Every year, during Mahalaya, devotees across the globe wake up to the Mahishasuramardini, recited most famously by Birendrakrishna Bhadra. This marks the beginning of the autumn festival of Durga Puja for most Bengalis. In the recording, Bhadra, in his deep baritone, invites the goddess, who is the supreme consciousness (Chinmayi) to come and reside in her earthen form—the clay idol (Mrinmayi).
Dashabhuja, or the ten-armed Durga—the slayer of the buffalo demon worshipped for five days—has become emblematic of Bengali culture. However, the iconic idol is not the only form in which she is depicted across Bengal. There is a long and complex history of evolution behind this depiction, one that takes us one through sacrificial posts, clay mounds, and more, to arrive at the Dashabhuja anthropomorphic form—the earliest of which dates to the Gupta period (4th-6th century CE). In many places and on many occasions, she is evoked through a water-filled metal or clay pot. Around 500 years, ago Raja Kangshanarayan Singha of Nadia first started the autumnal worship of a form of Durga, who wasn’t just a demon slayer but also a loving mother surrounded by her four children, beginning the modern Bengali iconography of Durga.
However, interestingly, the goddess has also been depicted in Bengal patachitras, besides the ritualistic clay idols that we see today. In fact, the worship of Patadurga or Durgashala evolved in tandem with the worship of the clay idols, and its prevalence is rooted in the history of Bengal.
Gurusaday Das writes in his Banglar Rasakalar Sampad that art manifests in rural Bengali life in three forms – alpona or floor and wall paintings made by women, murti/putul or idols, and the paintings on scrolls (patachitra), terracotta plates (sarapata) and square canvases (choukapata) made by the Patua community. Though the mention of patachitra is found in texts as old as the 4th century BC, it is widely believed that the Bengal pat evolved around the 13th century BC, and the oldest of these are of goddess and gods—majority being of the Patadurga. Ajit Ghose wrote in his Old Bengal Paintings (1926) that these patas were worshipped as a substitute to the clay idols; a practice that is still prevalent in certain regions of Bengal.
The history of worshipping Patadurga for the annual Durga Puja is intertwined with periods of economic, religious and social distress in Bengal, especially in the late 17th century and 18th centuries. This practice, thus, can still be seen in old, family-based Durga Pujas in Birbhum, Bankura, Bardhaman and West Medinipur.
The period of late 17th-18th centuries in Bengal was a period of major political and economic upheaval. The nawabs of Bengal had claimed rule independent of the Mughal Empire in Delhi, and Bengal was also subject to repeated brutal invasions by the Maratha forces. As, Aditya Mukhapadhyay writes in his book, Durga Pat, the move from clay idol to Patadurga had a lot to do with the resultant social and economic conditions. Many wealthy families toned down their celebrations due to financial distress, and others opted for the representation of Durga on a canvas to save the idols from being desecrated and broken during armed ambushes. In many regions of Bengal, the worship of Patadurga gained prominence over the clay idol during this period.
Even now this practice can be observed in large numbers in the Birbhum district of Bengal, where over 500 families still evoke the goddess in a patachitra instead of clay idols. The most famous of these are the pujas in Hastarkandi village. According to local belief, the Patadurga pujas in this village date back to 200-250 years, and the Durga pat here has evolved into a style of its own. The pat is a six-feet-tall canvas. It is accompanied by a chalachitra, a semi circular framework, on which images of various other deities such as Rama, Sita, Shiva, Nandi, and more, are painted. This chalachitra can be seen with all Durga idols and patas. In Hastarkandi, it is given a distinct blue background.
Another unique Durga pat is worshipped in Bishnupur, which lies in the Bankura district. This tradition was started by the rulers of the Malla dynasty of the region. The pat here is painted by the Fauzdar sect, who were sent to Bengal by the Mughal empire as soldiers. The devi can be seen in three different forms—Bara Thakurani, Mayitan Thakurani and Chhoto Thakurani. The patachitra here features the Dasavatar painting. The goddess is set in an alcove, which is in the form of an engraved arch—an element taken from Islamic architecture. In fact, some of the stylistic elements bear striking resemblance to the Mughal miniature paintings.
The chalchitra accompanying the idol of the Krishnanagar Rajrajeshwari Durga brings together Shaivite, Tantric and Vaishnav iconography into one canvas. Chalchitras are an interesting aspect of the Durga iconography. The context that they provide is called the Patua Patarekha, or the writings of patachitra. Chalchitras, over the centuries, have also passed on social messages and depicted subaltern worship of Shiva in Bengal.
The goddess and her worship, over centuries, has become one of the biggest celebrations in Bengali society. It has changed with the times, with the iconography evolving and imbibing contemporary symbols and messages. It is only apt that we look back at the vibrant history of the art forms associated with the puja, and their place in the history of the region.
Tanushree Bhowmik is a Delhi-based food historian and development professional