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Durga’s Muslim faithful

Durga Puja's inclusive character is amplified by the participation of the Muslim community in West Bengal, especially in Kolkata and the districts where they are in majority

Artist Swarna Chitrakar at work at a south Kolkata ‘pandal’. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Artist Swarna Chitrakar at work at a south Kolkata ‘pandal’. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Premnath Saha, 30, one of the few Hindu members of the Five Star Club, in Munshigunj, in the Kidderpore region neighbouring Kolkata, says he has never felt insecure being a minority, either in the club or outside it.Relationships matter here, not religion, he says. “Whenever any Muslim member or neighbour dies, I put on a skullcap and walk in a procession to the burial ground, of my own volition," says Saha. “Just like everyone else there, I help commit the body to the ground."

The syncretism inherent to the small, one-room Five Star Club is evident at the Durga Puja pandal. Held annually for seven decades, the puja is organized almost entirely by the club’s Muslim members. Saha is one of the two Hindus in the 20- to 25-member puja committee, the rest being Muslims. It is a luminous example of the inclusive nature of the annual festival in West Bengal.

As club members gather near the pandal, secretary Sheikh Jahangir arrives. Some years ago, following a family tradition beginning with his grandfather, Jahangir started assisting the Hindu priest with the elaborate puja rituals. Usually, the priest’s assistant is Hindu, often Brahmin. Not in this case. Jahangir sits at the feet of the Durga idol, handing flowers, holy water, etc., to the priest. The club’s joint treasurer, Mohammad Latif, says Muslim women from the neighbourhood receive the goddess with the welcoming ritual of boron. The entire Muslim-majority locality, including the small population of Munshiganj’s red-light area, provides monetary support. Residents prepare the bhog and prasad that everyone eats. “In recent years, Muharram has coincided with Durga Puja," says vice-president Hadis Khan. “So we prepare khichra (made during Muharram) too, along with the Durga Puja bhog."

A young sex-worker sits in the foyer of a derelict house opposite the pandal, clipping her toenails. Jahangir points to a small eatery next to her. He says, with evident pride, that this Muslim eatery usually serves beef, but stops doing so in the run-up to Durga Puja, only resuming after the idol’s immersion (the sale of beef is not prohibited in West Bengal). “It’s about respecting each other’s faith," Jahangir says. “This puja was started by a Hindu resident, but Muslims joined since the festival brings people together. We are part of humanity before we are Muslim or Hindu. I’ll teach my children the work of being the priest’s assistant as well."

A few kilometres away, at the Rupchand Mukherjee Lane Sarbojanin Durgotsav in south Kolkata, 48-year-old patachitra artist Swarna Chitrakar is applying the finishing touches to 17 large panels—the pandal’s key decorative element. Her patachitra, a form of traditional scroll painting native to eastern India, is heavily influenced by the famed Kalighat style, while also drawing inspiration from Naya, a village in Bengal’s West Midnapore district that is home to about 250 patua artists. Islamic architectural influences and designs subtly seep into Chitrakar’s art, even while representing Hindu mythological stories from Chandimangal and Ramayan. This is understandable. Chitrakar—and the entirety of Naya’s artist community—is Muslim.

Artist Isha Mahammad.

During her grandfather’s time, having a Hindu name helped avoid the prejudice that Naya’s Muslim artist community faced, given that they used primarily Hindu mythological and spiritual texts as source material for their scroll art. Sheikh Kader, her grandfather, became Kartick Chitrakar, and her father, Sheikh Umar, Amar Chitrakar. Rupabaan is Swarna—a dual identity to negotiate the rigours and rigidities of religion. “Earlier, we would be ostracized by religious hardliners," says Chitrakar, while her team of Muslim artists paints the sari on the Durga idol at the pandal. “These days, people have accepted us for who we are. We are Muslim patua artists working on Hindu religious themes."

A Cultural melting pot

An October 2016 report in The Times Of India relates the story of the Muslim villagers of Dharan, in Burdwan district, holding a Durga Puja so that the minority Hindu families wouldn’t have to travel outside the village to celebrate the festival.

A local historian, Niharul Islam, asserts that in Murshidabad district’s Lalgola region, Muslims organize a Durga Puja. The puja in his neighbourhood, like the Olaichanditala Durga Puja in Kolkata’s Muslim-dominated Belgachia area, is a Muslim-supported affair, where the community contributes the bulk of funds through donation. A small puja’s budget, like that of the Five Star Club, is around Rs1.5 lakh.

“Right from the puja mela (fair) to being respectful before the goddess, you see Muslims participating in droves," Islam says. “Nobody bats an eyelid because religious divisions are disregarded, other than by a section of the clergy who think participating in Durga Puja is haram." He says Bengal’s long history of multiculturalism, tolerance and the economic interdependence between the communities are important factors.

In Bishaad Brikkho (Tree Of Sorrow), Mihir Sengupta’s haunting memoir of the 1947 partition in Bengal, the author writes about how in undivided Bengal, people of both communities would come together to worship folk deities representing a good harvest, monsoon, plants and even snakes. This preceded the days of mass worship and the current popularity of Durga Puja.

This ‘puja’ was started by a Hindu resident, but Muslims joined since the festival brings people together. We are part of humanity before we are Muslim or Hindu. I’ll teach my children the work of being the priest’s assistant as well.- Sheikh Jahangir

The “Durga Puja In Calcutta" essay in Calcutta: The Living City (Vol II) gives an anecdote from 1757. After defeating Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah in the historic Battle of Plassey, the British commander-in-chief, Robert Clive, wanted a thanksgiving service but the only church in Kolkata had been destroyed by the Nawab’s army. His munshi (secretary) suggested: “Offer your thanks at the Devi’s feet at my Durga Puja." “But I’m a Christian," protested Clive. “That can be managed," smiled the munshi.

In early Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata, sahibs attending the puja at the home of a member of the Bengali gentry was a sign of the family’s social reach. Preparations, too, were made for their entertainment. Jaya Chaliha and Bunny Gupta’s essay in the same volume records that “nautch girls from Muslim gharanas" participated in these festivities. “While they danced, the English guests dined on beef and ham from Wilson’s Hotel, washed down with wine," the essay notes.

“Unlike north India, religious conservatism never found firm footing in Bengal," says Suddhabrata Deb, owner of The Story Walkers Kolkata, a walking tour company, and whose family runs the well-known Bengali publication house Pratikshan. “It could be because of Bengal’s non-Aryan, pagan and animist traditions. Kautilya’s Arthashastra did consider Bengal a land of heretics. Even our asur (the idol of the demon) is fed a piece of sandesh (sweet) before immersion," Deb says. Deb cites instances of syncretism that he has witnessed: for instance, a Hindu and Muslim bantering over ownership of the sacred tulsi (holy basil) plant; a Bengali Muslim man saving to buy clothes for his family both during Eid and puja; or the community puja lunch at the Birbhum home of former president Pranab Mukherjee, in which both Hindus and Muslims participate. “Bengal’s Durga Puja is a social festival first and a religious festival later," contends Deb.

The artist duo Soumik-Piyali at a south Kolkata ‘pandal’.

Countering change

But things are changing slowly, with the rise of an aggressive form of communal politics.

Prof. Isha Mahammad, former principal of Government Art College, president of the Asiatic Society in Kolkata, and a well-known artist, remembers how in 1988 he was invited to conceptualize and design the Durga idol for south Kolkata’s Bakul Bagan puja. Famous artists like Paritosh Sen, Bikash Bhattacharya and Shanu Lahiri had designed the idol previously. Sitting in his office on Park Street, Prof. Mahammad fondly recalls the Hindu priest at the puja calling him, a Muslim idol-maker, on stage to congratulate him on a job well done. “Like Hindu fundamentalists increasing their presence in Bengal recently, so have Islamic fundamentalists," rues Prof. Mahammad. “You see many more Muslim women in hijab now around Park Circus."

The Park Circus Beniapukur United Durga Puja had three Muslim founder-members in the organizing committee when it was established 66 years ago. There are none now. Sitting in the puja committee office, the 77-year-old general secretary, Raghu Dasgupta, says local Muslims were earlier more forthcoming about the puja but he feels that growing communal politics and hard-line religiosity are to be blamed. Kolkata’s popular Mohammad Ali Park’s puja is facing the same scenario. “Many" Muslim members initially helped with the 49-year-old puja, but the current committee has only one, says Naresh Jain, general secretary. Though Muslims volunteer in large numbers, from organizing drinking water and medical camps around the Mohammad Ali Park puja to running most of the food stalls at the Park Circus puja, there is no glossing over the fact that their participation in responsible positions has diminished.

Sheikh Jahangir (in white cap), secretary of the Five Star Club in Munshigunj.

But artists are also coming together to oppose divisive politics and religiosity. Artist duo Soumik and Piyali is designing the Kalighat Milan Sangha puja, a stone’s throw from chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s residence, and a short drive from the Chetla Agrani Club puja, helmed by a Muslim minister in the state government, Firhad Hakim (aka Bobby Hakim). “We are living in a world where religious fanatics drive trucks into crowds, children are forced to brandish weapons in a religious procession and a Nobel Laureate’s voice on film is beeped out whenever he mentions beef," says Soumik.

The duo have chosen a 150-year-old folk song of Madan Fakir, a little-known Muslim ascetic who used to sing of love and compassion. Lines from the song will be cast on individual iron panels placed across the pandal. Visitors to the pandal will be greeted by the powerful opening lines, “My path to the temple or Masjid is blocked/ I can hear your call but can’t reach you." Or later, “On the door to love hangs many locks…Koran, Puran, Tasbih (rosary), garland."

In another instance, Muslim artist Sheikh Hashibul continues his association with Durga Puja and is designing the pandal, in the Uluberia region in the Howrah district, themed on the travails of ordinary citizens following the Central government’s demonetization drive last year.

When I called Jahangir of Five Star Club, intending to accompany our photographer for the appointed photo shoot, the sound of women wailing at the other end was unmistakeable. Jahangir sounded hassled and requested a postponement. “A Hindu lady from our locality passed away. Along with other club members, I’m accompanying the body to the crematorium," he said.

Notwithstanding the tragic news of a death, the interwoven, composite culture of the Muslim and Hindu communities at Munshigunj’s Five Star Club shines through.

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