Millennium Post

Unfazed through eons: The vanguards of tradition

The pinnacle of Bengal's festive glory – Durga Puja has witnessed a frenzy of change in the last few decades. While the grandeur dazzles audiences across the globe, at home, a little bit of tradition is lost with each flip of the calender, explores Archishman Sarkar

Jaago...tumi jaago...' as the timeless voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra echoes amidst the sputters and static of All India Radio, the heart of every Bengali momentarily forgets the din and bustle of 21st century Kolkata – getting quickly transported back to simpler times. This omnipresent sense of rapture is perhaps the thread that binds every Kolkatan to her/his roots; roots which hark back to Bonedi Barir Pujo, palkis and zamindars.

While it's true that the grandeur and sheer scale of modern-day 'Theme Pujas' are a spectacle to behold, the City of Joy is still home to a few bastions of bustling tradition. Millennium Post caught up with the Roychowdhury and Deb families, two of the oldest dynasties of Bengal, famous for the legendary Sabarna Roychowdhury Barir Pujo and Sovabazar Rajbarir Pujo respectively.

"When we received the 'jaigir' of 8 parganas in South Bengal from Jahangir in 1608, from Halishahar to Lakkhikantapur, our forefather Lakkhikanta Gangopadhyay got the 'upadhi' Roychowdhury and started our family puja at Barisha in 1610. This was the first Durga Puja of Kolkata, which also marked the first shoporibare Durga Puja, where the Goddess was worshipped along with Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik, her four children, on the same chalchitra," says Deborshi Roychowdhury, a 35th generation scion of the Sabarna Roychowdhury family and curator of the family museum which was set up in 2005.

Speaking of the age-old traditions of the puja, Roychowdhury describes: "Our puja had been conducted since its inception following the Durga bhakti tarangini way, a manual created by Vidyapati. The tridhara sangam was introduced to our family later in 1660, bringing in the three dharas (Hindu traditions) of Shakta, Baishnab and Shaiba."

At present, the Sabarna Roychowdhury family is famous for its Durga Puja across eight centres. Of these, six are in Barisha itself, namely Aatchala Bari, Baro Bari, Mejo Bari, Majher Bari, Benaki Bari and Kalikingkar Bari. The other two are Birati Bari and Nimta Pathanpur Bari.

Interestingly, the lion or vaahan of Goddess Durga in Baro Bari, Mejo Bari and Nimta Pathanpur Bari is horse-faced, while an Asiatic lion adorns the rest. The idol of Kartik, the youngest of Durga's four children, resembles a prince and not a warrior. Asura is green, while Ganesh is red. The colour of the idol of Goddess Durga herself is either a golden tinted yellow (swarnabarna) or a reddish orange, as prescribed in the family's traditions.

The famous bhog of the Roychowdhury family puja features an elaborate spread, comprising pulao, khichdi and plain rice, along with five different types of fries, three or four varieties of vegetarian delicacies, shaak, chatni, payesh, doi and paan.

"To us, Durga Puja is all about the rituals and tradition. We don't have enormous thakur daalaans or ornate jhaar lanthans. There is no place for pomp and glory when it comes to puja. You won't find finely dressed men or women decked in elaborate ornaments during our puja. Our family members adhere to the ordinary Bengali attire. Our philosophy has not been to show-off our traditions, but to follow them to the best of our abilities," Roychowdhury proudly declares.

Almost all aspects of the family's puja have remained unchanged through the centuries, other than the notable exception of animal sacrifice. The sacrifice or balidaan of 13 goats and one buffalo was a ritual followed by the family, until quite recently. However, this practice is now a thing of the past, unseen in any of their eight centres since the last decade.

Meanwhile, reflecting upon the history of Sovabazar Rajbarir Pujo, Swapan Krishna Deb, a seventh-generation member of Raja Naba Krishna Deb's family says: "After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, Naba Krishna Deb started the family Durga Puja, following the decisive victory of the British against Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah. Back then, Robert Clive (a close confidant and ally of Naba Krishna Deb) was just an employee of the East India Company, yet to become the Governor, while the family's forefather himself was a munshi with a salary of Rs 60 per month. Clive himself and Warren Hastings were in the list of invitees for the inaugural puja. Naba Krishna Deb became a Raja much later around 1766 – since then, the puja has been known as Sovabazar Rajbarir Pujo."

While not very welcoming towards the recent surge in theme-based pujas, Deb admits: "It is an inevitable change in the age of globalisation. The modern generations would expectedly flock towards the grandeur of the festival, rather than sticking to traditional ways."

However, this very point is something which Deborshi Roychowdhury rues. "Traditional pujas are witnessing an existential crisis now as the commercial aspect of modern pujas organised by major clubs is eclipsing our way of sticking to the rituals. Organising a puja on a grand scale requires a significant amount of manpower, of which we are facing an acute shortage. The clubs pay three times as much and that allure is hard to overcome."

While most traditions of the Deb family puja have been preserved across generations, much like the Roychowdhury family, some rituals have been lost in time. "Earlier, we uncaged Nilkantha birds during Visarjan, a ritual which was supposed to inform Lord Shiva of Goddess Durga's return to her abode. The practice came to an end when the birds were brought under the Wildlife Protection Act. However, the ritual of goat sacrifice or pathabali still exists in our family," notes Deb.

Deb agrees with Roychowdhury on how it is becoming more difficult to uphold the traditions with each passing year. "We are not kings anymore. The spending power required to uphold the ways of a royal family puja is taking a toll on us every year," says Deb, while Roychowdhury notes: "The way things are going, I don't think Kolkata will have any traditional pujas left 30-35 years down the line."

Durga Puja has traversed a long journey. Though always epitomising Bengal's festivities, Durga Puja celebrations have witnessed an unforeseen growth in the last few decades. It has evolved into a grand visual spectacle – with 100 ft tall idols, elaborate pandals and some major city clubs shelling out money that would shame Tollywood movie budgets. But among all the dazzling lights, the droves of revellers flooding the streets, flashy new clothes and resplendent pandals, Durga Puja is losing its roots somewhere along the way. Traditional pujas, such as these two, will remain timeless relics, like a watchful parent who looks on as its cocooned Durga Puja, in its modern dazzling avatar, scales new heights of grandeur with each flip of the calendar.

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