Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Politics of Pujas.....


I've been thinking about this for quite a while and thinking long and hard. What makes the Durga Pujas of Kolkata tick.... What triggers the whole pandemonium which keeps on growing bigger by every passing day in terms of grandeur, creativity and possibly for the only time in Poschim Bongo(!!!???!!), in terms of the economics involved.... How could such a battered race muster so much energy, spunk and vigour in that span of a week or so, which is again so outrageously absent in the remainder of the calendar..... I wonder. For me, growing up in the heart of Kolkata and almost adjacent to one of the most feted Sarbojanins of the city was in itself an eye-opener of sorts. The usually sullied neighborhood used to get its annual makeover during Autumn..... the filth on our lanes disappeared, the usually dilapidated election graffiti-ridden walls received a customary white-wash, few saplings got planted in a haste and all this in an era which was grossly less environmentally cognizant than what it is today..... these were just subtle sub-natural signs pointing towards the fact that Autumn was on the cards, and so was the Super Festival cum Carnival called Durga Puja. Its the homecoming of the Devi, back to Her roots, back to Her folks..... where She's the undisputed Diva, alongwith Her posse of kids.... She rules and by Her own terms.....!!!!! Boy, one cannot be dramatic enough about Her influence...
A Nuovo Durga Image on the Sriniketan-Bolpur Highway

In the early seventeenth century much before the advent of the British in this part of the world, Durga Puja was a sign of opulence and primarily an affluent household's ritual. The Pujas were restricted within the Zamindars' courtyards and the celebrations consciously did not involve their underprivileged subjects. Hence, for the lesser mortals Durga Puja remained a modest mere event which they could watch from well outside the Zamidars' manors. Yes, there were certain occasional benevolence shown by these otherwise megalomaniacs wherein these subjects could be a party to the Puja celebrations to the extent of just following the family and friends of their precolonial masters at the time of the immersion of the Goddess in the nearest river or waterbody. Well, that was it. Consequently, Durga Puja remained principally a private homage.... a far cry from what it is today.

Durga Puja received a serious facelift with the influx of the Queen's herd from the early nineteenth century. With the English slowly biting there way into the Indian heartland through some serious show of military strength, one thing became clear by every passing day that they were going to stay here for a very very long time. As we know well enough, the British had set their initial footsteps into India through Kolkata and Bengal due to its geographical advantage and moreover, since our good ol' city used to be the socio-economic hub of that period. With the ever increasing clout of the colonizers, a large part of the erstwhile Zamindars were forced into acquiescing their loyalties to the British.... some through armed assaults while others by the lure of bigger representative roles. So, it was now the British who ruled the roost and obviously, a growing number of Landlords started queing up to appease their exceedingly influential masters in order to be in their good books. And that's where I think the fate of Durga Pujas took a new turn.

Idol at Sovabazaar Rajbati (2007)
  
The turn of the century saw a riveting rivalry amongst the Bengal nobility in terms of one-upmanship..... and as much a parochial community as we are, I dare say Bengalis thrive on this behavioural trait. This show off circus ran across the state and across noble clans, obviously with a shrewd motive. It is about this time in Bengal's history that we saw a large number of wealthy aristocrats build mansions, palaces, parks, temples, etc. only to garner popular support through awe and not terror... through riches rather than forceful submission. And if they were successful in accomplishing that, they in turn would receive Her Majesty's blessings through bigger representation in terms of administrative roles. Hence, we witnessed a lot of cases where such "successful" despots where conferred upon the titles of "Raja"/"Chowdhury"/"Dewan" etc. by the British Lords. Although they were just customary epithets and would only translate into limited revenue earning portfolios for the Company exchequer, but for the common man these so called Rajas and Dewans commanded immense respect and regard. Ideally religeous festivals provided the only window of opportunity every year for these brandishing band of posh merchant familes to try and showcase their pomp and pageantry to the masses. Since by that time Durga Puja was already an established household event running across four days happening in a season which followed the post monsoon harvest, it became the most apt religeous excuse to fall back on. Here came the moment, when the closed doors of the nobility opened up for the commoners for those four days of Puja. It was an extravaganza for the hoi polloi for whom these four days were a chance to dine and get entertained at the behest of their lords. Here was an opportunity for them to live life without the fear of taxes, or henchmen, or even the Britishers. On the foreground it might have seemed like a festival of benevolence, involvement and tolerance but deep down it was still the Puja for the highest stratum of the social ladder. Durga Pujas, still had a fair distance to cover before becoming Community Pujas. Although I strongly feel that these Family Pujas actually bore the soul and essence of the true spirit of what this whopping festival has turned out to be. As these Family Pujas have been organised continuously for ages, they have conveyed the legacy of the rich Bengali culture down the generations. The Pujas of the Roy Chowdhury's of Barisha, Deb's of Shobhabazaar (Image Above), Ghosh's of Pathuriaghata, Seal's of Chorbagan, Srimani's of Sukia Street and Mallick's of Bhowanipore are some of the earliest and finest family pujas which have endured over centuries and yet are some of the biggest crowd-pullers even today. Well, we shall talk more about them on a later date....
The initiation of 20th century saw Bengal lend its strong hands to the nationalist struggle striving for Indian independence. And this movement was predominantly instigated by the rapidly burgeoning middle class, which was literate and ideological enough to realise the actual benefits of a free state. This was a period which underlined the need of acquiring people's support large enough to inculcate awareness of attaining autonomy under any circumstances. A need for a commune.... a need for a unified cause.... and Durga Puja celebrations struck the perfectly apposite chords to instigate just that. This was a time, when Durga Puja had to be dragged out of the courtyards and patios, to the open streets... to the community parks.... where it could be celebrated in unison devoid of any socio-economic barriers. Devi got a new lease of life, by virtue of having entire neighbourhood coming together to organise a community Puja.... Festival meant for one and all, cutting across all sections of the society. Durga Puja achieved the pedigree of a Carnival, people of all ages flocked together to give it shape and helped it evolve in every possible way. Over the years, with passage of time this Super Carnival has now attained a cult status. The Sarbojanin's... the Barowari's.... the Sangha's had finally arrived.