largely in the city of Calcutta. Devi Puja or worship of mother goddess had always been a dominant religious belief in the east. According to legends, Raja Kansha Narayan of Taherpur, Nadia introduced Durga puja in modern times. This was sometime in the 15th century. In all probability this Raja was little more than a Zamindar but somehow the trend caught up with other Zamindars and elites of Bengal.

Calcutta's first Sarbojonin Durga Puja: final touches to Pratima at Bhawanipore Sanatan Dharmaotsahini Sabha - this is the 103 anniversary

From the second half of the 19thcentury, as the city was growing towards the South, a new gentry was coming into prominence. This new service gentry was settled around Bhawanipore rather than North Calcutta localities like Chitpur, Shyambazar or Shovabazar, where the 19thcentury feudal elites resided. It was in this socio-economic context, a shift took place at the turn of the century. In 1910, some youngsters from Bhawanipore decided to organize a different type of Durga Puja. They collected money from everyone and decided to hold the Puja at a community ground rather than inside someone’s house. This Puja organized by the Bhawanipore Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha at Balaram Basu Ghat Street was the first public Puja and in a way marked the beginning of present day Durga Puja culture. Today most Pujas are described as Sarbojonin(lit. for all, meaning the entire community) or in more colloquial terms as baroyari(lit. organized by 12 yaar or friends) Puja. Century old Pujas of North Calcutta on the other hand have become something of a rapidly disappearing cultural tradition. These Pujas - banedi barir Puja – today are more known for their commitment to age-old traditions rather than glitz and glamour.

By 1950s, most of the Calcutta parasstarted having their own Sarbojonin Puja. Three decades – from 1950s to early 1980s – could be identified as the period of classic SarbojoninPuja culture. This was a phase where everyone in the locality would come forward to organize a Puja, which would be a modest affair, to be followed by cultural functions. This was the time, when best of Bengali talents – singers like Hemanta Mukhopadhyay or Shyamal Mitra would be the star attraction of late night jalsa. HMV would come out with its best song offerings, entitled Pujor Dali/Sharad Arghya. This was also the time when Sharadiya or Puja special issues of Desh and other magazines would showcase best Bengali literary talent. There was a lot of shopping then also but Durga Puja was more of a time for community bonding and showcasing of great cultural traditions.
From the late 1980s, decoration/lighting of Puja pandals emerged as the main crowd-pulling factor. This slowly became linked with the business of Puja – large number of sponsors gave big Pujas a different colour altogether. This also brought the local politician/tough guy in the scene. No doubt Puja provided a great platform to connect with the local people but more than that this involvement was needed to bring in more funds and sponsorships. First of the competitions – most notably Asian Paints Sharad Samman –started around this time. There was an unmistakable element of commercialization. Gradually, there was a list of must-see Pujas – College Square (especially for lighting), Md Ali Park, Sealdah, Ekdalia Evergreen, Mudiali and so on. There was a north Calcutta route and a south Calcutta route– one was expected to cover these mandatory pandal-hopping. People from suburbs and far off places started pouring in to Calcutta to see these Pujas. Big budget Pujas of suburbs or other parts of Bengal started imitating Calcutta trends in pandal designing and lighting.

Theme Puja: Durga in a China-themed Puja pandal - Mahisasur appears as (smiling) Chinese demon

With the new millennium, the new trend of“theme Puja” emerged. Socio-economic energy in the city has now shifted more towards outlying areas/suburbs. They found a new expression of their identity in promoting big-budget Pujas with specialist designer and artisans from different corners of the country. Behala was a pioneer in breaking new grounds with clubs like Sristi and Sahajatri leading the way. Behala was followed by such localities we never heard before one particular Puja, when their beautiful pandal brought the entire city to their thus far unheralded locality – in this way we came to know places like Badamtala (Asad Sangha), Bosepukur (Sitala Mandir) or Dum Dum Park (Bharatchakra). At the same time, residents of places like Salt Lake or new housing complexes tried to re-capture the true community spirit of Durga Puja by celebrating modest Pujas with their own cultural function and community lunch/dinner during the Puja days. Today there are these three clear prototypes of Durga Puja in Calcutta – Pujas based on theme, Pujas which celebrate team or community spirit and Pujas, which celebrate heritage. 

  For Bengalis, whether they are in Bengal or the original prabasi(settled for long time in other Indian cities) or the new generation prabasi(anywhere from Ireland to Finland but mostly in the US) Durga Puja is the most important community event to re-discover and celebrate their unique socio-cultural heritage. For Bengalis, irrespective of their location, Durga Puja has long become a social event rather than a religious festival. In recent years, despite the continuous downward slide of Calcutta as an economic centre, Durga Puja has been elevated to a public art festival, where the entire city is converted into an open air art exhibition during these four-five days, showcasing some of the best folk arts of India.

Most major festivals in India are celebrated in private or in a mixture of public and private. There are two major exceptions – Durga Puja in Calcutta/Bengal and Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai/Maharashtra, which are absolutely public festivals. It is worthwhile to recall that both the festivals evolved into their present characters around the same time (before becoming a sarbojoninevent, Ganesh Chaturthi was limited to Chitpavan Brahmin families, it was turned into a public celebration by Bal Gangadhar Tilak). Basic purpose was of course to mobilize communities at the height of Swadeshi movement –so community and nationalism, both found expression in these celebrations. A century down the line, across the world, Durga Puja continues to be the most important cultural expression of Bengali identity.