All that is wrong with modern Durga Puja in Bengal

All that is wrong with modern Durga Puja in Bengal


Photo Courtesy +ABPLIVE

Article first published in +ABPLIVE Click here to read

Durga Puja in Kolkata depresses me. I am probably an odd Bengali, but for me present day Puja celebrations reflect much that is wrong with the State.

As children we used to look forward to the Pujas which were a right blend of festivity and solemnity. Today, it is a circus. But, it is not nostalgia alone that makes me sad.

Not that Bengalis, contrary to popular perception, are an overly religious lot, but mega “Theme Pujas”, as they are now called, have wiped out all traces of piety and spirituality from the celebrations.

As corporates jostle with awards, the para Pujas compete with one another on opulence and scale. There lies the rub.

Earlier a few big Barowari Pujas were linked with some local councillor, MLA or the odd goon (like Phata Keshto’s Kali Puja). Today Ministers freely flaunt their association on large billboards, thus setting in motion a battle of one-upmanship: “my Puja is bigger than yours”.

So far so good, as we Bengalis say. But, where does this money, running into crores of rupees that some of the top puja committees are known to spend, come from?

With the busting of chit funds, the traditional sources of funds have dried up and one no longer sees the old familiar names of sponsors. Now the milch cows are the ubiquitous ‘promoters and developers’ who cannot possibly operate without the blessings of the local ‘bosses’.

Alas, liquidating old ancestral homes is the last resort of the ‘bhadralok’ Bengalis with unemployed or under-employed children (unless they have already left the State in search of jobs) with dwindling resource. As the old gentry gets pushed away to the suburbs, leaving prime localities, trading communities, earlier living in chawl-like tenements in Burrabazar, move into the new high-rises that are coming up on their properties.

However, these new residents, who are not particularly interested in traditional Puja, are known to be more generous with their chanda (paying as per a separate ‘rate card’ as it were), thus contributing to the pomp and glitz of the pandals. Ordinary Bengalis today have to depend on commercial interests to underwrite their most important socio-religious festival.

Some years ago I did try some ‘pandal hopping’ or ‘thakur dekha’, to use the local phrase. While the Pujas had grown in affluence, the surroundings around them were pathetic. Nothing has changed in the last 40 years. There are the same make-shift food stalls selling rolls, chow-mien or other items that, in my view, should carry a statutory notice “Jaundice guaranteed, Typhoid optional” — such are the appalling standards of hygiene.

There are no public conveniences or hardly any provisions for emergency services. The entire city takes a mofussil look or that of a massive village fair where the masses descend to blow away their year’s savings (sometimes dipping into the domestic chest kept for rainy days, borrowing money or even selling family jewels in some cases) to buy five days of enjoyment for the family.

Durga Puja has been reduced to a form of escapism for the common Bengalis who have little left to celebrate or look forward to in life. I suspect the politicians know this and, therefore, play up the carnival spirit.

There is a specious logic about redistribution of wealth (which itself is highly questionable) as there is no real wealth creation happening in West Bengal. Similarly, one hears of how the Pujas are a boon to the artists and craftsmen of the State. There may be some truth in that, but that is nullified when one reads about the abject condition of artisans in Kumartuli, many of whom survive on orders from outside Bengal and overseas.

The celebrated Bengali writer Sankar had written some years back that the real planning for Durga Puja actually happens in the commercial centres in other parts of the country, where they gear up for the Puja business in Bengal. One could add Bombay to the list as one sees advertisements of leading brands with photo-shopped images of leading stars and models in Bengali attire.

Similarly, tourist destinations popular with Bengali budget travellers, like Nainital, Himachal Pradesh, Puri, Goa and now Kerala, Madhya Pradesh etc, gear up for their ‘Bengali Season’ between Dussehra and Diwali. Yesteryear’s film actors from Bollywood, well past their sell by dates, look forward to paid junkets to Kolkata for inaugurating Pujas for an appearance fee to add to the glamour quotient.

For me the true celebrations will be when there is Economic Resurgence, which may also see a new cultural renaissance for the State and a real intrinsic rather than just artistic evolution of Durga Puja. Till then I have no mind to settle for chalk in place of cheese.

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PV Narasimha Rao - PM of Destiny

PV Narasimha Rao - PM of Destiny