The 'famed' time of the year is here
With a number of celebrities including football stars to Bollywood personalities visiting Kolkata's famous pandals every year, Saurajit Mazumdar explores whether they are actually crowd-pullers for whom people throng the Pujas in huge numbers.
ittle Neil woke up feeling elated and carefree. Having grown up in a football-loving city, this was a sensitive time for all the sport lovers. He put on a red jersey with the number 7 and Ronaldo inscribed in gold. He called his friends in excitement and headed to the nearby field, which had a pandal construction going on.
His heart felt an inexplicable joy as he thought about the 10-day festival, holidays and the football tournaments just after the Puja. "With Durga puja round the corner, it does not only revolve only around the pujas unlike the earlier times. Today, apart from just the idols and pandals, people also look forward to unwind by including other likable things into their frivolities," said Sandip Mukherjee, secretary of Chetla Agrani Club.
They have managed to rope in Germany's legendary football goalkeeper Oliver Kahn and the 'God' of football Diego Maradona.
According to the organising committee secretaries Sandip and Yasser Haider, they have never included these factors in their Puja budget, which they begin to strategise right after the annual festival gets over. They are happy because with such tournaments lined up in the near future, they have managed to invite the sporting legends to their Pujas. This is not the first time that football legends will go to their Puja. Back in 2015, Pele on a visit to the city had also made his presence felt in their pandal.
Sandip added: "I have been involved with the Puja since I was a kid and our parents along with the neighbours, in 1993, started organising the puja to ensure that we would stay in our area and enjoy the festivities instead of going around the city. This is our 25th anniversary and ever since this Puja became big, known faces and celebrities have been visiting us."
Every year they have a song complimenting the theme of the puja and jingle that is played outside the pandal. In recent years, Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta has been given the mantle of composition. Prior to that, the artists themselves composed for them.
He also added that they have cultural programmes where people from the neighbourhood perform and once in a while they even get singers from Bollywood. Interestingly, they have never paid a celebrity to visit or inaugurate their puja. Whenever someone turns up, maybe an announcement is made and later other visitors are made aware of their presence.
When asked whether and how this factor affects the footfall they receive, Mukherjee said: "I don't feel that their visit affects our footfall as we never make any prior announcements. This year and 2015 were the only exceptions. It isn't like we figure out the visiting celebrities and then decide on the theme, it's the other way round. For instance, our theme this year, Antaheen, has nothing to do with football and the ones who will visit our puja will come to see our presentation. The famous faces will just be an added bonus but it's not that they will come to see them. The puja is primary. We usually get a crowd who come just for the puja."
Reaffirming this, Gargi Mukherjee, media coordinator of Tridhara Sangha, said: "Our puja is a celebrated one and several celebrities and sports personalities have visited us in the past. This year is not any different." She said that they have never paid any celebrity to visit their pujas. There is a list of people who are invited but never have they been paid to visit the pandal.
When asked about the preparations that they take for the celebrities who show up, she said: "We don't go out of our way to entertain them. They are treated like any other visitor. It's just that they can enter through the VIP gate, but after that they are treated just like the others in the lounge. They have fritters and tea from earthen pots just like us." According to her, Tridhara begins preparations and celebrations from Khuti Puja in July, which usually happens on the day of Rath Yatra or Ulta Rath. In that time several artistes visit and sometimes not only sports personalities but also people from other fields. They have commercial Tollywood actors and directors coming to promote a movie like in 2015 they had Praktan's team and the year after that had Ramdhanu and this year they will have Projapoti Biskut. Rituparna Sengupta and Prosenjit Chatterjee are regular visitors.
Khuti puja is followed by their press conference where they unveil their Sharad Sankalan, which they have been publishing for the past four years. For this occasion, usually a minister comes and the authors whose writings have been published in it also pay a visit.
Sometimes, those who make the cover of the annual magazine like Jogen Chowdhury or Subhaprasanna. On that particular day, they also give a lifetime achievement award called Sharad Samman and they present approximately a cheque of Rs 50,000 to the recipient. Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay has been felicitated, this year it's being given to Prafulla Ray. This year, they have also invited and felicitated the winners of Santosh Trophy where they invited senior sports personalities and coaches.
After that, the theme of the puja and the theme song is announced with singers attending the press conferences. This year, Lopamudra is scheduled to come. In 2016, Raghab and Smita had come and the year before that they had got Rupankar and Shubhamita. Joy Sarkar is composing the background score and earlier composers like Debajyoti Misra have made the score. On the inauguration day, they have a list of personalities who have been invited and the sponsors take care of the needful.
When asked about whether the focus of the pujas is becoming celebrity-centric and whether it affects Tridhara's footfall, just like Chetla Agrani, she added: "It's not like we make prior announcements before their visit. The year Nana Patekar visited our pandal, he wasn't treated any differently and people realised his presence later only in the evening.
I don't think it affects our footfall because mostly we get a crowd that visits for only pandal-hopping purposes. I feel the reason why so many promotions and celebrity visits happen is because going from one pandal to another is not the only motive of Durga puja but is also an additional treat. People might even want to watch a movie during the pujas."
Talking about the ground realities of the year's celebrated festival, general secretary of Ballygunje Cultural, Anjan Uki, said they usually get performers for their cultural events but keeping in mind the time of the year and the monsoons, they have not planned to bring anyone this year. "We didn't get the response we usually get and in such times when the nation is going through such economic turmoil, it seemed irrelevant to get any celebrity. The rains will be an added problem as our puja is an open-air affair," he said.
The aforementioned pandals will all be inaugurated by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and on Mahalaya, she will be painting the eyes of Chetla Agrani's idol. The sports personalities and celebrities will be icing on the cake.
Coming back to the topic of celebrity presence affecting footfall and fame of certain pujas in the years to come, Chetla's Sandeep said: "When these sports personalities and celebrities visit, they go back to their homeland and canvas Durga Puja as a whole. They don't just publicise our puja but also highlight the entire festival celebrated by the City of Joy in their own cities."
He added that this globalisation of Durga Puja has helped people from different corners of the world to enjoy and celebrate it with the Bengalis and experience the entire extravaganza amid food, fanfare and festive fervour.