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How a pandemic revived the spirit of Durga Puja

This year, the goddess has some lessons to teach us about putting the community back into a community festival

It will be a low-key Durga Puja this year, with the Calcutta high court disallowing visitors in ‘pandals’. (getty images)

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It was the last weekend before Durga Puja. Despite the pandemic anxiety and the slumping economy, Kolkata was humming with last-minute shoppers as dusk fell. A man, formally attired, as if coming home from a desk job at some office, stopped in front of a shop near a busy south Kolkata market selling luridly coloured fake plants which were spilling on to the pavement. He took out a mic from his backpack, lowered his mask and announced that he was going to banish the pandemic blues with a few songs. Someone from the plastic plant shop rushed out and tried to shoo him away. The would-be singer looked despondent.

Suddenly everyone around them, watching the drama half-interestedly, sprang to life. An elderly woman wagged her finger at the cranky shopkeeper, saying: “First this pandemic and lockdown have made everyone depressed. Now you won’t even allow a few songs for Durga Puja?”

A man buying cigarettes started shouting: “This street is not your property just because you put your plastic flowers all over the pavement. This man will sing, and what’s more, he will sing right here.” The shopkeeper, outnumbered, backed down. The chuffed singer launched into an especially maudlin 1990s Bengali superhit with more passion than melody but the young men from Big Bazaar on a smoke break sauntered over and stuffed some 10 notes into his hands.

I had stopped to watch the fun, drawn by the prospect of drama, but realized to my surprise that there was something oddly moving about the tableau unfolding. It was the closest thing to the spirit of Durga Puja I had felt in a long time. That I felt this in the middle of a pandemic seemed even more surprising.

But perhaps it was not. After all the creation story of Durga is about the gods rallying together, summoning the best part of themselves to vanquish an invincible demon. The pandemic has brought out the worst in many of us. People who tested positive have been locked into their own houses or kicked out by landlords. But neighbourhood clubs have also found a higher calling.

“Some smaller clubs will sometimes try to cheat artists out of their dues. But they have really stepped up this time, from distributing rice and dal to blood donation camps, to taking care of people who fall ill,” says puja pandal theme designer Anirban Pandalwala.

This year has been tough for Pandalwala. He has had no work since December. He says he has had to take medication for anxiety and depression. Instead of the usual 350 people who work with him every year, he has only been able to give work to about 100, and for one month rather than the usual four. The pujas are smaller, with a fifth of the budget. He himself is working without remuneration.

But hope still springs eternal. One of his themes in Chetla, in the southern part of the city, features a huge bamboo bird based on a Rabindranath Tagore poem which exhorts the bird to keep flying even in the most dire of times. “Good times might seem far away but we cannot stop flying,” says Pandalwala. But he has designed the pandal so you can see the Goddess from the street.

“You don’t have to come inside,” he says. He was far-sighted. The Calcutta high court has just ordered that visitors will not be allowed into pandals though a selected number of organizers can go in and drummers can be stationed just outside the no-entry zone.

The images of another Durga have gone viral. Artist Rintu Das’ Durga for the Barisha Club is not the Mother Goddess astride a lion coming home for the holidays. “My Durga is also going home but I wanted to worship that Durga who walked day and night to go home,” says Das. His creations are the colour of clay, a mother and her children, inspired by the images of migrants trudging across India during the lockdown.

The club told him it had almost no budget this year. He said he would work with whatever they had. They said they had given out 30,000kg of rice as relief. The empty bags were still there. “I said I will use that to make my pandal,” says Das. “I don’t need anything else.”

Some have found the images too idealized, almost like figures out of calendar art, reminiscent of the famous artist Bikash Bhattacharjee’s Durga series. But Das is unfazed. “My field of work has given me fame, money, prizes,” he says. “This time I had something to give.”

Durga Puja has often been about getting—sponsorships, awards, subscriptions, not giving back.

But this Durga Puja is not about Best Puja prizes. Rupa Mukherjee, whose Ballygunge Cultural Association’s Durga Puja is celebrating its 70th year, tells a television show: “This time the club vs club competition is less. Let’s have a different kind of Durga Puja, a Puja for humanity. Shokoley aamra shokoler torey—all of us for all of us.”

This feels like a far cry from just a few years ago, when a club plastered ads all over the city boasting about the world’s tallest Durga idol. Eighty-feet tall, with a budget of 250 crore, it was such a sensation that it caused a stampede even before the actual festival started.

This year I came across what might be the smallest Durga Puja. Social entrepreneur Jaydeep Mukherjee of the Meghdutam Foundation had gone to a remote village near the border of Bangladesh to deliver aid after Cyclone Amphan in May. Bhandarkhali can only be reached by boat, and there’s only one boatman. He found utter devastation. Roofs had been ripped off. Migrant workers were home, without work. Seeing the village children at a loose end because school was shut, he wondered if they could make their own Durga idol.

Deb Mandal, 13, got into the act with about six friends, helped by his grandfather. Deb came to Kolkata last weekend, his first visit to the big city, to deliver their brightly coloured Durga, barely one-and-a-half-feet tall.

The children of sex workers in Kolkata’s red-light area, whose mothers had been hit hard by the lockdown, built a 4ft pandal out of gunny sacks and bamboo. The children of Kumartuli, the neighbourhood of the clay workers, made drawings of Durga slaying the corona asura, while those from Mathurapur made miniature shola (pith) decorations. While the chief minister inaugurates the big Pujas with fanfare by ceremonially painting in the third eye of the Mother Goddess, this little Puja in a city by-lane was inaugurated by young tongue-tied Deb who spritzed Ma Durga and her family with sanitizer. “This is a Puja that has never happened before and will never happen again,” says Mukherjee.

Durga Puja in Bengal is time for peak white-sari-with-red-border nostalgia and big-budget dhamaka. This year it’s neither. Many Kolkatans like me flee the city during Durga Puja. We complain snootily that it has become crassly commercial. But notwithstanding the very real anxiety of what Puja will do to skyrocketing infection numbers, perhaps the Goddess has some lessons to teach us about putting the community back into a community festival. Instead of being forlorn about court-enforced empty pandals, this can be an opportunity to think about what truly makes Durga Puja Durga Puja (and no, it’s not biryani and egg rolls, unlike the tedious debates that rage online every year).

Malavika Banerjee, director of the Kolkata Literary Meet, says their family Puja is turning 110 this year. It will be a low-key one. Elders have been discouraged from coming. There will be no cut fruits offered to the Goddess, no riotous procession to immerse her at the end, no frenetic post-Puja socializing with boxes of sweets. But she has also learnt something. Perhaps we don’t need ever more ostentatious pandals blocking roads from as early as July. Or Durgas festooned with so much real gold that the all-powerful Mother Goddess needs 24x7 armed guards. She hopes we don’t forget something we have learnt this Durga Puja—“Less is good.”

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

@sandipr

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