Durga Puja: a consuming passion
RECOUNTING her recent experiences as a member of the Dettol-Ananda Bazar Awards jury for the best Durga Puja in Kolkata, well-known Bengali writer Suchitra Bhattacharya rued that in the plethora of theme pujas the traditionally familiar image of the mother goddess was being lost. Somewhat pragmatically, she went on to add that this perhaps was inevitable. How should this be characterized as commercialization of Durga Puja or the effect of globalisation? (Ananda Bazar Patrika, 11 October 2005). But, as she participated in the process of judging pujas for awards by leading commercial houses in the city, there was no trace of irony in her remarks. Evidently commercialisation had become so much a part of the norm that it was hardly noticed. Instead, community pujas which did not rely on advertisements and corporate sponsorship, during a survey of selected pujas often specifically mentioned their dependence on public subscriptions from the neighbourhood as a mark of local solidarity.1
Yet commercialization and globalisation has in a sense always been a part of the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata. One of the earliest and notable city pujas was celebrated by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar in 1757 to commemorate the East India Companys victory over Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah at Plassey. Nabakrishna was Lord Clives banian and the talukdar of north Kolkata. He built a special thakurdalan (hall of worship) where the puja was held and dignitaries entertained. Lord Clive was the guest of honour at his puja and is said to have offered Rs 101, baskets of fruits and a goat for sacrifice. At the celebrations food and clothes were distributed to the poor, a thousand animals are said to have been sacrificed, and there was nightlong entertainment for the distinguished as well as the multitudes. There was elaborate feasting and nautch (dance) performances for the invited, while the populace was entertained with bawdy songs and ribald mimicry (Banerjee 2004: 36-37). Clearly, while Durga Puja had travelled from the households of the rural raja or zamindars (landlords) to the urban arena of Kolkata, it was still confined to the households of the elite.
The baroari (public) worship of the mother goddess commenced from the last decade of the 18th century when twelve Brahmin men formed a committee to conduct their own Durga Puja in Guptipara village in Nadia district of West Bengal, partly because some of them had been denied entry into a household celebration. So they set about performing the worship through a collection of subscriptions from neighbouring villages. Along with the rituals, various entertainments like swang (ironic mimicry), puppetry display, jatra (folk theatre) and half akhrai (a form of bawdy singing and dancing) were also performed.
The public celebration of Durga Puja was a reaction to the restrictive and hierarchical practices of the household pujas. It was said that during three main days of the puja at the Deb household in north Kolkata only the British were invited to the meals. Uninvited guests or trespassers were kept out of the household domain. While entertainment during the puja was free for the masses, entry into the domestic realm was restricted. Along with the opulent display of the household pujas of the collaborating elite, the public worship of Durga also became prominent in the city. By the first decade of the 20th century the baroari puja had become sarbojanin (for everyone), with the entire para (neighbourhood) or community involved. The sarbojanin Durga Puja had become a parar pujo.
In 1910 the Sanatan Dharmotshahini Sabha organized a sarbojanin puja in the Bhowanipur area. (Banerjee 2004: 49). Its institutionalization was effected by the locality known as Baghbazar in north Kolkata in 1918. Their example was soon followed by the neighbouring locality of Simla, where the Simla Byam Samity (a gymnasium club which fostered physical culture among the nationalist youth) also started a sarbojanin puja. Both these pujas were associated with the militant nationalist movement and sought to express their nationalist leanings through covert decorating motifs and the display of martial arts prowess on birashtami. The transformation of ashtami (the eight day of the bright lunar cycle of Aswin), the day when most people offered community worship at the pandals, into a day for the demonstration of martial arts prowess, served as a nationalist challenge to the colonial authorities.
Further nationalist symbolism was surreptitiously incorporated into the idol of the mother goddess and associated decoration. For instance, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyayas depiction of Bharatmata (mother India) in his novel Ananda Math became iconic for the nationalist pujas. In 1939 Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, then the president of the Indian National Congress, inaugurated the Simla Byam Samiti puja. Such nationalist association aroused the wrath of the British administration and led to the suspension of this puja for a few years during the Civil Disobedience Movement (1933-35) (Banerjee 2004: 50-51; Ghosh 2000: 297).
The festival has always served as a commentary on contemporary events and happenings, and in some manner represented public opinion. On the one hand it has knit together the para or neighbourhood and, on the other, given expression to their aspirations through the lighting and decoration of the pandal. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Partition and Independence, as the refugee influx from East Pakistan swelled, refugee colonies were established on the outskirts of Kolkata to resettle them. The celebration of Durga Puja became emblematic of neighbourhood integration during those times of trial and tribulation. This was also a time when the displaced Bengali middle class was seeking a toehold to survive in the city. Their struggle to enter and establish themselves in the professions and bureaucracy inclined them leftward politically.
The left movement led by the Communist Party of India gathered strength in the city during the 1950s and 1960s, especially among industrial workers, government employees, primary school teachers alongside the struggle of the East Bengal refugees to find their place in the sun. All these struggles were enframed within an idiom of selfless work, sacrifice and self-effacement for a larger, collective cause. Hence, causes rather than personalities were foregrounded in public. In regard to the celebration of Durga Puja too the identity of the organizers of the parar (neighbourhood community) puja was indistinguishable from the para. The neighbourhood took precedence and its identity was to be upheld through the puja.
What are paras and why is the parar puja or Sarbojanin Durgotsav (Durga Puja for everyone) so important? Paras are neither a homogenous community nor a unified locality. They derive their names and character from the early settlement of artisans and trades people in particular localities. Larger settlements were called tolas and corresponded to the area of a ward, like Colootola. Tulis comprised of smaller areas like a quarter (Archer 2000: 25), for instance Kumartuli where the clay modellers live and work. Similarly, settlements of trades people in a specific locality were also known as paras like Dorjipara (tailors settlement or neighbourhood, Telipara (settlement of people from Teli caste), Kansaripara (settlement of bell metal traders) and so on. Social interaction was mapped by face-to-face interaction and afforded close knit solidarity among residents. Puja in such neighbourhoods was emblematic of para.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Maoist left broke away from the parliamentary left parties and called for an agrarian revolution through armed struggle in the countryside, the city space was considered as the bastion of state power and hence an appropriate site for demonstrative punitive action. Among a small section of the urban educated middle class youth, it was a time to reject religious festivities as trivial and pandering to superstitious euphoria. The overall impact of their interventions might have been marginal but it did serve to restrain ostentation in puja celebrations and associated social service, like ministering to the needs of the poor and the needy, with the festivities. This was also a time when the public space of the puja began to be used for political propaganda through the setting up of kiosks to sell left party literature.
Notwithstanding such indirect participation, left party functionaries formally maintained their distance from the religious festivities of the puja in public. This distance has only very recently been breached after 25 years of left governance in the state, with the Left Front government finally allowing its leaders to inaugurate pujas in recognition of the popular nature of the festivities. This, of course, has not prevented some left leaders from being the moving spirit of their local pujas. Moreover, given the increasing corporatisation of the community puja since the 1980s, the proportion of funds collected through advertisements and sponsorships for the prominent city puja far outstripps the amount collected from local subscriptions. For this the assistance of political personalities is seen as essential for obtaining advertisements and corporate sponsorships. Local business persons as well as well-placed corporate executives have became the other conduits for funds for community puja.
As the image of the mother goddess grew bigger and was separated from her offsprings, traditionally depicted within one composite background as ek chalchitra, the images developed their distinctive iconography. The pandal (makeshift bamboo, cloth and tarpaulin shelters to house the images during the puja days) space also had to expand. The decorative motifs of the pandals became elaborate and took the shape of well-known temples and shrines from all over India. Soon it was not only temples but even monuments or iconic public buildings like the Sanchi Stupa, a Sumerian palace, the Fountain of Trevis or the Louvre which were being depicted on the pandals.
Appropriate illumination too had to be arranged for, to not only highlight the novel features of the pandal but also attract viewers. The use of tiny multicoloured light bulbs woven into a design which conveyed a message or depicted an event or portrayed a public figure, an innovation which had been popularized by the electricians of Chandarnagar in the city during the 1980s, also became more elaborate and intricate. Over time the graphic illustration of accidents and disasters like the Gaisal train accident, the break-up of the Titanic (after the movie), depiction of Princess Dianas death in a car accident in Paris, the space shuttle Discovery and the death of Kalpana Chawla, as well as depicting the figures of Mother Teresa, Amartya Sen and others had captured the imagination of the masses. The competition for the eyeball of the moving viewers who scoured the city in search of novel themes and depictions soon became institutionalised with Asian Paints announcing awards for the best puja in 1985 (Banerjee 2004: 57).
Ever since the mid-1980s para rivalry in terms of the celebration of Durga Puja has become increasingly corporatised. As the time of the puja is also the period of mega consumption and the best time to publicise products and commodities, companies are more than willing to advertise their products. Hence commercial advertising and brand positioning during the festival becomes a major enterprise in itself, and pujas which are able to attract large crowds to their pandals become the beneficiaries of this publicity campaign. Prizes and awards or spectacular displays attract crowds and depending upon the drawing power of particular pujas, advertisers are willing to pay higher rates for having their advertisements and hoardings displayed at the puja, often even sponsor them.
In the new millennium Kolkata has emerged as a major retail destination. With increases in disposable income among twin salaried professionals in the city, consumption of lifestyle products has soared. All Indian retail chains like Pantaloons, Westside and Big Bazar have reported growing sales from the city, exploding during Durga Puja. The volume of business during the two months of the festival period was pegged at Rs 350 crore, according to one estimate two years ago (The Telegraph, 20 September 2003). People save during the year to spend before the pujas since shopping for clothes, garments and other consumer durables is integral to the puja spirit. But, as one retailer opening his showroom of electrical appliances for domestic use on Bijaya Dashmi (last day of the puja) in a south Kolkata locality mentioned, before the puja Bengalis focus more on clothes, food and gift items. But after Durga Puja and before Diwali, metal objects (jewellery and lifestyle products) enjoy a larger sale. For clothes and garment retailers, the festival season accounts for a major part of their turnover.
The puja has contributed to a cascading effect on consumption. It is not only consumer durables, but every other commodity that becomes grist to the mill of consumption. Just like the marketing of new fashions and designs in clothes, new films too are specially slotted for release during the festive season as well-known Bengali film directors try to time the release of their films during this occasion. Traditionally, record companies also release the work of leading musicians or bands at this time and newspapers and magazines bring out their annual numbers showcasing the offerings of leading fiction writers, essayists and poets. Novelists are contracted well in advance by the leading newspapers and magazines to publish in their puja annuals, with writers said to work in shifts to complete their assignments! Restaurants advertise exotic menus and traditional Bengali food during the festive season. Every business enterprise tries to cash in on the commercial boom.
The pujas themselves partake of this consumption frenzy. While pandal decoration, lighting and innovative design of the images had in the past been a major attraction of the different pujas, in the new millennium, theme pujas have become a fashion statement. New concepts are conjured up by the community pujas to attract the viewing public, often by hiring designers or conceptualisers to develop a theme around which they design the idols, the pandal as well as the decoration and illumination. The choice of themes often vary as traditions, history, exotic people or places are developed in puja pandals. For instance, in 2002, folk traditions as represented in pat paintings and the depiction of the village became the major theme in several north and south Kolkata pujas.
In 2003, Kerala as a tourist haven became a major theme around which five major pujas were organized. Suruchi Sangha in New Alipore created a Kerala village and a temple. While the image of the mother-goddess was depicted in Kathakali style, the 34 dance forms of Kerala were portrayed all around the pandal. A great deal of emphasis was put on the authentic depiction of traditions and Malayali expatriates in the city were consulted by the designer Subodh Roy to authenticate his choice. Yet what was striking about this highly acclaimed designer puja was the way it was advertised for the public. There were banners and hoardings advertising the puja in strategic road crossings and junctions, announcing that one could travel to Kerala for the price of a bus ticket!
History also became grist to the creative designers mill! In 2002, Subodh Ray designed a spectacular replica of Titumeers bamboo fortress at the pandal for Babubagan Club. Even though the history of Titumeers revolt (1831) against the British rarely finds a mention in the textbooks, yet its vivid representation brought home the militant traditions of local resistance to imperial rule. Even more striking was the positioning of Titumeer, a jehadi Islamic peasant rebel as an anti-communal, nationalist figure. Such appropriation of history has helped to foster a spirit of cosmopolitanism.
The overall transformation of the parar puja has led to the puja itself becoming a consumption item. Instead of the integration of the neighbourhood it is now the pride and identity of the community as embodied in the theme or design of the puja which has gained importance. And it is the cycle of awards, promotions, publicity and big budget pujas which has become an insignia of the times. Awards bring publicity which draw the crowds and enhance advertisement rates, thus funding big budget theme pujas.
But theme pujas have also unleashed the creativity of designers and artists who have long existed on the fringe of the mainstream art world. They have transformed the city into a museum, exhibition or theme-park, where viewing and wonderment seem to entirely supplant worship (Guha Thakurta 2004: 35). Kolkata during Durga Puja has been designated as a heterotopic space by Pradip Bose (1997) following Foucault. The transformation of everyday space into a wondrous one is a gigantic creative exercise. Its achievement is the hallmark of the city.
1. Several organizers like at Barisha Topobon mentioned that they could not afford a theme based puja as they were a small budget, local subscription based puja, lacking corporate sponsorship.
John Archer, Paras, Palaces, Pathogens: Frameworks for the Growth of Calcutta 1800-1850, City and Society 12(1), 2000.
Sudeshna Banerjee, Durga Puja: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Rupa, New Delhi, 2004.
Pradip Bose, Pujor Kolkatar Bikalpalok, (in Bengali), Baromas, 1997.
Anjan Ghosh, Spaces of Recognition: Puja and Power in Contemporary Calcutta, Journal of Southern African Studies (2)26, June 2000.
Tapati Guha Thakurata, Art Today, 2004.