Deify the Durga at home
We gather annually to revere the female spirit in exalted celebration but our daily practice witnesses no reflection of such devotion or respect – mythical Durga's power scares all, while the common woman lives her everyday in fear of abuse, violence, discrimination; writes Kaushikibrata Banerjee
The mythological Durga is not a timid, mute, withdrawn, reserved or subtle deity. She is the supreme Creator and has been depicted as the Warrior Goddess with 10 arms, each brandishing a weapon to ensure the victory of good over evil. Interestingly, the goddess is portrayed as an epitome of feminine power, one that has been created by the holy trinity. She is known as Mahishasura Mardini, the one who defeats the apparently invincible Asura, who enjoys the boon of metamorphosing his shape into any form.
After the devas fail in their relentless battles against Mahishasura, they approach the holy trinity – Bramha, Vishnu and Maheshwara (Shiva) – to salvage their pride and honour by annihilating him.
Thus was Durga born, literally meaning a 'fortress', invincible and impregnable beyond defeat, unconquerable in her martial prowess, bestowed with the blessings and prayers of all gods of heaven, unwavering in her resolve to take on the mighty Mahishasura.
For 15 days, there was a war between the two and finally, on Mahalaya, the Goddess stabbed him with her trident, bringing an end to the tyranny of the demon. Her face was placid and unperturbed as she ruthlessly killed him, metting out vengeance to the unrighteous.
Durga is an incarnation of Goddess Parvati, the daughter of Himalaya, the Lord of the Mountains. She is Shakti – the power that runs the universe. In Hindu philosophy, Shiva is the changeless potentiality while Shakti is the power latent within him, the female force that has existed forever and without which the world could not have been.
Keeping this in mind and considering this elevated, supreme bearing of Shakti in Indian mythology, it would not be out of context to question her position in the living world.
Representing Stree Shakti, Durga evokes the power of the female principle. Then, does the 'other gender' accord to the female sex, a consequence of the apogee on which they hold the deity, experience even a fraction of the reverence they reserve for her?
In today's world, unfortunately, it is difficult to find a correlation between the deification of the Devi, on the one hand, and the respect for women in society on the other. As a nation, we prostrate before a goddess, but we see no wrong in abusing females in human form; who, theoretically, have been considered as representatives of the Devi herself since ancient times.
Durga as a goddess can rule the world with devotees bowing in obeisance to her but the 'Devi' in human form has to undergo all sorts of oppression and exploitation during her lifetime. Inadvertently, then, we refuse to accept that philosophical belief and religious rituals have anything to do with actual conduct. We, then, also confess that there is actually no need for a nexus between theory and practice.
Even the narrow lanes of Kumartuli, the potters' quarter, have witnessed age-old gender bias. Women artists were initially discouraged from entering the business or not taken seriously. Kakali Pal entered the business after her husband's sudden demise as she was forced to take care of the only trade that she inherited from him. For a woman who had very little interest in the craft and who was not allowed to step out of her house, the road ahead was not easy. There was no one to help her and she failed repeatedly until her persistence saw her through.
China Pal, another well-known artist, has successfully managed to break the barriers of patriarchy and carve a niche of her own.
"I was the first woman artist here. When I started, everybody pointed fingers and concluded that I couldn't continue for many days. It's been years now," she says with a smile. "I had just a month left to complete the orders of the idols as my father died just before Durga Puja. I was very hesitant but Maa showed me the way. We must remember that all goddesses – Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati – are positioned higher than Ganesh and Kartik. Men have always tried to pull women down as they think that they can never compete with us and will fall behind."
These women artists have gained immense fame and success in the art and commerce of sculpting Durga idols. They derive a certain kinship with the figures of the deities they sculpt, finding in them a power that must be earned and used in the service of humanity.
Mala Pal's father, a true patriarch, prohibited her from entering the business but her brother Gobindo Pal knew of her "knack". When their father died in 1985, Gobindo encouraged Mala and gradually she picked up the tricks of the trade. "When Mala was 15, dignitaries from New Delhi came and visited our workshop. They were extremely impressed with her as she had by then started making miniature idols. They took her with them to attend a series of workshops and she stayed there for about three months. There she crafted Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati miniatures. On returning, her achievements were widely published and she became quite popular as a miniature idol-maker," says Gobindo proudly.
This year, they have sent a four-and-a-half-feet fibreglass Durga idol to Malaysia which will be worshipped by around 130 Bengali families settled there. Two other miniature idols have been sent to Chicago and New York. Interestingly, in 2018, Mala received her first invitation to do a theme and this year, there have been many offers for the same.
Hence, not everything is negative. The new-found assertion in women is taking them places. Slowly but surely, 'Durga' is thus, breaking the clichés of being a prisoner of a medieval, patriarchal mindset and is emerging as Mahishasura's true nemesis.
Going by historical records, much of which has been derived from tales passed down the ages via the oral tradition – backed by some old manuscripts, folklore, songs and ballads – Durga Puja in Bengal is most likely to have started around six centuries ago, sometime in the 15th century.
Bengal's penchant for being different from the rest had persisted for eons. If in other parts of the land, Mahadev was the tandava-dancing Master of Destruction – in Bengal, he was somewhat of a mellowed man, a loving husband and a respectful son-in-law. Durga in her Gauri avatar is the perfect foil for him, although she also reveals signs of being an independent woman.
Going beyond lore, the festival's symbolic significance is hard to ignore. There is no doubt that Durga is the amalgamation of heaven's powers reflected in the form of 10 different weapons. What is also noteworthy is that unlike even the most powerful gods, most of whom have not more than four hands, Durga has a few more, simply because she can balance all that on her physical self, giving much more credence to the fact that women had a stronger presence and a more definitive role to play in erstwhile Bengali society and culture.
Although some modern feminists argue that Durga is an embodiment of India's patriarchal history, given that it took 10 male deities to arm her, the theory somewhat fades to a few centuries of folklore, faith and belief. When Durga comes to Bengal, she does it on her own with her children in tow and without being escorted by her husband. She doesn't need the help of any of the gods who supplied her with weapons, and in the end, she defeats the demon all by herself.
Historian Haripada Bhowmik says Shakti Puja had various manifestations.
"Earlier, the zamindars used to organise Durga Puja. With the advent of the British, naba babus started hosting the Puja. Then gradually, the baroari Puja – which meant that baro (12) friends (iyaar) gathered to host the Durga Puja – came into practice.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose along with a few others started the Sarbojanin (public) Durgotsav.
After Independence, there were riots and the gloom of Partition. Several political upheavals marked the history of that period and Durga Puja did not remain unaffected. New thinking came about and slowly, the ek chala idols gave way to panch (five) chalas."
Then came the theme Puja, which was a welcome break from tradition for some. Spirited experiments, laden with exceptional creativity and uniqueness – these theme Pujas are massive crowd-pullers every year. Celebrity visual artist Sanatan Dinda, who has been deeply associated with theme-based Durga Puja for years, conjures up Antarjatra (The Inner Journey), which depicts the story of disconnected lovers, unattached to human emotions and sensitivity because of the dominance of the virtual world. Their journey is unexplainable, baffling and abstract. He depicts the universe as a man who holds the woman, making both complementary and integral to each other. This particular concept is the theme this year for Behala Nutan Sangha.
Another of his creations this year revolves around the global water crisis. At 25 Pally Khidderpore, Dinda has used over five lakh plastic bottles to depict a waterfall. "Apart from that, parts of air conditioners, fan coils and radiators have been used to create a tunnel leading to the pandal. The animals and creatures along the pathway have been depicted as fossils to make people realise the irrevocable impacts of human's apathy towards Mother Nature. Durga herself has been shown carrying Ganesh in her lap while donning an oxygen mask. Garbage plastic bags (black bags) have been used to portray clouds and thermocol has been used to construct high-rise buildings. The main objective is to drive home the message of environment conservation."
As we commence yet another year of celebrating Durga Puja, let us embrace the true spirit of the festival – the enlightenment of the soul.
In today's time, the divide between the glorification of the deity (in terms of religious principles) and the exploitation of women is unabashedly immense. Prejudice, abuse, injustice, discrimination, misconduct and several other evils camouflage our notion of idolising the everyday 'Durga' – we lose sight of our social responsibilities to support and care for the Supreme Power that rules our lives and is also waiting to strike. It is now or never for change to begin or some may never even cross this threshold.