United in faith
Adorning the rich man’s courtyard while simultaneously finding a home in the poor man’s slums; hosted by a Brahmin priest and decked by a Muslim craftsman – Durga Puja magnificently diminishes differences in a reverential celebration where devotees stand united in their subservience to the Mother Goddess, writes Kaushikibrata Banerjee
Bengal's biggest festival, billed as the largest in Asia too, is all set to begin in a few days' time. Be it the remotest corners of the state, the posh high-rises of Kolkata and its outskirts or the penurious slums and jhopris of Bengal – venerate idols of Durga and her entourage dominate fields, block roads and junctions, choke pavements and parar mors (local crossroads), ushering in a virtual shutdown for four days when the rich and the poor, the needy and the affluent, the sick and the healthy join this colourful chaotic mayhem of festive pandemonium.
There are many facets to this festival and it has an entirely different meaning for each individual participating in it. Months before autumn, each nook and corner of the state comes to life when the kumars (idol makers) start their work to shape the Goddess.
For Kolkata, people from each stretch of locality flock to Kumartuli (the traditional hub of potters where Durga idols are made) to give thakur baina (book an idol), arguing over countless cups of steaming hot cha (tea) about the colour of the sari of the goddess, the chala (single-frame structure), the ornaments and, at times, even the date of delivery. When all this is resolved, after much consideration and cantankerous calculation, the actual work begins.
For some, it brings in huge business and profit. For others, it is the time to revive lost folk art forms and craftsmanship to earn some good money. For tourists, it is an experience of a lifetime. For children, it means new clothes, lots of fun and food, no school and homework, topped with loads of gifts and good times while for several others, it is an endless wait for their dear ones to come home for Pujo and participate in the extravaganza.
In the middle of all this, there are many who take part in this festival with much fanfare and enthusiasm but are not Hindus and do not belong to this community. However, as it has slowly emerged over the years, Durga Puja has taken the shape of an all-inclusive festival, upholding the true spirit of humanity more than ever before.
This carnival also sustains elements beyond a unifying religious bond, some too curious to comprehend. Interestingly, the clay from which the idol is made must contain mud from the banks of the Ganges, cow urine, cow dung, and punya maati (blessed soil) which has to be collected from nishiddho palli or forbidden territories. The irony lies here – the biggest festival is incomplete without a handful of soil from the house of a prostitute who is looked down upon by society. Amid chants of mantras, the mud is handed over to the priest. It is considered to be the "blessed soil" as when a man visits a brothel, he leaves behind his virtue and righteousness at her doorstep to enter the world of sin. So, this soil is "blessed" and filled with only nobility and piousness.
Many believe that this custom upholds the essence of the inclusiveness of Durga Puja in which no one should be left behind; not even those who are shunned by society. Inclusion is a principal aspect of Durga Puja, which is why it is termed sarbojonin (everybody's, literally).
Coming to the craftsmen who belong to the "other" religion, there are many who help in setting up the idol and decorating it – making locks of lustrous hair for the Goddess, even eye-lashes, producing the moon garlands (chandmala), the zari workers who make the saris of the deities and the patachitrakars (makers of traditional scroll painting), drawing up designs representing Hindu mythological stories from Chandimangal and Ramayana.
There are hundreds of Muslim Durga Puja organisers who are part of the local committees and each one of them, along with their family members, join in the festivities –from boron (welcoming the Goddess) to the immersion.
The syncretism inherent to the festival renders a euphoric ambience, integral to the nature and character of Durga Puja.
Sanatan Rudra Pal, one of Kolkata's most sought-after idol makers, says: "Durga Puja has a different connotation these days. It has become a global festival and wherever Bengalis reside, in whichever part of the world, Durga Puja is bound to happen. People participate with great enthusiasm. Many contacts are built, people come closer to each other and there is a sense of brotherhood. Several Muslim labourers help load the idols in the trucks before they are sent off to their respective pandals. This is witnessed at the time of immersion as well. There are many Muslim hairmakers who work for months together to make the locks for the Goddess. Even some of the decorators who work at the innumerable pandals in Kolkata and away are Muslims. The festival truly projects a communal bonhomie that we should all be proud of."
Arranging the hair is a very important part of the process. The jute wigs are fashioned by Muslim families from Parbatipur near Howrah and other areas. A typical shabeki (traditional) idol usually wears curly and wavy tresses which are essentially black.
The fabulous, ingenious, shimmering story-telling lights that manage to draw massive throngs are also the handiwork of Muslims who take extra care to follow the clubs' preferences.
Another example of communal integration may be found in the Nandi family of Hooghly district. For over two centuries, the family has been feeding Muslim fakirs during Durga Puja. To the Nandis, this annual ritual has its roots in a family legend that is testimony to the generosity of the local Muslim community.
The Five Star Club in Kidderpore area mostly has Muslim members in its Puja committee. Sheikh Jahangir is the priest's assistant here. Muslim women from the neighbourhood receive the Goddess with boron. Residents of the entire Muslim-majority locality prepare the bhog and prasad that everyone eats. It is here that relationships matter, not religion.
Another binding feature of this festival is how women clay modelers of Kumartuli are making a mark of their own with extreme passion and dedication.
China Pal, one of the few women artisans in Kumartuli, is one of them. Told off by her father, renowned idol maker Hemanta Pal, at an early age for playing with clay, China now continues the legacy. After her father's death in 1994, when her two brothers did not show any interest in the profession, she took up the challenge. Breaking into the male bastion, abandoning rules of gender differentiation and bias, she slowly created an audience for herself along with a huge customer base.
"There was a lot of fear in my mind when I started this. Today, nine persons work under me. I have continued with my father's traditional style of idol making where all the five idols required for Durga Puja need to be set on a common backdrop, called ek chala."
In June this year, China participated in the China-South/Southeast Asian Art Week at Kunming in the Yunnan province in south China, where she exhibited her work and showed how soft clay is transformed into deities.
Two other women clay modelers of Kumartuli who have carved a niche of their own are Mala Pal and Kakoli Pal.
A handful of women are inspiring many more to break through this ancient monopoly and breathe life into wet clay to create a Goddess they call their own.
During this time of the year, the dark lanes and by-lanes of Kumartuli smell of fresh paint and mud as nearly 500 artisans work overtime to give shape to the Goddess, drilling innumerable nails and pins into her body to adjust her sari or her jewellery, set her hair or sometimes position her weapons. I remember once a sculptor had said: "Amra perek mari aar apnara punnyo kaman (We insert nails and you get the blessings)." Amid intense emotional upheavals, the artisans witness their idols being carried out of Kumartuli, not only to be worshipped in Kolkata or Bengal, or India for that matter but travel to foreign shores as well. Amid their farewells, begin our festivities, bringing in new hope and aspiration for those who worship the deity, spreading the message of love and mutual respect, of communal harmony and brotherhood.