Durga Puja has arrived in unusual circumstances this year due to the covid-19 pandemic, but not without its share of controversies. Whereas in the past the self-proclaimed custodians of Hindu religion have routinely flown into a rage, offended by Bengali festival cuisine (which, no surprise, leans heavily towards non-vegetarian fare), this year public passions have been stoked by audacious representations of the goddess.
A memorable example of the latter, which is being ubiquitously discussed on social media for the past few days, is the stunning idol at Barisha Club in Kolkata. Artistic director Rintu Das has taken the liberty of depicting the deity as a destitute migrant mother, carrying her half-naked child in her lap. She is trailed by her other children, all presumably headed for the aid that is being doled out. Idol-maker Pallab Bhowmick has captured a delicate moment of hesitation as Durga turns her face back at the visitors, as though summoned by a voice from behind her.
The scene is a poignant reference to the plight of the millions of jobless migrant workers, who had to walk vast distances as the country went into lockdown in March to return to their ancestral towns and villages. Hundreds died along these journeys due to road accidents, health crises or fatigue, unable to afford food and shelter.
“During the lockdown we had distributed 30,000 kg rice, clothes, and other essential items to around 5,000 people in need,” says Sudip Polley, the president of Barisha Club who is the councilor of the local municipal ward. “We also sought the help of the police to send some of the migrant workers back to Murshidabad and Malda.” But then Cyclone Amphan struck and left more devastation in its wake. The club trooped in again, until most of their funds for this year's Durga Puja was depleted.
The club had initially decided not to celebrate Durga Puja at all this year, a hard decision, given its reputation for putting up a spectacular show. Compared to their recent budgets of ₹50-60 lakhs, their coffers were dwindling, but Das was determined that the puja must go on.
“I decided it was my turn to give something back to the people, since I have got so much from them as an artist all these years,” he says. Undeterred by the meagre funds, about one-fifth of last year, he sought inspiration in the thousands of empty rice sacks that the club had left over from its aid work. And so, Das decided to design the theme as a tribute to the plight of the migrant workers.
While praise for Das’s concept and Bhowmick’s execution have poured in on social media, there are rumbles of discontent, too. Some pointed out the obvious resemblance of the idol to Darpamoyee, an iconic painting re-imagining Durga as an ordinary woman. Made by the late Bikash Bhattacharjee, it is one of a series of realist portraits of Durga in everyday situations he created, in which we see the goddess on a terrace, trudging home with groceries, or seated on a bed.
Das, who was educated at the Government College of Art and Craft, has since admitted the influence of the master. “I knew him as a student and am a great admirer of his work,” he says. “But I have not imitated him in my incarnation of the goddess, only followed in his footsteps.”
Bhattacharjee, who was born in 1946, was influenced by the left-leaning politics of his youth. He painted Durga as Everywoman, forcing viewers to see both the goddess as well as ordinary women around them with fresh eyes. But as ways of seeing change through the decades, so do the layers of interpretation. Even an ostensibly well-meaning attempt such as Bhattacharjee's now feels ironic, if not problematic, in a country with a staggering record of violence against women. Is imagining women as goddesses the only way for society to respect them for who they are?
As historian Sampurna Chakraborty wrote in a post on Facebook, even as the idol at Barisha Club spoke eloquently to the people for its “aesthetic moorings”, she found “the sophistication and the glamorization of the migrant mother…extremely disturbing.” “I refuse to negotiate any longer with this burden of female representation,” Chakraborty wrote, “the perfection, the finesse, the arresting beauty, that is again far removed from the portrayal of her strength and of her spirit, which I believe is what was intended for the projection of this sculpture.”
Even the best of intentions cannot hide historical prejudices. Although Bengalis take pride in the sarbajanin (public) spirit of Durga Puja, the organization and execution of the worship proper hasn’t left the patriarchal control of the upper castes. Women who are widowed, divorced or unmarried are ritually excluded from the final farewell ceremony to the goddess, which is open to only married Hindu women. Moreover, the traditional framework of the Durga story—of the Mother Goddess triumphing over Mahishasura, the demonic force of evil—has been long contested by the Asur tribal communities. The latter regard Mahishasura to be an Adivasi king and his killing, for them, is of a piece with the caste prejudices that are ingrained in mainstream Hinduism.
This year, a number of Pujas have reimagined the tribal king as “Coronasura”, the novel coronavirus incarnate, and the goddess as a doctor in a white lab coat killing it. The symbolic potential of such a tableau at a time when we have no cure for covid-19 has an obvious mass appeal. But what about the depiction of the lower caste king as an embodiment of a deadly disease? What does it reveal of the dominant mindset of the society we live in?
Ironically, mainstream culture’s tokenism with regard to innovative representations of the goddess was shown up baldly when a hue and cry arose about turning the goddess’ five children into essential workers at the same puja. In this so-called pandemic-inspired tribute, Ganesh is a policeman, Lakshmi a nurse, Saraswati a teacher, and Kartik a cleaner. If many were upset by the anthropomorphic transmutation of the gods, a few were particularly incensed with Kartik being a cleaner—a depiction, they felt, that “hurt their religious sentiments”.
That’s as powerful a purveyor of the spirit of our times, as the vision of Goddess Durga as a migrant worker.