Durga Puja in Bengal: People, Prayer & Politics
| Didhiti Ghosh, Bureau Chief, IOP, Kolkata - 24 Oct 2018

Durga Puja in Bengal: People, Prayer & Politics

By Didhiti Ghosh

Kolkata, Oct 24, 2018: Bengal’s crazy Durga Puja moments might well bid us goodbye for yet another year, but the festive mood is yet to take its leave. Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights is a much awaited talk in the city, and people are gearing up for its celebrations which are to take off in the next 2 weeks, and to turn the City of Joy into a healthier and fiery rainbow. Fingers crossed, as very recently the Supreme Court’s verdict has put a restriction on the sale and bursting of firecrackers in a bid to bring down the levels of air and noise pollution in the country by motivating citizens towards using only “green firecrackers”, which are much less polluting.

Though a five-day affair for many, the Durga Puja or Durgotsav is much bigger and crazier in Kolkata and the Bengali community throughout the globe. Here, Devi Durga arrives draped in her majestic splendour in several forms. This year, Kolkata’s Behala area saw an idea out-of-the-box in its celebration of the festival which lay in lines similar to the Supreme Court’s ruling out of same-sex preferences as criminal offence earlier in September 2018. Taking up the still-prevalent marginalisation of homosexuals among some orthodox people, the Silpara Barobagan Cultural Association (SBCA) used medical instruments like saline bottles, tubes and bandages in its decoration of the scene to symbolize the mental wounds inflicted on homosexual community. The rainbow colours representing the LGBTQ society decorated the Durga idol, with the Ganesh placed on her lap. The concept, according to the artists, reflected the “different” LGBTQ community’s similarity with the uniqueness of an elephant’s head on the human body, as fancied by Lord Ganesh. In the same way that Ganesh was not sidelined by the Gods because of his strange appearance, the spirit of the LGBTQ should, according to the SBCA, also be accepted by the society.

On a different but similar note, Santoshpur Lakepally has given the responsibility of organizing their Durga Puja to the transgender woman Shree Ghatak and her Troyee Foundation. Somnath Das, Secretary of Lakepally Puja Committee said, “To any mother, all her children are equal. Shree and her foundation are therefore not different to us.”

A special attraction of Kolkata during the festival, and an important aspect promoting Bengal tourism is the sacred worship of real human beings dressed as the Lordess at Belur Math on the banks of the Hooghly River, the headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission Ashrams across the globe. Celebrated on the eighth day or Maha Ashtami in Bengal, it is known as Kanya Pujan or Kumari Puja, where young girls, after being bathed in the holy Ganges, are dressed in crimson red or fiery yellow sarees, adorned with jewellery and worshipped by saffron-clad monks of the Ramakrishna Order. According to Sri Ramakrishna, the little girls at their tender age are away from all negative forces concerning the materialistic world, and are therefore pure manifestations of the Divine Mother. This year, like all other years, the event fetched in a huge gathering of devotees at the Belur Math.

A similar concept was seen in the Garia Srirampur Kalyan Samity Durgotsav this year where real humans were dressed up as Devi Durga and her children, dressed up in marvellous white attire.

The fact that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has taken Bengal’s Durgotsav to a new level by giving this festival the spectrum of an international carnival can be highlighted by the decision of a group of international delegates including scholars, journalist, writers and film makers from Spain, Canada and the United States to visit Kolkata for exploring the festivity and participating in “Sensitizing Cultural Tourism”. The campaign was started and promoted by a Kolkata-based tourism entrepreneur Jaydeep Mukherjee, where the event got an impetus after an internationally acclaimed documentary filmmaker with National Geographic, Leandro Blanco made and later unveiled a documentary on Durga Puja in Madrid last year to bring Durga Puja on the forefront of global sociocultural celebrations much like the Rio Carnival. The documentary by Blanco is of 10 minutes and 34 seconds and has been watched over 2.5 billion people across the globe. An important addendum to India’s and Bengal’s business and commerce initiative, the film will also be screened in Hispanic countries like Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina and Peru, countries with which India has been actively involved in entering into partnerships for the past few years in agricultural, industrial and entertainment sectors.

Mentionable is the visit of His Excellency Augusto Montiel, ambassador of Venezuela to India a few days back. Montiel joined the Dum Dum Park celebration as a judge where he was accompanied by team SBI IMPACT Sharad Ananda 2018 for ranking popular pandals based on the uniqueness and meaning expressed in their themes.

A few months back, His Excellency Ma Zhanwu, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China to Kolkata, said that Devi Durga has a strong connection to Chinese tradition, where she is referred to as Nan Jin Mu. West Bengal Governer Keshari Nath Tripathi, the veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader inaugurated the BJ Block Saradotsav Committee pandal in Salt Lake, which hosted the theme this year.

The State’s affairs, however, have not been a smooth drive, especially considering the recent October decision of the Supreme Court refusing to stay the Government’s order to grant Rs 10,000 to each of the 28000 Durgotsav committees. On September 10, CM Mamata Banerjee announced the decision which was estimated to cost the public exchequer Rs 28 crore, the amount justified as being a liberal donation to promote the State’s campaign for safe driving carrying the slogan “Safe Drive, Save Life”. However, the Supreme Court on October 12th refused to stay the decision of the West Bengal Govt., questioning the State’s basis of meting out the fund as there was no information about the criteria based on which the pandals were given the funds. The State BJP Govt. responded by saying that the TMC was indulging in “dole politics” to win Hindu votes ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

According to Dilip Ghosh, BJP State President, “Earlier also, with an eye on Muslim votes the government had announced allowances for Imams.  Now, this has been done to pacify Hindus. We all must remember that India is a secular country and we cannot preach such kind of dole politics.”

The CM had also said that to facilitate ceremonial processes, she would order the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, Urban Development and Fire Departments not to levy any licence fee to the puja organizers, and that the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation would increase the discount offered to them from 20% to 23% as per directions.

According to Aniket Chakraborty, Statement Clerk to CJM (Alipore Police Court), “This whole incident is reflective of the complete waste of public money for carnivals and merriments, where several burning issues regarding the State’s development are being overlooked. We wish a change is a present government and for the same, we have to get rid of their habit of asking for grants in the name of religion, sports and clubs.” However, Soumit Narayan Deb, member of North Kolkata’s historic Sovabazar Rajbari takes a more neutral position by saying that both the Supreme Court and the High Court have their own views in taking their decisions, and ultimately the common people have to be accountable for stabilizing the State treasury. The Rajbari has been celebrating their traditional-style Durgotsav for more than 260 years started by Raja Naba Krishna Deb, who, back in 1757 invited Robert Clive and Warren Hastings to attend the festivity.

Meanwhile, Union Minister of Commerce & Industry and Civil Aviation Suresh Prabhu has graced the SBI IMPACT Sharad Ananda 2018, the latter dedicated to fight against drug abuse. He was left impressed by the innovative artwork and theme concept of the Behala Burishibtala Janakalyan Sangha who won the first prize from among 60 top pandals of the city. He even remarked that what Bengal plans today, the rest of India and the world plan years later.

(The writer Didhiti Ghosh is the Kolkata Correspondent of Indian Observer Post. She is a journalist, script-writer, psychologist, professor and a certified translator-interpreter of the Spanish language from Kolkata. Contact – didhiti.24@gmail.com)

Photo: Kanishka Mandal


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