EACH YEAR ON Vijayadashami we receive scores of WhatsApp greetings from relatives, friends and people we barely know. Many of these e-greetings are embellished with the face of goddess Durga whose homecoming was celebrated—particularly in eastern India—with great fanfare for the preceding three days and, in some cases, more. In West Bengal, the province of permanent carnivals, the festive season begins with Mahalaya, the beginning of Devipaksh, and extends till the culmination of Kali puja and Diwali. The entire period is an unofficial holiday.
Like Christmas in the West, the festive season in West Bengal is both religious and secular. It is religious insofar as the invocation of Ma Durga, whether through the recitation of the Chandipath—with which the voice of the late Birendra Krishna Bhadra is inseperable—or the puja on Ashtami morning, is near-obligatory. But it is strangely secular because Puja shopping, pandal hopping and gluttony
are part of the overall experience.
Mobs throng to see the Durga Puja pandals and some indeed go to get a few moments darshan of an exquisitely created idol of the Ma that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in Vande Mataram equated with the motherland. I certainly get a tingling sensation through my body staring at the face of Ma Durga as the dhakis (drummers) invoke the goddess and the more energetic do the dhunuchi dance.
However, the traditional charms of Durga Puja have long been subsumed by the attractions of the theme-based pandals. These are unquestionably works of art. Recreating the façade of a temple in southern India and even the Golden Temple in Amritsar, not to mention palaces in Europe, using the most basic materials, is a feat that some of the decorators of West Bengal have truly mastered. Then there are the lighting displays that range from themes as basic as a babu opening an umbrella against the rain to a cricketer bearing a resemblance to Virat Kohli hitting a ball out of the ground. For those anxious for some family entertainment and an opportunity to gorge on street food, Durga Puja is an unbeatable experience.
Predictably, a carnival on this monumental scale is bound to be a magnetic draw for politicians. For three decades and more, West Bengal was governed by the Communists who professed to keep away from religious festivals. However, while Communist leaders weren’t likely to be found offering puja on Ashtami, the big pandals always boasted a book stall by a Communist organisation, with the mandatory portraits of
Marx, Lenin and Stalin staring down on those who may have voted Communist but were riddled with ‘false consciousness.’
Mamata Banerjee has no inhibitions over jumping into the Durga Puja festivities. Most of the local Puja committees have over the years come to be controlled by those who identify themselves with the Trinamool Congress. The state government subsidises the local circuit of clubs to the tune of Rs 2 lakh and more and corporates are always encouraged to bankroll the favoured Pujas with endorsements and advertisements. The Chief Minister herself makes it a point to personally inaugurate as many Pujas as possible. This year, after the electoral setback in the Lok Sabha polls, she took care to maximise her reach. If it isn’t her, then the local MLAs and state ministers have their diaries full with openings and visits.
This year, the BJP tried to muscle in on the Durga Puja committees but with only very modest success. Mamata’s lot are hardened street fighters and they didn’t yield even an inch, at least not in Kolkata, the TMC heartland. Even the symbolic inauguration of a Durga Puja in Kolkata’s elite Salt Lake had to encounter a great deal of difficulty and uncertainty. Ultimately, the inauguration happened but the police was instructed to keep local residents—the BJP had done very well in this part of ‘New’ Kolkata in the Lok Sabha polls—well away from the pandal. Consequently, only a small handful got an opportunity to wave at the Home Minister and chant ‘Jai Sri Ram’.
Of course, there is another set of Durga Pujas where the old traditions persist. These are the Pujas in the homes of old zamindar families where the actual puja takes precedence over the carnival. In recent times, perhaps taking a cue from the gated colonies in Gurugram and Bengaluru, small Durga Pujas are being organised in similar condominiums on the fringes of Kolkata. These are marked by community participation, a show of reverence and some good-natured fun. But these will be the exceptions. To worship Durga, it is preferable to get out of the Kolkata madhouse for a few days.