From Devi to Maa: Kolkata’s Tryst With Durga Pujo

From Devi to Maa: Kolkata’s Tryst With Durga Pujo

তুমি উষার সোনার বিন্দু প্রাণের সিন্ধুকূলে,
শরৎ-প্রাতের প্রথম শিশির প্রথম শিউলিফুলে

Rabindranath Tagore

Autumn is synonymous with clear blue skies, rafts of soft, wispy white cotton-like cirrus clouds, gentle breeze, the profusion of the ‘sheuli / shefali / paarijaat’ flowers, lotuses and water lilies, lush greenery, the ephemeral silk-white ‘kash’ inflorescence on the edges of paddy fields, river banks and wastelands, and flight of the migrant cranes across the distant sky. Nature is at its beautiful, soft, subtle and gentle best.

For Bengalis returning home for Durga Puja, there will always be butterflies in the stomach when the pilot announces “Welcome to Kolkata and enjoy the Durga Puja celebrations” as the plane touches the ground. For children, it means a month-long vacation and no bickering about homework for at least five days. For youngsters, it means staying out as long as you want without curfews to worry about. For some, the upcoming five days require meticulous planning and strategizing, to ensure that not a single pandal is left for ‘hopping’. For others, it means rushing to mandatory shopping destinations like New Market despite the very real chance of getting elbowed or your toes being stepped on in the hustle and bustle.

New Market still remains the favourite shopping destination for many in and around the city.

By walking down the lanes and by-lanes of the city of Kolkata, and it’s every nook and corner, particularly during the Pujas, you slowly start feeling the pulse of the city. It is a reverberating rhythm which amplifies and resounds in the sounds of the dhak. It’s a feeling. You can not only hear it but feel it — you get goosebumps when the dhakis first begin to play their beat. The city reverberates with the echo of conch shells, which is no less than a divine feeling. Durga puja, or the worship of goddess Durga, is one of the most important festival in Bengal’s rich and diverse religious calendar. It is not just that her temples are strewn all over this part of the world. In fact, goddess Kali, with whom she shares a complementary history, is easily more popular in this regard. But as a one-off festivity, Durga puja outstrips anything that happens in Bengali life in terms of pomp, glamour, and popularity. And with huge diasporic populations spread across the world, she is now also a squarely international phenomenon, with her puja being celebrated wherever there is even a score or so of Hindu Bengali families in one place. This is one Bengali festival that has people participating across religions and languages. In that sense, Durga puja has an unmistakable cosmopolitan hue about it. With more than 10 million people visiting the different pandals (the temporary, covered pavilions or marquees created for the goddess) in Kolkata alone on any one of the four days of festivity (now effectively extended to a whole week), Durga puja could well be the biggest carnival on earth. Kolkata’s image has become synonymous with this grand autumnal festival of the goddess. This grand social event of Durga Puja showcases the beautiful culture of the Bengalis in India. The evenings during Kolkata Durga Puja witness the streets packed with thousands of people both locals and tourists alike who come to see the large beautifully decorated idols of Goddess Durga, to offer their prayers, eat at the numerous stalls that pop up in the streets and take part in the grand celebrations to honor the victory of Goddess Durga over evil.

Kolkata’s image has become synonymous with this grand autumnal festival of the goddess.

To trigger a sense of nostalgia and to urge Bengalis living away from the city to come back, as any Bengali would testify, there is nothing more heartbreaking than missing the cacophony and grandiose that engulfs Kolkata during these five days. However, for most, it has changed into a ritual.

At one level, Durga puja is all about being an exhibition. This is where the goddess, with the festivity that surrounds her, meets the metropolis at large, for the entire city becomes one ongoing exhibition. The city stands transformed—into fantasyland palaces, make-believe fortresses, historical monuments, and glittering golden barge. Altogether kaleidoscopic wanderings and displaced cartographies become one huge ‘spectatorial complex’, with a point of view veering between that of the flâneur and that of the stalker. Be it transportation or transference or even transversal, this making of one thing into something else is what captures the essence of Durga puja as a public art: transferring the familiar locality into the magical; a small piece of land into something large, almost huge; crafts into art; workmen into craftsmen; craftsmen into artists; folk art into what can be called modernist folk art, and so on. Nothing is impossible in the catholicity of representational choices.

The city stands transformed—into fantasyland palaces, make-believe fortresses, historical monuments, and glittering golden barge.

Offloaded from the trucks, stripped of the flowers and other Puja accessories on their bodies that are to be deposited in vast garbage vats, these vast images on their wooden frames are circled around a few times by the coolies to hoarse cries of victory to the goddess and invocation of her return the next year, before they are lowered onto the muddy banks, and pushed to the edge of the waters. The images are given a token submersion in the river, but they are no longer allowed to float away into the deep. Contained within a roped enclosure, the job of the cranes is to immediately scoop up the bodies and give them a ritual dip in the waters before dumping these idol corpses on the barges. The epitomic image of the occasion remains that of the goddess’ upturned face and clenched fists gently bobbing above water, surrounded by fragments of her ornaments and weapons. But in stark contrast stands today’s surreal scene of the mauling of the images by cranes, as flaying limbs and torsos drop from above, and detached heads pop out of the mangled bodies of straw and clay.

The Kolkata Durga puja wields a neat hegemony not only over Bengal, or India for that matter but even globally.

Each season, Durga puja offers a new city to be discovered and traversed. The city of the festival becomes a liminal site for imaginary journeys in time and space across India and the globe, inculcating new tastes in archaeological tours, heritage viewing, and art and craft consumption. One both unlearns and re-engages with the ‘everyday city’. The Kolkata Durga puja wields a neat hegemony not only over Bengal, or India for that matter but even globally. With fiberglass icons coming in vogue, transportation has become less cumbersome, leading to increased numbers of diasporic pujas. By and large, Durga is presented as the most glamorous in the entire pantheon of gods and goddesses that the Bengalis worship. What story does her conquest tell when translated into the contemporary? What story of glamour and pomp do the millions of spectators, mostly poor, underprivileged, and outside the Brahmanical corpus, take home with them? Is there a natural bonhomie between the goddess and the culturally dominant classes of Kolkata? The special status of the Durga puja for the middle-classes vis-à-vis other pujas, and its social self-positioning as the meta-festival and a ‘high-culture’ event is something to behold.

The end of the five-day festival with Dashami brings out the worst case of blues in Bengalis. Teary-eyes and with swelling emotions, Maa Durga is bid adieu and then again, the Bengalis start counting days till the next Durga Pujo chanting “Aasche bochor abar hobe”.

Debdeepa Karmakar

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