The politics behind the pujas

Durga Puja as a vehicle to hammer home socio-political messages is not a new phenomenon, though the message does seem to be getting bigger with time

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee symbolically painted Durga's eyes at Chetla Agrani this year, as every year (photo: Chetla Agrani/ Facebook)
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee symbolically painted Durga's eyes at Chetla Agrani this year, as every year (photo: Chetla Agrani/ Facebook)

Tirthankar Mitra

The Bengali word barowari (also spelled baroari and baroyari) has some interesting etymology behind it. Its commonest meaning stems from the phrase ‘baro yaari’ or ‘of 12 friends’. The other meaning ostensibly comes from the Sanskrit words bar meaning public, and the Persian word wari which means for. For the public, in other words.

Whatever its origin, barowari as a concept dates back at least to the second half of the 18th century in Bengal, when a group of 12 Brahmins, apparently denied entry to the private Durga Puja of a wealthy household in Guptipara in what is now Hooghly district, decided to start their own publicly funded puja, a practice that became very popular, and spread very quickly.

In time, the word barowari has been almost entirely replaced by sarbojanin or ‘of the community’. What has not changed is the trend of using some of the state’s best known Durga Pujas as vehicles to disseminate a socio-political message.

The ‘babus’ of old Calcutta — the city’s famed and ridiculously wealthy aristocracy — chose to display their devotion to their British overlords in the 18th and 19th centuries through sinfully lavish and decadent Durga Pujas. Their place has been taken today by the state’s political leaders, who have emerged as the driving forces behind many pujas, often reducing them to one-man, or one-woman, shows.

Yes, there was a time when some of the leading lights of Bengali politics would associate with community pujas to build ties with the populace and inculcate nationalistic feelings among them. Long before he became Netaji, for example, Subhas Chandra Bose was closely associated with the Simla Byayam Samity and Kumortuli pujas in north Calcutta in the early 1930s.

The Ekdalia Evergreen pandal this year, gigantic as always (photo: Ekdalia Evergreen Official/ Facebook)
The Ekdalia Evergreen pandal this year, gigantic as always (photo: Ekdalia Evergreen Official/ Facebook)
Ekdalia Evergreen Official/ Facebook

Having parted ways with the Congress and floated Forward Bloc, Bose did not abandon his Durga Puja connect, especially in south Kolkata where he lived. In fact, the puja organised by Forward Club is still going strong not too far from the residence of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, one of whose brothers is actually among its organisers.

The trend of politically influential persons associating with community pujas not only adds that extra sheen to a puja, but the name also brings in higher collections of door-to-door subscriptions and more corporate sponsorship, all of which go into the making of some truly astonishing and mega-budget pandals, temporary homes for the goddess and her entourage.

If there is one individual who may be credited with launching the trend in modern times, that would arguably be the late Subrata Mukherjee in the 1970s — then the youngest minister in chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s Congress government — who associated himself with Ekdalia Evergreen Club near Gariahat in south Kolkata.

As the prime mover behind the club’s community puja, he took it to great heights, refusing to change the format year after year. Even as other puja organisers burned midnight oil to think of themes ranging from the Gulf War in Kuwait to recreating the Taj Mahal, it was Mukherjee’s proud contention that his puja had nothing to do with themes, but strictly followed rituals and rites of worship as prescribed by the scriptures.

Fellow Congress stalwart Somen Mitra was associated with the community puja at College Square off Calcutta University’s College Street campus, though his involvement was not as deep as Mukherjee’s. The name of the late Priya Ranjan Das Munshi pops up almost automatically here, as part of the trio of Congress leaders spearheading the party’s revival following its split.

Das Munshi’s contribution to the cause was the magazine Dakshinee Barta, a magazine whose publication he supervised in the run-up to Durga Puja. Replete with advertisements and contributions by leading authors, the magazine underscored his cultural credentials and set him apart from other members of the party. The trio have walked off into the sunset, but their pujas espousing traditional values continue to burn bright.

With the advent of the Left Front government in 1977, the practice took a bit of a hit, since most Leftist leaders were uncomfortable displaying an overt affinity for what they saw as an essentially religious occasion, given their agnostic ideology. Left-leaning bookstalls selling party literature and other ‘approved’ material were, however, a common sight across the city during the Pujas.

The one unabashed exception was the maverick Subhas Chakraborty, a mass leader who never lost his following in life or death, and had a legion of admirers even in the political parties opposed to him. Chakraborty was a frequent and welcome visitor to many puja pandals, most notably the community puja of Sreebhumi Sporting Club, now led by his former protégé Sujit Bose.

Bose, a minister in the Trinamool Congress (TMC) cabinet headed by Mamata Banerjee, takes a great deal of pride in his puja, a massive and occasionally controversial crowd puller, primarily owing to the uniqueness of its themed pandals every year. This year, it counts among its visitors the iconic Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho, a coup it shares with Naktala Udayan Sangha and Chetla Agrani.

Community pujas patronised by political figures took a giant leap forward with TMC replacing the Left Front as the ruling dispensation in 2011. Beginning with Kalighat Milan Sangha off the chief minister’s humble tiled home in Harish Chatterjee Street, which puts up a bold placard advertising her status as chief patron, many members of her cabinet organise pujas which played a sizeable role in lobbying for the intangible heritage tag from UNESCO in 2021.

There is Ajeya Sanhati or Naktala Udayan Sangha backed by Partha Chatterjee, once education minister and TMC secretary-general, now marking time behind bars at Presidency Correctional Home for his alleged involvement in the cash for teaching jobs scam. But the puja which he patronised is still among the season’s foremost attractions.

Then there’s the Suruchi Sangha puja in New Alipore, organised by state power minister Arup Biswas, its innovation and lavish mounting, rewarded with a great number of awards every year.

The spectacular Naktala Udayan Sangha puja in 2022 (photo: Naktala Udayan Sangha/ Facebook)
The spectacular Naktala Udayan Sangha puja in 2022 (photo: Naktala Udayan Sangha/ Facebook)
Naktala Udayan Sangha/ Facebook

Similarly, the Chetla Agrani puja, not far from the CM’s residence, is organised by the city’s Muslim mayor Firhad ‘Bobby’ Hakim, and claims a distinction that no other puja can — the eyes on the idol are partly drawn every year by the chief minister herself. She is also known to lend her hand in cooking bhog, the offering of different foods to the goddess on each day of puja.

When a portion of Majerhat bridge collapsed just before the pujas in 2018, threatening a major drop in footfalls at Biswas and Hakim’s pujas, the state government set up a bailey bridge to facilitate the passage of pandal hoppers. If nothing else, this ought to provide some idea of their perceived importance in the eyes of both the administration and the public.

There are many more such examples of pujas across Bengal forming symbiotic relationships with the prominent individuals who promote them, each drawing on the other’s aura in an ever-growing cult of money and popularity. Devotion? If not to the goddess, then certainly to what she can offer.

 (Author courtesy: IPA Newspack)

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