Muted spectacle high on hope
At a time when the whole world is in the clutches of a gnawing pandemic, Bengal is going all out to celebrate its biggest festival. Pritesh Basu discusses the Covid challenge during Durga Puja and the measures taken by the administration to make this extravaganza a mega success
Pushing its way through the screaming imprecations of a loathsome pandemic, Bengal is set to hold its biggest annual festival, all but in a restrained and moderated manner.
For the first time, from "bodhon" to "bisarjan", Goddess Durga and her entourage will get acquainted with terms like "the new normal", "sanitisation" and above all "physical distancing". But 'distancing' will happen only in case of human-to-human contact, definitely not in the minds of thousands of Bengalis whose emotions run wild with the mere mention of the Durga Puja. This time, with enormous responsibilities on the administration and Puja organisers, the entire extravaganza will be a different sight to behold.
Since Covid left its first mark in Bengal in mid-March and a subsequent surge in the number of cases, organising Durga Puja amidst the pandemic came up as a major challenge and the talk of the town.
There had been many speculations on the stand that the government would take in terms of organising Durga Puja and even "false information" being circulated as an attempt to dampen the spirits of Bengal's biggest festival. Finally, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee set aside all speculations with her announcement of not only allowing Durga Puja following set guidelines for the safety of the masses but also extended her government's full support to each and every organiser with a financial grant of Rs 50,000 amidst the shadow of economic slowdown due to the nationwide lockdown.
Most Puja organisers have slashed their budgets by at least 60 to 70 percent. A big-ticket Puja in South Kolkata has brought it down to Rs 25 lakh from Rs 75 lakh while one in North Kolkata reduced it to Rs 12 lakh from Rs 33 lakh.
But more or less all Puja organisers including Suruchi Sangha, Tridhara Sammelani, Chetla Agrani, Bosepukur Sarbojonin, Sovabazar Sarbojonin and Hindustan Park have also come up with a motto to stand by those who have been badly affected due to the lockdown, besides organising the Puja based on unique themes and living up to its grandeur.
State Fire minister Sujit Bose of Lake Town Sreebhumi, where Kedarnath Temple as a pandal will be a key attraction this time, said: "Besides organising the Puja, as usual, we are carrying out social work to support people at this critical time of Covid. Order for 1 lakh masks has been placed to distribute among people during the Puja. To avoid crowds, we will also telecast the Puja through Facebook so that people can watch the same without even visiting the venue. Following the Chief Minister's directions, almost all the clubs have taken steps to distribute masks during Durga Puja as no one will be allowed to enter the mandaps without wearing them and there will be arrangements to give hand sanitisers at the entrance itself. There will be more than one entry and exit gates, much wider this time compared to those of the previous years.
The Kolkata Police too have taken up the initiative of campaigning over the distribution of masks besides ensuring maintenance of other parameters in the wake of the pandemic. "We are intensifying our #MaskUpKolkata campaign during Pujas to increase awareness among the general public to the necessity of keeping their faces covered while coming out. We will do it through social media as well during the Pujas. At the same time, all steps will be taken for the safety of people," said Kolkata Police Commissioner Anuj Sharma.
As many as 2,509 and 34,748 Pujas are being organised in Kolkata and in the remaining 22 districts of Bengal respectively. Unlike previous years, this is the first time the state and district administration along with the police and Puja organisers need to meet up certain challenges as physical distancing, use of masks and hand sanitisers at Puja pandals with all three sides open is the new normal to check a spike in the Covid graph post Puja.
The big-ticket Pujas, where lakhs of pandal-hoppers turn up, including Tridhara Sammellani in South Kolkata to Hatibagan Sarbojonin in the north, has chalked out an elaborate plan of action with additional volunteers to ensure a smooth 'darshan' of the idol by maintaining physical distancing. Though the organisers are still in a fix on the number of people to set out for pandal hopping, they are leaving no stone unturned in making all the necessary arrangements so that the infection does not spread.
Saswata Basu, convenor of Hatibagan Sarbojonin, said: "There will be a single line in which people have to stand in a queue maintaining a distance of six feet to enter the pandal."
The main concern is controlling the crowd by following physical distancing norms. Both the state and Kolkata Police are constantly working out the logistics with the Puja organisers to implement the same. In the new normal, almost all big organisers are ensuring the facility of telecasting their Puja rituals through social networking sites to avoid pouring in of pandal-hoppers in huge numbers.
Many organisers, mainly in South Kolkata, have opted for "virtual anjali" on the day of Maha Ashtami. In the new normal, people will get to watch through social networking sites the priest chanting mantras and listening to the same one can offer 'anjali' sitting back at home. While many like Ekdalia Evergreen will be following the traditional way of offering 'anjali' and sindoor khela but in smaller groups and wearing masks. State Panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee of Ekdalia Evergreen said: "All rituals will be followed as per our tradition. But what we will miss this time is to sit together to have bhog as it will be distributed individually in respective households."
The grand Red Road Carnival will not be held this time. As a result, the immersion of idols will also take place in a low-key affair with minimum people accompanying the same on trolleys to the ghats of River Hooghly in Kolkata where the Kolkata Municipal Corporation will have its own set up to carry out the immersion.
Baghbazar Sarbojonin, where the fair during the Puja is an additional draw, is not allowing setting up of the merry-go-round and other similar activities where there are possibilities of large gatherings.
This is for the first time when devotees will not be allowed to enter Belur Math premises, offer 'pushpanjali' and taste bhog which is considered to be sacred among devotees. This Puja will be held at the Sri Ramakrishna Temple and not on the adjacent ground. Such precautionary measures have been taken for the first time since 1901 when Durga Puja was started at Belur Math by Swami Vivekananda.
'Bonedi Barir' Puja is another centre of attraction in Kolkata. The Puja at Sovabazar Rajbari that began in 1757 will take place following all the usual rituals. But only 25 people will be allowed to enter the Rajbari at a time to get a glimpse of the idol. Again, this is the first time in the history of the 264-year-old Puja at the Rajbari when the idols will not get carried on the shoulders of descendants of Raja Nabakrishna Deb for immersion as it has to be carried on a trolley to adhere to the physical distancing norms.
The state Transport department is ensuring the arrangement of tours to the Rajbari and 'bonedi barir' Pujas in a special bus. Even on Saptami and Nabami, one can enjoy air-conditioned heritage tram rides to North and South Kolkata Pujas including these century-old attractions.
Most hotels and restaurants have also come up with attractive offers to woo people so that the sector receives a fillip during the Puja after its business was adversely impacted due to Covid. However, the Excise Directorate will also step up its vigilance during the festival. "We will further strengthen our vigilance at the time of festival to check illegal sale and supply of spurious liquor," said Subrata Biswas, Special Excise Commissioner (Enforcement).
Kolkata witnessed the Spanish Flu in 1920 and dengue just ahead of Durga Puja in 1962. Since the community Pujas were not so hyped then, it had not made much difference despite the situation turning so grim in 1962 that the Railways had to change the departure time of most trains. Now, Durga Puja in Bengal is no more just a festival but is a celebration of art and culture with massive significance to its economy. Hence, despite Covid, with all its preparations in place, the administration is upholding its faith on the people of this state to usher in the deity, set a positive precedence and mark a blessed beginning.