Millennium Post

The changing aesthetics of Durgotsav: Then and now

Tarun Goswami writes how Durga Puja celebrations have altered through the years, with overwhelming changes in theme and idol-making, keeping intact the spirit and dynamism.

t the end of the 18th century, 12 Brahmin boys of Guptipara in Hooghly first conducted a Durga Puja by collecting subscriptions from local residents which came to be known as barowari puja ('baro' means 12 and 'yaar' refers to friends). However, the first Sarbojonin puja which saw the true participation of people from all walks of life, irrespective of caste, creed and social status, was held in Calcutta in 1926. It was aimed at creating a bond between the people of a nation still in bondage and the local youth.

In 1925, a communal riot sparked off in the area around Harrison Road, leading to apprehensions that the Kali Temple at Thanthania might be attacked. Scores of young men started to keep vigil round-the clock. A few days later, when it all subsided, the need for some sort of a physical training for the local youth was keenly felt, leading to the setting up of Simla Byayam Samity. Although there were a few change of addresses of the "aakhara" where the youth were trained in various physical exercises, Atindranath Basu, a nationalist leader and social worker founded the Simla Byayam Samity at an open ground on Vivekananda Road. Not only did Atindranath keep an eye on each of the students who came to learn and practise physical exercise, wrestling or lathi khela (a traditional martial art with sticks) but also refused to collect any fee from them. He covered all expenses as well as provided nutritious diet to build up their strength. His son, Amarendranath Basu, a dedicated Congress worker, was an extremely proficient "lathial" and trained the students in this form of traditional martial art which was quite popular in Bengal at that time. The pursuits of physical activity and body building started by the Samity also went a long way towards dismissing the myth fabricated by the British that Bengalis were effeminate and not a martial race.
Next year, in 1926, the Durga Puja was held in the premises of the Simla Byayam Samity. Durga Pujas in the city till then were usually held in houses of the rich and powerful, mostly zamindars, slowly became a festival of the community.
When Atindranath decided to throw open the doors for general public, a truly 'Sarbojonin' (for everybody) Durga Puja was held for the first time. Gradually, it spread to the rest of the city and finally far and wide, even overseas. A few religious figures were keen to perform rituals to sanctify the pandal but Atindranath rejected the proposal since it did not go well with the national ideology. He was keen to forge a bond between the communities who would work together to achieve freedom. The Puja too was open to all, the rich and the poor, Brahmins and non-Brahmins, youngest and the oldest — everybody could participate in the rituals and make offerings to the deity.
The clay idol was a huge one but ek chala (a single wooden frame). The "daaker saaj" (the silver foils came by post, hence the name) was a strict no-no since it was foreign-made and so all decorations and jewellery were made with clay and then painted over. Master sculptor Nitai Pal crafted the idol.
The first Sarbajanin Durga Puja drew crowds in hordes. People of all caste and creed participated including women,
many of whom came at dawn to view the idol before going for a dip in the river Ganges.
The pandal came alive with life in the evening during "arati" conducted to the beats of "dhak-dhol" (drums). The visitors were also served with luchi (puri), potato curry (alur dum) and sweet boondi as prasad.
Nationalist leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose, Sarat Chandra Bose, Jyotindramohan Sengupta, Bhupendranath Dutta and many more visited the Byayam Samity and offered pushpanjali. They spent time at the venue and spoke to those who attended the puja.
Thus, community puja in Kolkata evolved and today, it is almost 91 years old. For the past nine decades, community puja in the city has experienced major changes. Music was an integral part of Durgotsav. Shortly before the pujas, HMV used to bring out Sharad Arghya, a booklet containing lyrics of the basic records that would hit the market. Like new clothes, it was a custom to buy 45rpm and 78rpm (EP) and later Long Playing (LP) records.
Famous compositions of Salil Chowdhury like "Amay proshno kore neel dhrubo tara," "Poth harabo bolei ebar pothe nemechi," "Ami jharer kache rekhe gelam" and "Emon ekta jhor uthuk" were released during the pujas.
In the early 1970s, three songs sung by Manna Dey became chartbusters during three successive years. They were "Lolita go oke aj chole jete bolna," "Sundori go dohai dohai man koro na" and "eto rag noy go eto abhiman." Sandhya Mukhopadhyay's "Ujjal ek jhak payera" written by poet Bimal Ghosh and composed by Salil Chowdhury was a super-hit. Shrabonti Majumdar, a popular Bengali singer, had cut two basis records "Chi chi chi eki kando korechi" and "Bhusibal Bhusibal tumi je amar". Asha Bhosle's famous number "Jabo ki jabo na bhebe bhebe ar jaoa to holo na" composed by RD Burman was a huge puja hit during those days. Popular songs like these were played at the pandals along with other Bengali film songs. Four films featuring Uttam Kumar — Deya Neya, Shankhabela, Bilambitolaye and Chaddobeshi were released before the pujas and all of them became hits instantly.
The songs including "Ami cheye cheye dekhi saradin" and "Jibon khatar proti patai" (Deya Neya), "Ke prothom kache esechi" and "Aj mon cheyeche ami hariye jabo" (Shankhabela), "Ek baisake dekha holo dujonar" and "Bedho na phulomala dore" (Bilambilolaye) and "Ami kon pothe je choli", "Aro dure cholo jai" and "Bachao ke acho morechi je prem kore" (Chaddabeshi) were played over and over again in the puja pandals. Unlike, the current trend, no musical programmes were held during those days.
After the pujas, cultural programmes were held and singers like Hemanta Mukherjee, Dhananjay Bhattacharya, Manabendra Mukhopadhyay, Shyamal Mitra, Sandhya Mukhopadhyay, Ila Basu, Tarun Bandyopadhyay, Pintu Bhattacharya, Nirmala Misra participated.
Bakulbagan first broke the tradition and introduced theme puja in the early 1980s. Great artists like Isha Mohammad and Shanu Lahiri designed the idol. The famous light of Chandannagore depicting figures was introduced in Kolkata in the early 1980s.
From the 1990s a major change took place in community puja. The community puja since its beginning was organised with the money collected from subscriptions. Earlier, big organisers used to bring out magazines popularly known as "souvenirs" containing write-ups of well-known litterateurs and local residents and the main purpose behind their publication was to collect money through advertisements.
Now, the big pujas are sponsored by big advertisers with various companies giving away prizes for the best lights, best pandals and best themes and even eco-friendly pujas.
Durga Puja of present days is now more of an event and are being managed by event management groups. Interestingly, measures have been taken by the state government to preserve the best idols along with the pandal decorations.
Every year, Kumartuli witnesses a lot of changes with fresh new ideas and themes taking centre stage.
From the days of Simla Byayam Samity to the present day, the grandeur and the enthusiasm live on not only in Bengal but in every other place where Bengalis have settled down, be it in India or abroad.
Amid rapid shifts in consumerism, the inherent Bengali sentiment remains unchanged with the bond becoming stronger and stronger with every passing year.

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