Durga Puja in Kolkata


It is that time of the year again - when Ma Durga comes visiting with her four children (Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik) to her natal home down in the plains, leaving her husband's (Lord Shiva) abode in the Himalayas for ten days. It is a Hindu festival, particularly special to Bengalis, who celebrate it unfailingly wherever in the world they may be. However, nothing can match the native celebration in Bengal, especially in the city of Kolkata.  

This will be my third Durga Puja in Kolkata after leaving the Netherlands in 2017. For a decade before that, I was always away during this time, visiting the city annually only in Christmas.

The Expat Experience

Honestly speaking, I didn't exactly miss Durga Puja in the Netherlands. As part of KALLOL, the Indian Bengali Association there, we celebrated it with much fanfare at Voorschoten every year; and actually did it in a way, and with an involvement, that we'd never done in Kolkata. But the expat experience is very different - both less and more 'authentic' than the real one. More, because in its eagerness, it often goes overboard in observing the rituals; and less, because it can never approximate the experience of the city.


Back in Kolkata

For the ten days of the Puja, Kolkata is transformed - the whole city is decked as a bride and looks beautiful! I witnessed this after ages in 2017 and 2018. My predilection was actually to sleep through it - the previous two months in both the years having been exceptionally exhausting for me - but my daughter, Srishti, was super-enthusiastic about the Pujas and I couldn't deny her that. Especially, in the first year, as it took her mind away from missing Amsterdam. By the second Durga Puja in October 2018, however, she was already enjoying the Puja for its own sake. 





Incidentally, what she loves most about it - the lights in the streets - is neither  very uniquely Indian nor Bengali. The big capitals of the West are as resplendent with light during Christmas. And for a longer time. The festive mood always prolonged a tad bit (I feel). What is unique about the Durga Puja, however, is the 'pandals' - or pavilions - where the goddess is housed with her family.

'Pandal-hopping' during the Pujas is an inevitable part of a Bengali's (actually anyone's) childhood in Kolkata. I have had my fair share of it as a child and teenager, but had long stopped enjoying that bit later. Because, over the years, I felt, the core of the festival had been overshadowed by the frills. The puja itself - the worship of the goddess, the prayer part - had been pushed into the background; and what became increasingly important was the scale and grandeur of the pavilions. And I hated the gendered long queues before all the reputed pandals, having to spend hours to see just one idol. What an utter waste of time! I much preferred spending the puja days with my two bosom pals at each other's homes, wearing new sarees of course (that part I've always loved), and content with admiring each other!

In 2017, I didn't mind the usual Puja stuff so much as I was seeing everything afresh through Srishti's eyes; and because we did very low-key pandal-hopping, restricting  ourselves to our neighbourhood (with no queues), and a spin through (part of) North Kolkata in our car one evening. But last year, Srishti got a real taste of the excitement of pandal-hopping when, sitting atop her dad’s shoulders, amidst a jostling crowd of some hundreds, she saw one of the most famed and expensive pandals (with its idols decked in gold) at Sreebhumi. She also enjoyed her time with the children of two of my friends who are roughly the same age as her, the meetings allowing inter-generational friendships that added a totally new dimension to our socializing!  

The 'para'


Throughout the Pujas in the last two years, in the midst of all the renewed excitement imparted by my daughter, I was reminded a lot of one of my conversations about vanishing neighbourhoods in Asian cities with Prof. Mike Douglass, a social scientist renowned for his work on urban planning in Asia (in an interview that I’d taken of him at IIAS, Leiden, in June 2016). Because if the Durga Puja is anything, it is one great valorisation of the neighbourhood - the 'para', as we call it in Bangla. For the ten days of the festival, one's identity is principally tied to one's 'para' - and there is fierce competition regarding the pandals. Especially after Asian Paints instituted an award for the best pandal in the 1990s. 'Durga Puja Committees' in hundreds of paras have vied with each other ever since to rope in the best idol-makers, artists and architects in a bid to win the prize. There is tremendous creativity that this months'-long effort and enthusiasm engenders. I admire that enthusiasm - though never unreservedly. 
The unsavoury bit 

Let me share an anecdote to explain why: On the last working day before the Pujas in 2017, I was late in returning home. On my way back from College Street, the only cab-driver who agreed to take me home decided to go for a shortcut - just before Manicktola, to avoid the inevitable longer waits at the main signals on that route during this festive season. But it turned out to be not so much a shortcut of distance as a shortcut to darkness. For within a few seconds, from blinding lights, we were literally plunged into total darkness - a stinking, suffocating darkness, where ghost-like figures in hovels went about resignedly with a cursed existence.

It's such a cliché to talk of the disparities between the rich and the poor in the metros in India (as in most mega-cities in the world). We in Kolkata are used to seeing slums along the road - people washing, cleaning, bathing openly, displaying almost a cheerful kind of street domesticity. But the experience of that pre-puja evening was very different: it brought home to me the fact that all those glittering lights on the main streets in long preparation for festivities to come must necessarily exclude the poor, esp. the abysmally poor. 

It is this disparity that I've found the most difficult to accept after my return, post my ten years in the Netherlands. I had lived in Kolkata for 33 years before that. So the differences of caste and class are not new to me. And yet, the utter disparity between the haves and have-nots now strikes me in a way that it didn't before. Not even during our mandatory, annual 3-week holidays. Have I changed? Or has the city become more unequal? I don't know.

'Pujo-pujo rob'

Durga Puja is in the air. The seasonal markers of 'sarat' - when the Puja happens - are unmistakable: 'shoroter megh, kaash phool' (the clouds of sarat, kaash flowers).... 

Kolkata dwellers don't get to see much of that, though. But there are other unavoidable signifiers: for one, there are the innumerable hoardings for Puja shopping everywhere, with all brands advertising their 'special Puja collection' and all products offering a 'special Puja discount', of course. Not to speak of all female models (read Tollywood, and of late Bollywood, heroines) wearing the traditional Bengali red-bordered white sari to endorse everything from jewellery and clothes to turmeric and cooking oil.  

But increasingly, as the Puja days approach, the most visible sign of its countdown are the work-in-progress 'pandals' that come up everywhere - that not only restrict the traffic flow at several important junctions of the city, but also necessitate all kinds of commuting re-arrangements within neighbourhoods. The resulting inconvenience is usually borne willingly by the residents!   

The ten days of the Puja - with the festivities rising to a crescendo in the last four days - can easily be termed as one of the greatest shows on earth: it definitely rivals the biggest cultural festivals anywhere in the world. But on the tenth and last day - ‘Dashami’ - the gregariousness of the celebrations is toned down by the poignancy of the goddess's return to her husband, leaving her natal home. In a culture where a woman's identity is still overwhelmingly tied up with her marital status, Durga's return has an emotional resonance that few other pujas have in India.

But then, Bengalis look forward to the next year saying, ‘Ascchhe bochhhor abar hobe’, even as they immerse the goddess in the Ganges.

Comments

Susan Price said…
Thanks for this, Rituparna. I've seen images of Durga in friends' houses, riding on her lion, but this gave me a whole new glimpse into the joy of worshipping her.
I really enjoyed reading this, thanks. I hadn't heard of it before and it's always good to learn something new. I kept thinking of Edinburgh at Christmas nowadays, with the lights and queues, except that it's a lot less spiritual here I would say.
Durbar said…
Durga Puja 2020, 2021 and 2022

Durga Puja is celebrated in the Hindu month called Ashwin and lands in either September or October on the Gregorian calendar.

The ceremonies of Durga Puja are centred on the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga who is iconically depicted as a a 10-armed mother-goddess with her four children standing nearby. Durga Puja is also a time of family reunions and appreciation of the cultural heritage of the Bengali people.

The dates chosen for Durga Puja are based on the time when Prince Rama is thought to have invoked the aid of the goddess Durga, who then (legend has it) came to battle and ultimately defeat the demon-buffalo king Ravana and his evil henchmen.

The first Durga Puja in recorded history occurred in Bengal around the turn of the 16th Century A.D. Annual celebrations continued and later spread to Delhi in 1911 when many Bengalis moved there to work in the then-new capital of British India. The holiday was also transported to Mumbai (Bombay) and other cities to which Bengalis immigrated. Finally, Bengalis who live in other nations also often observe the feast. The biggest and most significant Durga Puja festival, however, still takes place in West Bengal in the municipality of Kolkata.

The entirety of the Durga Puja season encompasses 10 days of fasting, feasting and worshipping Durga. The last five days of celebration, however, are the most important. They are observed as follows:

On the day called ‘Shasthi‘, Durga is thought to descend to the Earth with her four children accompanying her. This occurs only after her descent has been invoked by worshipers. It is also on this day that her eyes are drawn on or installed onto the idols.
On ‘Saptami‘, the goddess is believed, also upon invitation in a complex ritual, to enter into the statues that depict her.
On ‘Ashtami‘, the day on which Durga is said to have slain the demon-buffalo’s two henchmen (Chanda and Munda), her statue is carried around at the time of day of the long-ago slaying.
On ‘Navami‘, the great fire ceremony (Maha Aarti) is held. This is the day that Durga is believed to heave finally killed her demon opponent in battle. People dress up in their best clothes and eat special food that has been first offered to Durga to celebrate.
On the final day of the feast, ‘Dashami‘, Durga idols are all carried around in great processions. There is dancing and music all around. The statues are carried to a river or other body of water to be immersed. Worshippers then visit friends and family, exchange blessings, eat sweets and sumptuous meals, and dress in traditional garb.
There are numerous festivals and activities in all parts of India where Durga Puja is kept that tourist often attend, including:

The main festival in Kolkata, West Bengal. Here, you will encounter dancing, dramatic performances, Bengali cuisine and numerous streets stalls where you can buy cultural souvenirs. The Durga displays, called ‘pandals‘, are so abundant.
In the neighbourhood of Kumartuli, in northern Kolkata is where most of Durga icons are manufactured. Many of them are made of clay, and this is where the eyes are painted onto the Durga idols during the Durga Festival.

In Delhi, the oldest Durga Puja festival in the city is held at Chittaranjan Park, which is often known as the “miniature Kolkata.”
In Mumbai, the Bengal Club has been conducting a Durga Puja in Shivaji Park since the 1950s. In addition to that, there is another Durga Puja in Lokhandwala Garden which is usually attended by celebrities.

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