Timeless in reverence
From being a show of abundant luxury to becoming a festival for all, Durga Puja in Kolkata has traversed a long journey – but its dynamic essence remains sacrosanct; elaborates Tarun Goswami
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Calcutta's Durga Puja was a platform for flamboyant business communities to exhibit their overabundance of wealth and set an example. The merchants worshipped different gods and goddesses for whom rituals were held throughout the year. But Durga Puja was special; every year, it brought the opportunity to do something new and unique – an event that would be talked about by all visitors through another year of wait until the next Puja.
Amritalal Bose (1853-1929), famous playwright and stage actor, wrote in his memoir, Smriti O Atmasmriti, that Maa Durga would relish a gala lunch hosted by Abhay Charan Mitra, pick her ornaments from the house of Shib Krishna Dawn, and in the evening, she would enjoy the dance performance of nautch girls at Raja Nabakrishna Deb's Sovabazar residence.
Abay Charan Mitra, a landed aristocrat who exported spices, made enormous wealth conducting business with the East India Company. During Durga Puja, the Mitra family used to entertain their guests with 100 different varieties of dishes at lunch. The jilabis were as big as the wheels of a chariot. The food was so delectable that the deity reserved her lunches for Abhay Charan's house.
Shib Krishna Dawn would embellish the image of the goddess with gold. He had imported gold artefacts from Germany which were used to decorate the thakur dalan, the place where the Puja was held. Jewellers would visit his house to take orders from the women for new ornaments which were crafted specially for Durga Puja. Gold ornaments were presented to the guests as well. The women would wear necklaces studded with diamonds and rubies along with five to 10 gold chains of varying shapes and sizes. Dawn spent not less than Rs 5 lakh for the grand event.
In the evening, the goddess went to the house of Raja Nabakrishna Deb to enjoy the dance of nautch girls. Nabakrishna became friendly with the East India Company, and its senior officers would often visit his home to enjoy food and drinks during the Puja. Drinks were imported from England and Germany for the festivities. The officers enjoyed the performance of the girls that lasted till midnight. There was no electricity then and elaborate, crystal chandeliers were lit up after dusk. British officers familiar with Kolkata spoke of the pomp and grandeur of Durga Puja.
Akrur Dutta and Bancharam Akrur Dutta, after whom two roads in central Kolkata have been renamed, made money doing business with American traders – rather rare in those days when Americans did business largely with their European counterparts.
During Durga Puja, the Duttas would decorate the entire area with colourful lamps and their American friends, who visited the city, thoroughly enjoyed the lavish meals while being equally charmed by the decorations.
While Durga Puja in the 18th and 19th centuries was held in the houses of rich businessmen, a new chapter in Kolkata's annual festival began with the commencement of community Pujas, which was introduced by Atindranath Basu of the Simla Bayam Samity in 1926. Subhas Chandra Bose and his elder brother, Sarat Chandra, were associated with this Puja.
Bakulbagan Sarbojonin Durgotsav was the first to introduce Durga Puja with a theme in the early 1980s. Artists like Isha Muhammad and Shanu Lahiri had painted the image of Goddess Durga, after which the idol was crafted. In 2011, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had also painted an image of the goddess.
Sanghashree, a well-known club in south Kolkata, introduced the idol of Durga made by reputed sculptor Ananta Malakar in the mid-1970s. The image was later taken to USA and is now kept at a private museum in Florida.
The lights from Chandannagore were first introduced by Krishna Chandra Dutta, popularly known as Phata Kesto, during Kali Puja in 1973. Next year, such lighting was introduced during Durga Puja in Kolkata and big Puja committees including Santosh Mitra Square, Sealdah Sarbojonin, Mudiali, introduced such lighting. It may be mentioned that recently, Mamata Banerjee has allotted space in Chandannagore where a hub for electrical decorators is coming up.
The state government is utilising the clubs organising Durga Puja to spread awareness against several social issues such as vector-borne diseases and environmental concerns like conservation of water. Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) is awarding cash prizes to those clubs that are pursuing awareness campaigns to combat the deadly spread of dengue. The clubs have been asked to clean up the areas surrounding their pandals and distribute pamphlets containing instructions. The award winners will be given prizes at a function presided by Mayor Firhad Hakim.
Community Pujas today make mandaps on a range of replicas of historical sites, such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Egyptian Pyramids, India's Parliament, Tirupati temple. The themes of these community Pujas usually carry a thoughtful message for visitors. Concepts include the lives of tribal villages, Bengal's terracotta work, and important social issues like child trafficking, abuse of children and women, folk culture, among many others. Several fairs are being held where artisans from the remotest corners of the state are coming and selling their products, providing them much-needed motivation.
These days, the big community Pujas are being sponsored by companies and this has resulted in reduced involvement of the residents of an area. Earlier, the residents used to pay subscriptions and also participate in the cultural functions organised in the evening. The shows were held on three days and usually, on Ashtami, there used to be a grand play curated and presented by the residents themselves. Also, there used to be widespread participation of women in preparing bhog. Nights would see young Puja enthusiasts keeping watchful guard while indulging in sublime adda. However, these days, the event management groups run the show. They organise the functions and the bhog is prepared by caterers who also serve the food. The security agencies deploy guards at night for safety while the cultural functions are organised by the sponsors.
As years have passed by, Durga Puja has slowly become an industry and over 1,000 families are now involved in the whole process – from the making of the idol till the immersion.
Nevertheless, the riveting chants of the mantras, the azure autumn sky, the fluttering kashful and the sparkling hues all around have been untarnished despite the many centuries through which Durga Puja has travelled. A coming together of people and spirits – from the dhakis (drummers) who arrive from the fringes to the artisans who spend many hours toying with clay, from the tailors to the decorators, from the sculptors to the clay artists and hordes of other people involved in all kinds of business – the essence of Durga Puja lies in this magnanimity that has remained pristine through history.