By Tirthankar Mitra
Come late September and October, kash flowers are in bloom in parts of Maidan in Kolkata together with a few more spots in the city yet to be invaded by concrete jungle heralding the arrival of the biggest festival of West Bengal – Durga Puja. Yet the fact remains preparations for the puja continue all the year round in the clubs holding community pujas.
These pujas, once known as barwari pujas meaning a culmination of the effort of 12 friends to hold a puja involving all the residents of the locality. But barwari pujas exist only in name these days; senior political leaders having emerged to be the driving forces of these pujas have reduced them to one-man shows.
Time was when leading lights of Bengal politics used to be associated with community pujas to strike roots among the populace and inculcate nationalistic feelings. Long before being dubbed Netaji, Subhas Chandra Bose was one of the chief patrons of Simla Byam Samity in north Calcutta.
After having parted company with Congress and floating Forward Bloc, Bose did not quite lose his popularity base especially in south Kolkata where he lived. A puja organised by Forward Club is still going strong not too far from the residence of chief minister, Mamata Banerjee.
Incidentally, one of her siblings is a key organiser in it, a pointer to the ongoing trend of associating politically influential persons with community pujas. It is not that their political importance which adds an extra sheen and shine to a puja but the moolah that the name brings in terms of door to door subscription and corporate advertisement in the puja souvenirs and placards which are part and parcel of a beautiful pandal housing the goddess and her entourage.
The trend of politicians actively associating themselves with pujas for name, fame and more can arguably be traced to the ’70s in Kolkata. It started after Ballygunge MLA Subrata Mukherjee then the youngest minister in Siddhartha Sankar Ray’s Cabinet associated himself with Ekdalia Evergreen Club off Gariahat in south Kolkata.
He was the prime mover of this community puja which he took to great heights. Even as other puja organizers burnt the midnight oil to think of themes ranging from Kuwait war or some such headline news, it was Mukherjee’s proud contention that his puja had nothing to do with themes but followed rituals and rites of worship of the goddess as per the book.
Another Congress stalwart, Somen Mitra too was associated with the community puja at College Square off Calcutta University’s College Street campus, though his involvement was not as thick as that of Mukherjee. The name of Priya Ranjan Das Munshi crops up almost automatically with the two other Youth Congress leaders spearheading the party’s revival after its split.
Das Munshi brought out Dakshinee Barta magazine on the eve of the pujas. Replete with advertisements and write-ups of the leading authors it underscored his cultural credentials which set him apart from other members of the party.
The trio is no more. But their pujas espousing traditional values continue to burn bright till this day. Pujas were not quite the event which Left Front leaders felt comfortable to be associated with. Though stalls selling “party literature” were set up in different puja pandals by CPI(M), its agonistic ideology did not quite gel with religion, though Subhas Chakraborty was an exception.
A mass leader, who never lost his following in life and death and had a legion of admirers in the political parties opposed to him, Chakraborty was a frequent and welcome visitor to many puja pandals. The community puja at Sreebhumi organized by his lieutenant Sujit Bose, enjoyed Chakraborty’s blessings.
Bose is now a minister in the Trinamool Congress Cabinet headed by Mamata Banerjee. His puja continues to be one of the biggest crowd pullers owing to the uniqueness of the theme of its pandals every year.
Community pujas literally took a giant leap forward after Trinamool Congress replaced Left Front as the ruling dispensation in the state. Let alone Kalighat Milan Sangha off the chief minister’s humble tiled home in Harish Chatterjee Street who states boldly in a placard that she is its chief patron, many a member in her Cabinet organise pujas which have gone a long way in securing the worship of the goddess in Kolkata secure a heritage tag from UNESCO.
There is Ajeya Sanhati organised by Partha Chatterjee, education minister and TMC secretary general now marking time behind the bars at Presidency Correctional Home for his alleged involvement in cash for teaching jobs scam. But this puja in Naktala, once a southern suburb of the city and now a booming locality will celebrate puja with the usual pomp and paegantry.
It is scheduled to have a visitor from Brazil, the ace footballer Ronaldinho. It is indeed a coup on part of this club to get this august visitor who is also scheduled to call on the chief minister and present her with a jersey he dons.
Suruchi Sangha puja in New Alipore is organised by state power minister, Arup Biswas. This puja is a by-, word in innovativeness and taste as is underscored by the number of prizes it wins every year. Chetla Agrani’s puja at Chetla, not far from the CM’s residence, is organised by city mayor Firad (Bobby) Hakim and stands out among all the pujas as the eyes of the idol are drawn every year by Mamata Banerjee.
She is known to lend her hand in making the bhog, the offering of cooked food to the goddess in this puja. When a portion of Majherhat bridge collapsed a few years ago threatening a major drop in the foot fall in Biswas and Hakim’s pujas, the state government set up a Bailey bridge to facilitate the passage of pandal hoppers.
Themes abound in the city puja range between women’s menstruation at Pathuriaghata Pancher Palli Sarbojanin Durgotsab in north Kolkata to acid attack victims at SamajSebi in south Kolkata to name a few.
Chetla Agrani focusses on class division and social struggle in its theme Je Jekhane Dariye. Abol Tabol the title of Sukumar Roy’s evergreen book of nonsense rhyme is the theme of Hatibagan Nabin Palli.
Some pujas centre around religion and Kedarnath temple is the theme of the community puja at Md Ali Park in central Kolkata. Ram Mandir of Ayodhya is the theme of a puja at Nebutala Park which is scheduled to be inaugurated by Union home minister, Amit Shah. BJP president J P Nadda who can speak Bengali, will be in the city also to inaugurate a puja.
Surrogate mother and saving the girl child form the themes of Shyambazar Palli Sangha and Sovabazar Burtola Sangha respectively. Kolkata being a foodie’s haven, phuchka being the theme of Behala Natun Dal raises no eye brows.
If Tin Chakar Galpo, the auto rickshaw story is the theme of Hazra Park Durgotsav, a stone’s throw away from it Yuba Moitri focus is on hand pulled rickshaw and it’s neglect. It may be recalled it was Balraj Sahni essaying the role of a peasant who on losing his land becomes rickshaw puller in the big city, had shot some of the scenes of Do Bigha Zameen not too far off this community puja.
Chaina hote Uma is the theme of Kashi Bose Lane puja committee. It highlights child trafficking. Bhatkapar, a take on the domestic help is the theme of Behala Nutan Dal.
Time was when a paint company was the sole giver of best puja prizes. There has been a major change of scene especially with emergence and proliferation of television news organisations and print media making prizes galore these days
Of course, some of the recipients of the prizes have already been decided and there are no prizes for guessing. But even amidst this unequal contest and competition where some are more equal than others, quite a few of the deserving community pujas will carry away the honours they deserve so richly.
There are some pre-puja takeaways too with the TMC state government giving a sum of Rs 70,000 to every community puja. Not to be outdone, the principal Opposition party in the state, BJP is not lagging behind though it’s recipients are only 500 community pujas and its offering going up to one lakh rupees. BJP is far behind TMC in organizing the number of pujas, though the party clams to be Hindu centric. It is apparent that during this period of festival in Bengal starting from Mahalaya on October 14 to Dassami on October 24, the TMC is the dominating the cultural life in Bengal with BJP trying its best to perform as distant second.
Chief Minister is the brain behind organizing the puja carnival on October 27 when all the major durga idols will pass through Red Road attended by the CM and the other VIPs in a spectacle that few Kolkatans afford to miss. The white kurta draped men along with the women with red bordered sarees proceeding in rows along with the tribal men and women with dhols portray a scene of religious and social harmony. The puja festival organisers belong to all social classes ranging from a CEO and a successful businessman at a salt Lake puja to a auto driver in a locality in Garia. There are many pujas which are organized by only women. One puja organized by women this year had made a muslim girl for kumari puja defying the sanatan dharma tradition of restricting pujas to only Hindus..
For the coming four puja days, Bengal with its towns and villages as also Kolkata will be witnessing puja pandals hopping by millions including people of all provinces and religions who will be mesmerized by the variety of the themes of the pandals and the making of the idols and compare who is the best. The shop owners and the street vendors will have a field day during puja days as their sales reach the peak. The Durga pujas in Bengal benefit the state’s economy. One estimate is that in 2022, the puja economy totalled Rs. 32,000 crore. The amount will be much more in 2023 as there are no covid restrictions. While the common people will be busy in enjoying the pujas, the political leaders of the TMC and the BJP will start weighing how much mileage they get from the festival five month before the crucial Lok Sabha elections. (IPA Service)