A show of unity
Bringing fresh respite from the communal violence that clouds today's air – Durga Puja has arrived as the ultimate unifier, calling communities, sexes, classes, castes, creeds together in a frenzy of celebration, joy and reverential harmony; discusses Shaheryar Hossain
At a time when violence in the name of upholding one's caste and creed has become the bitter norm, Bengal's biggest carnival is here to unite people across communities, faiths and traditions.
Durga Puja not only celebrates the homecoming of Goddess Durga – it also epitomises communal harmony and strengthens social fabric.
The bugles of Durga Puja are sounded by the traditional and mostly discreet khuti Puja (a ritual performed at the time of setting up a Puja pandal) while the curtains fall with colourful Vijaya Dashami parades dotting Kolkata's bright streets.
"This is the culture and tradition of this land in which Hindus and Muslims happily participate in Durga Puja. While Muslims participate during Durga Puja, Hindus too take out akharas (a procession with flags and drums) at the time of Muharram. Whether it is Durga Puja, Eid, Bakr-e-Eid or Christmas, people here celebrate festivals together. There are certain forces that are trying to create a divide and break this legacy, conspiring to destroy the communal harmony of Bengal in the process. But we will not allow them to be successful," said Manzar Iqbal, Member, Mayor-in-Council (Light) of Kolkata Municipal Corporation, who is also the president of Nonapukur Lohapatty Durga Puja Committee.
The 68-year-old Lohapatty Puja still retains its sense of history and reverence with a strong determination to keep the festive spirit alive and dynamic, irrespective of the divisive forces at work.
"I am the president of six Durga Puja committees. I have been associated with these Puja committees for several years," Iqbal points out.
While Nonapukur, situated in the heart of the city, hosts an amalgam of both Hindu and Muslim populations, Durga Puja in minority-dominated areas like Park Circus, Topsia, Colootola Street and Mahatma Gandhi Road is celebrated with a fervour and zeal very similar to Eid-ul-Fitr or Eid-ul-Zoha.
Mahatma Gandhi Road's Md Ali Park hosts one of Kolkata's most popular Pujas. As far as Park Circus Maidan is concerned, nearly 70 per cent of the stalls that are being set up around the pandal are owned by Muslims. Given its rich history and adherence to tradition, the Park Circus Maidan Durga Puja attracts a huge footfall every year.
"Relationships matter here, not religion. Everyone is invited, there are no bars on religious or personal beliefs," said Tapan De, general secretary of Park Circus Beniapukur United Puja Committee.
Park Circus Maidan becomes a focal point during Durga Puja as pandal-hoppers from across the city flock to the grounds here to take a quick glimpse of the deity and also enjoy the array of food stalls, games and entertainment on display.
"Pandal-hoppers from seven different directions of the city converge at Park Circus Maidan. There are three entry points – the main entrance to the pandal, the right one from the Maa flyover side and the left entrance, from Lady Brabourne College side.
"Approximately, 60,000 people come to the Puja mandap per day during these four days," De adds.
Every year, the Puja pandal is constructed based on a particular theme with special lighting and decoration.
"This year, the theme is Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir while last year, it was China's Beijing Mandir. State Panchayats and Rural Development and Water Investigation and Development minister Subrata Mukherjee, who is also the president of Park Circus Beniapukur United Puja Committee, will grace the inauguration. This apart, we will invite Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee too," says De.
The most important and interesting aspect of Park Circus Maidan Puja is that a mosque is also situated inside the sprawling park. There are times when the namaz and Durga Puja rituals are performed parallelly.
"We have been conducting Durga Puja here for the past 67 years. This year is the 68th year. We don't have any problem with the mosque. Muslims perform namaz and Hindus perform Durga Puja at the same time without any hesitation or hindrance. Both communities have maintained harmony for more than six decades," De explains.
Along with the Puja pandal, stalls and different joyrides (merry-go-round, dragon swings, etc.) are also set up at the venue. "After the immersion, the fair continues for another month. The stalls are set up mostly by Muslims," De maintains.
The construction of Puja pandals is influenced by several factors, primarily budget. Nine to 10 months ahead of Durga Puja, the committee selects a decorator and assigns the construction of the mandap. Once the selection is done, the overall design and structure are prepared by the shortlisted decorator.
After receiving due approval from the Puja committee, the decorator starts to build the pandal. "Construction of the pandal starts two months ahead of the Puja. The pandal is finally ready about six days before the Puja is scheduled to start. This is a temporary structure, made of bamboo and cloth, and is used as a temple for this purpose only," says Sajid Iqbal of Kohinoor Decorators.
He described that the outline and structure of the pandal are made first, after which workers cover the bamboo-made structure with a tirpal. Thereafter, the interior designing team commences its work.
"Depending on the budget, the design and decoration vary. It also depends on the theme decided by the committee, and requires considerable thinking and creativity. It is this aspect which attracts crowds the most," he adds.
During these four days – Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami – City of Joy witnesses a virtual shutdown. And, on the final day of Vijaya Dashami, women (particularly married women) bid farewell to Goddess Durga with a traditional baran.
This year, the festivities begin on October 4 and conclude on October 8.