Kolkata’s community pujas getting politicised as the ‘community’ withdraws indoors

It was reassuring to find a large section of Muslim population happily joining in the festivities. The Hindu-Muslim divide during the Puja was never an issue earlier. But thank politicians for this

A Kolkata street during the Durga Puja festivities
A Kolkata street during the Durga Puja festivities
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Devasis Chattopadhyay

Durga Puja for Bengalis has always been more than just a religious festival. The five-day carnival of exceptional food, glamorous attire, lilting music, joyful get-togethers and cultural programmes is religiously recreated by Bengalis settled in Lucknow to London. No Bengali wants to miss the festivities.

But having returned to Kolkata this year, after a quarter century of globe-trotting, I found myself yearning for the ‘older’ and the more familiar version of the celebration. I found myself asking if it has to do with age or was it just nostalgia for youth and childhood? Or was there really something missing?

The emphasis on outlandish pandals, lighting and decoration was breathtaking. A pandal dazzled visitors with a replica of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, apparently dazzling even the pilots flying overhead with laser lights. In the housing society I live, which has a spacious and airconditioned banquet hall, we spent a fortune in erecting a pandal and lighting up the society. Could the money have been better spent, perhaps in feeding people a simple meal on each of the five days?

Upper class, educated and affluent Bengalis were largely missing from the city’s community Pujas, branded as ‘Sarbojanin’or ‘Puja for All’, where people irrespective of religion, caste, creed and class could take part. But this section was conspicuous by their absence just as middle and upper class Maharashtrians have been keeping away from Ganapati Mandals in Mumbai. Have both the festivals been taken over by political lumpens, I wondered.

Call it the BJP effect, I could sense an invisible wall which has come up between Bengali and non-Bengali speaking communities. Even in the well-known gated communities, I witnessed people calling each other names under the breath. It was disconcerting.

Communal violence in neighbouring Bangladesh and politics also cast their shadows. As long as the Left Front was in power, there was no overt patronage by the state government of the community pujas. But now with the state government and the chief minister giving grants and inaugurating ‘pujas’, politics is now a part of the celebrations. BJP took the cue and has tried to organize its ‘own’ puja. The community, not surprisingly, has retreated.

Kolkata’s community pujas getting politicised as the ‘community’ withdraws indoors

What was reassuring was to find a large section of West Bengal’s Muslim population enthusiastically joining in the festivities. Several community pujas across the state and in the city, reported the media, were organised by Muslims or with their help. The Muslim youth in the port area have been for years been organising a puja for sex workers and their children. This year was no exception. The Hindu-Muslim divide during the Puja was never an issue earlier. But thank politicians for this.

On the eighth day of the festivities, I was invited to join the Durga Puja by an aristocratic Bengali family in their palatial central Kolkata home. This family puja was nearly 300 years old, I was told. It was first held in their ancestral village - Telirbag - in undivided Bengal, now in Bangladesh. The family continued with the puja even after they migrated to Kolkata long before Partition and made this city their home.

Like so many other family pujas in Bengal, they continue to buy the idol of the goddess from the same potter’s family; the priests who perform the puja are doing it through successive generations and even the Dhakis–the percussionists - have a long association with this family puja. The best part is, everyone partakes the Ashtami bhog together.

While people in other parts of India celebrate Navaratri by fasting and abstinence from worldly pleasures, Bengalis during these five days eat, drink and make merry like there is no tomorrow. Fish fries, mutton rolls, Mughlai paratha, Nalli-Nehari, Biryani and Rui-Kaliaare often consumed on the same day.

The fasting is not at all mandatory. In fact, fasting for a few hours to make you eligible to offer ‘pushpanjali’, before gorging on food is the norm. I was relieved to find that even after a quarter of a century, Devi Durgais still fine with such gluttony.

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