Will this year see the beginning of the return of the Durga Puja in its original form? Saimi Sattar discusses the idea with Kolkata denizens to find out more
This year, 41-year-old Arpita Sarkar is relieved that rather than being stuck for hours in traffic in the month preceding Duga Puja, she has been able to commute smoothly to and from office. “Things had come to such a head that we had decided that even though we hate spending these days away from Kolkata, we would do so,” she says. But a tiny miniscule virus had other plans. So now, for the six days of the Puja, rather than engage in pandal-hopping, Arpita along with her family will cook something special at home, probably go to a relative’s house where children too would be able to catch up with their cousins. “That is what Pujo signified for us when we were growing up. Heading to Mama baari or Bade Papa’s place with our parents is what we did as children. Even though, it is a community celebration, the crowds that have become synonymous with Durga Puja are not the essence of the festival,” says 41-year-old Arpita who works as an HR in a multi-national company in Kolkata and counts dance and drama as her areas of interest. She often performs at the cultural programmes organised during Puja and this year she is recording the performance which is being put up jointly with other artistes on YouTube channels.
Over the years, for Bengalis and non-Bengalis, Durga Puja came to be centered around how many pandals they had hopped, which one displayed the best theme and which Puja Committee was likely to win an award that year. The lament, especially among the older generation, was that the emphasis was now on an extraneous journey while the festival was more of an inward cruise of devotion which had gone completely missing. But nature often has a way of setting humans on the path of course correction, sometimes in the form of a virus, only if they are willing to listen to its call.
Like every year, Ayandrali Dutta, travel and food writer who has made Delhi her home for the past 12 years, will be making her way back to Kolkata be a part of the 168-year old ancestral Burrabazar Mallick Bari Durga Puja that is celebrated at her house. “Over the past five-six years, Durga Puja has become a social media activity where you have to do a check in at all the pandals,” says Dutta who sees her annual homecoming as something akin to the Goddess Durga’s return to her maternal house.
At Ayandrali’s, till last year, there would have been around 300-400 people visiting and eating at her house. These would be family friends, relatives, people who had heard about the puja through word-of-mouth. “This won’t happen this year,” says Ayandrali firmly. While the aarti would take place, the ceremonial conch would be blown but the place where the five-feet idol is placed would not be flocked with people who had queued up for a dekko at the pratima. This year there would not be more than five-six at one time. But Ayandrali believes that this was very much-required. “We needed to slow down and cut down on lot of frills which we thought were an important part of life. After all, that is what we have been doing during the past seven months and it has done us a lot of good. It has made us realise that minimalism could be a part of life. Instead of 400 people eating earlier, now there would be 50 and that it is perfectly fine. If we are feeding for the sake of charity, we can do it in some other place and in some other way,” she says adding that Pujas had become a larger than life affair.
While Ayandrali is much younger, Arup Sarkar, a retired government servant can recall a time when Pujas were simpler affairs. “The budgets have become huge due to sponsorship by political parties and corporates. There is an excess of everything — lighting, theme, decoration. A lot of money is thrown around on the display but the devotion that is needed is nowhere to be found. Earlier, the way the face was crafted, the body made and the decorations done were exceptional. The idols were simpler but they inspired devoutness. The bhakti that came from the heart is no longer there,” he says. He hopes for a return to the simplicity of earlier times but is not relying on the fulfilment of his wishes — even during the pandemic.
Arpita, a trained Bharatnatyam and Odissi dancer, too is not fond of the theme pandals. “The competitions are a way of showing off how much money can be splurged. The focus is on making expensive pandals and political parties have jumped into the fray as well. When we were younger, we went to see the pandals every year. The idols and pandals were the same each year but they inspired devotion. Since they are so intricate and expensive now, there are many restrictions about where we can sit and what we can touch so much so that people are not able to enjoy themselves,” she says.
Arup points out that earlier there was a lot personal involvement. “The entertainment was different. Everyone from the extended family pitched in ensuring that the festivities went off smoothly. On the cultural side, someone sang, another one recited. It was unparalleled anand,” he says.
Ayandrali too agrees that the complexion of Puja underwent a change as different members of the household became busier and a lot of work was outsourced to people. “Earlier every member had a responsibility to go and get the flowers, buy the vegetables, decorate the house and more so there was personal touch. Many of us no longer stay in Kolkata and when we return for Puja we prefer to outsource the work and spend time with family,” she says.
Of course, like contemporary times, earlier too pujas entailed dressing up to the nines; dhaaki players who by their rhythmic percussions signalled the arrival of Maa Durga to her maternal home; the dhunochi naach made popular in the non-Bengali speaking areas by countless Bollywood films as well as pandal-hopping but it is the new norms of social distancing that have forced many to sit back and rethink about the hijacking of this festival by Mammon.
The change had started around 25 years back when the concept of “theme puja” made an entry. From 1993-94 each of the paara (area) began to conceptualise the pandal around a contemporary issue. It could be questioning violence against women while celebrating a goddess or depicting the condition of refugees or creating awareness about social issue of contemporary relevance. As the pandals grew in scale, awards started being handed out for different categories like best idol, lighting, decoration, social work and more. To remain a contender in the competitions needed a scaling up of budgets and corporate sponsorship or by political parties entered the picture. And after that there was no looking back as each year the magnificence and size of the pandals grew and visitors from and around Kolkata lined up.
However, 48-year-old Sutirtha Basu, a regional manager in a pharmaceutical company has a different take. Sutirtha, who used to visit nothing less than 50-60 pandals every Puja, feels that these gave artistes and craftspeople a platform to display their talent. “Artistes who conceptualise the pandals are from arts college and are really talented. Depending on the theme, they get village artisans adept in crafts like mud, metal or others to make the pandals and give them an opportunity to showcase their ability. An entire economy depends on Durga Puja. These people have tremendous flair but it was never exhibited,” he says and adds, “The awards are a recognition of the hard work and talent.” Not just the pandals and idols but also the social work done by Puja Committee is rewarded.
Despite the changes, a bonedi puja or the one celebrated at a Zamindar baari (home) like the one at Ayandrali’s ancestral home, still maintains tradition. “Even if they do not assemble at any other time, they make sure to come during puja. They dress up in traditional attire, wear the heirloom jewellery and have cultural programmes,” says Arup.
In fact, historically it was only the zamindar and other rich families who celebrated Durga Puja at their homes. “There was no paara puja which started 100-110 years back during the British Raj. The zamindars objected to the paara pujas as earlier they had exercised a monopoly over organising Durga puja. Being allowed to visit one was considered to be a favour bestowed upon one. While all the paara people were not freedom fighters but they wanted that they should be able to express their hatred against the British. So the asur (demon) in the pratima (idol) was depicted like the British and the Goddess was shown to be killing him,” says Basu.
Fast forward to today. And whether we would be able to annihilate materialism and imbibe the true spirit of the festival, this year and in the ones that follow, is a story that is unfolding and yet to be written.
MEAN WHILE IN THE CAPITAL…
For sometime now the Durga Puja Committees in Delhi were in a quandary about the way they could go ahead and celebrate the festival without endangering people while ensuring that the festivities remained intact. The Purbanchal Bangiyo Samiti, a forum of 38 committees which celebrate Durga Puja in East Delhi formed about two years ago decided to take the lead and, post several parleys with Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi finally, managed to come out with a set of guidelines that attempts to do both.
While the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoHFW), Govt. of India had already issued a Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in the first week of the month, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) suggested some additional measures. All the event organisers have to obtain requisite permission from the District Magistrate concerned for organising the festival events well in advance. The order says that the capacity of each event site would be decided on the basis of area and social distancing norms, laid down by MHA by which in a closed space, a maximum of 50 per cent of the hall capacity would be allowed, with a ceiling of 200 persons, and in an open spaces the size of the ground would be kept in view and strict observance of social distancing norms would be followed. Naturally, the seating capacity for each such site would be determined according to the norms of social distancing and observing Covid-appropriate behaviour.
This would include ensuring separate entry and exit at each event which will be strictly regulated and only those wearing a face mask would be allowed inside.
Every organising committee is supposed to video-record the entire event and a soft copy of the unedited video recording in pen-drive and a certificate, certifying that no violation of the SOPs/Guidelines issued by Govt. of India and Govt. of NCT of Delhi has taken place, shall be submitted to Nodal officers within three hours of closing of the programme of each day. In case of any violation of SOPs/guidelines the permission for conducting such an event shall be revoked immediately for all subsequent days. At all events only sitting on chairs with social distancing norms shall be allowed. Suitable arrangements have to be made for an adequate number of temporary toilets and other public facilities like electricity, water, sanitisers and thermal screeners at each site venue.
Mrinal Biswas is the general secretary, Milani Cultural & Welfare Association, Mayur Vihar, as well as the Purbanchal Bangiyo Samiti, a forum of 38 committees which celebrate Durga Puja in East Delhi formed about two years ago. Says he, “Only 11 of the 38 committees will organise the Durga Puja with a small Idol. The rest would have a kalash/ghot puja. The idol would be eco-friendly with water-based colour and of the height of three-five feet. Some of the puja committees would be organising online pushpanjali. No cultural events, bhandara and stalls would be allowed.”
At the Milani Clubhouse, they are registering members and handing out digital tokens for visiting the place where the idol is kept. The restricted entry would be rotated after every half an hour so that everyone gets a chance to offer prayers while maintaining social distancing. Children below 12 and elderly people above 65 will not be allowed inside.
For the immersion, a metal tank is being arranged by Purbanchal Bangiyo Samiti at Mayur Vihar Kali Bari Ph-1 and at Purbasha Kali Bari (IP extn) premises with each Puja committee being given a different time slot. Puja material like flowers, leaves and decorative items will not be allowed at the time of immersion.