Kolkata's Durga Puja Is Social, Cultural and Never Adequately Religious

From a way of showing off family wealth to the British to standing in as an icon of the freedom movement and now with UNESCO's Cultural Heritage tag, the festival has had quite the journey.

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Kolkata: Bengal has been a land of Kali, Shiva and Radha-Krishna, if one goes by the number of temples and their popularity as household deities.

Before the advent of Vedic culture from the fifth century onwards, Buddhism, Tantrik Buddhism and folk deities have prevailed over this land. Bengal has also assimilated Shaivism and Gaudiya Vaishnavism. But amidst all this, it has predominantly remained a land of Kalikula Shaktism and folk deities.

Durga Puja, which is also the worship of Shakti, has found its unique place in this religious space over the last three centuries. The goddess is rarely worshiped as a household deity, hardly has a temple dedicated to her, but is venerated and celebrated within communities in the biggest way.

It is now a spectacle of global attention, one which is intrinsically linked to Bengali Hindus’ cultural identity. During the weeklong festivity, millions walk miles on foot, hopping from one pandal (which are decorative temporary installations) to another, from the evening to the dead of the night. The city never sleeps during Durga Puja and many Muslims and Christians are part of the festivities.

A day after Kolkata’s Durga Puja became the 14th entry from India in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s ‘Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,’ scholars and social activists pointed out that the Durga Puja has been unique in a dozen ways, but most importantly in being more of a social event than a devotional or religious one.

“During the event, the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations,” reads the UNESCO inscription.

This lends itself to another aspect where Bengal’s Durga Puja is different – it has been linked to exhibitionism right from the beginning and has never been a humble affair.

Men beat traditional drums to attract organisers to hire them to perform at pandals of the Durga Puja in Kolkata. Photo: Reuters/File

First, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the wealthy used it to exhibit their power and social status before their colonial masters and the native unequals. From the beginning of the 20th century, different localities started using it to exhibit the strength and creative excellence of their neighbourhood. At present, Puja organising clubs use it to draw more crowds than other organisers, trying to stun the visitors with innovation, execution and finesse in idol making, pandal designing and lights.

An ‘inadequately religious’ festival

Sanskrit scholar Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri, an expert on ancient Indian scriptures, finds no surprise in the elements of exhibitionism that the worship of Durga Puja carries.

“It was unique right from the beginning. In the 16th century, the Smarta scholar Raghunandan, describing the procedures followed in various pujas, refers to this one as ‘Durgotsav’ instead of ‘Durga Puja’. This shows that right from that time, Durga Puja was seen as an elaborate festival and every festival will have some elements of exhibitionism,” Bhaduri said.

Durga Puja, a watercolor by Sevak Ram, c.1809. Photo: Public domain

According to him, the first reference of ‘Durga’ in her present avatar – as a family along with her children, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh, and husband Shiva looking at them from behind – is found in the writings of the 14th century Maithili poet Vidyapati, who was to a certain extent influenced by Bengali culture.

Bengal, in turn, took from him the deity’s image as a complete family. This avatar of Durga is a distinct departure from the Mahishasuramardini (‘slayer of the demon Mahishasura’) image of ancient Sanskrit texts, as her family was nowhere present in any description of the demon-slaying goddess, Bhaduri said.

Besides, here, the goddess is not only a ‘mother’ like other female deities worshiped in different parts of India. Durga, Uma, or Parvati, is also a married daughter whose annual visit to her paternal home (the mortal world) along with her family is the cause for the Puja celebration.

It is possibly thanks to the elaborate arrangements required for Durga Puja, spread over five days, that its popularity was maintained within the wealthy class, both rural and urban, until the beginning of the 20th century.

In the 17th century, the wealthy landlords and traders used to organise it in their villages with much fanfare, throwing feasts for the village residents. In the next century, as the English East India Company became the dominating power in Bengal, having their base in Kolkata, the landed gentry and rural trading class started building palatial mansions in the new city-in-the-making. Gradually, they started organising these extravagant pujas in their Kolkata homes where the bigwigs of the East India Company would be invited.

William Prinsep’s painting showing Europeans being entertained by dancers and musicians in a splendid Indian house in Calcutta during Durga Puja. This is assumed to depict a scene between 1830 and 1840. Photo: Public domain

Historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta, an honorary professor at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences at Kolkata, had prepared the dossier that the Sangeet Natak Academy submitted before the UNESCO authorities seeking inscription of ‘Durga Pujo of Kolkata’. She has, however, not been credited in the dossier.

Guha-Thakurta said that Kolkata’s Durga Puja has been associated with excesses right from the 18th century – excess of spending and performances, a kind of hedonism, pompousness and ostentatious display of wealth, which have continued into this century. Besides, the continuous addition of non-religious elements gave the festival a unique feature.

Also read: This Year, the Prospect of a Humble Durga Puja Is an Opportunity Lost for Mamata Banerjee

“It’s a festival inadequately religious, not entirely about art and also inadequately secular. Cultural events have become integral to the celebration. Things not even distantly connected with Durga have been made part of the celebration – from themes on Harry Potter to the farmers’ protest,” said Guha-Thakurta, who also authored the book, In the Name of the Goddess.

She said that Durga Puja had earned the nomenclature of ‘sharodotsav‘, or the ‘autumn festival’, way back in the 19th century. “The uniqueness is that while the core rituals of the puja continued unchanged, it kept acquiring other dimensions – social, cultural, artistic, communitarian. It is continuously evolving towards the contemporary. The performances around the puja gradually became more important than the core ritual.”

In her book, Guha-Thakurta writes that it is “a mega consumerist carnival and a city-wide street exhibition.” Few descriptions would be as apt.

The democratisation

The use of Durga to invoke nationalist sentiments among the native masses can be traced back to the late 19th century, in the writings of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay to be more specific.

The Durga idol. Photo: Reuters/File

His ‘Bande Mataram’ is actually an ode to Durga. In “Tvam hi Durga dasha-praharana-dhaarinee, kamalaa kamaladala vihaarinee, vaanee viddyaa daayinee, namaami tvaam,” the novelist compares motherland with the Devi.

Aurobindo Ghosh’s translation of the above passage runs thus, “You are the goddess Durga bearing weapons in your ten arms; you are the goddess Lakshmi sporting in lotus filled lake; and you are the goddess Saraswati giving us speech and learning. I salute you, O Mother.”

It was due to the trait of the nationalist movement in the early 20th century, linking national liberation with Hindu revival, that there were initiatives from Bengali revolutionaries to promote Ganesh Chaturthi, which Bal Gangadhar Tilak had popularised in Maharashtra, in Kolkata as well. But soon, the democratisation of Durga Puja left no need for popularising a new event.

The year 1909 was a landmark one. The residents of a north Kolkata neighbourhood, some of whom felt insulted at a wealthy family’s puja, decided to organise a community Durga Puja for one and all. That Puja is now known as Bagbazar Sarbojonin’s puja.

Over the next two decades, as the number of community pujas increased, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was among the freedom fighters who found the community pujas a good opportunity to unite the masses. The Puja of Simla Byayam Samiti in north Kolkata even earned the nomenclature of ‘swadeshi thakur’ (‘indigenous god’) because the idol was dressed in khadi. Eventually, in the 1930s, the puja faced a ban for three years. Nonetheless, most of the prominent leaders of Bengal Congress got themselves engaged with various community pujas.

The idol at the first puja of the Simla Byayam Samiti in 1926. Right: Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Sarat Chandra Bose photographed eating prasad on Ashtami, the eighth day of the Pujas, at Simla Byayam Samiti, in 1928. Photo: www.simlabyayamsamity.com

Researchers have traced the influence of art on the making of the idol back to the 1930s, when realistic idols started making its way in community pujas amidst the existing dominance of the oriental style. The influence of art entered the pandal decoration sphere in the 1950s and 60s, when people who traditionally built sets in the film studios of Tollygunj entered pandal-making. Replicas of the Shish Mahal, Ajanta Cave and the likes were created and the trend of visiting these pandals began.

In the latter half of the century, the Durga Puja got intrinsically linked to culture. It also became the season when publications would come up with special literary issues comprising novellas, stories and poetry, and noted singers would release their albums.

According to Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, the Durga Puja festivities have long stopped being a mere religious event and are now more of a socio-cultural festival. The infusion of art with the introduction of themed Pujas since the late 1990s have added a new dimension to its cultural claims.

“The Durga Puja had gained a socio-cultural significance with the beginning of barwari or community pujas about a century ago. But now it’s that time of the year when friends and families come together and in that sense, it can possibly be compared only with Maharashtra’s Ganesh Chaturthi, in terms of the scale. But if we take the non-religious or secular elements into account, especially the infusion of art, Durga Puja, perhaps, has no comparison in the country,” said Basu Ray Chaudhury.

Indeed, there are very few localities where cultural events and competitions of elocution, music and art, mostly for children and young adults, are not part of the puja celebrations.

Pointing at the less religious nature of the festival, Basu Ray Chaudhury cited that even communist parties, who are known to favour atheism, put up book stalls outside Durga Puja pandals, selling political literature, even though they do not involve themselves in any other religious festival.

A DYFI book stall during Durga Puja in Kolkata. Photo: By arrangement

The spectacle

According to government officials with knowledge of India’s communications with UNESCO during the application process, the authorities of the latter repeatedly asked about what threat the festival faced from ‘over-commercialisation’. This question arose due to the huge amount of corporate sponsorship that puja organisers receive, only to allow advertising/brand promotional opportunities in turn.

In this respect, 1985 was a landmark year, when Asian Paints launched its ‘Sharad Samman’ award for the best community pujas. Within a decade, India had entered economic liberalisation. By the turn of the new century, corporate sponsorship and a couple of dozen awards had helped the festival reach a new scale.

Also read: Durga Puja Washed Out for Kolkata’s Idol Makers

Commenting in the context of Asian Paints’ entry in the festive scene, Guha-Thakurta wrote in her 2015 book:

“Without the least sense of irony, a corporate firm and its publicity professionals could claim to have brought back taste, ‘spirituality’ and ‘reverence’ to the festival. It was no less paradoxical that it was the city’s celebrated Left-wing poet, Subhash Mukhopadhyay, who helped coin the slogan for the advertising campaign of O&M, during an evening’s tea in the exclusive precincts of the Calcutta Club on Chowringhee Road. Contrary social worlds could uncontroversially come together in generating a new middle class desire for sanctity, orderliness and discerning tastes in the Pujas. The poet’s chosen slogan was ‘shuddha shuchi sustha ruchir sera bachhai’ (‘the best selection of refined sensibility and taste’).”

This introduction of awards had myriad impacts over the following years. According to Bhabatosh Sutar, an artist and reputed ‘theme-maker’, as pandal designers are called in recent times, the entry of Asian Paints with awards to be adjudicated by noted cultural personalities was a game changer.

“Asian Paints Sharad Samman, which still remains the most prestigious of all Durga Puja awards, encouraged puja organisers to think big and innovate. Many other companies followed suit in the later years, helping increase enthusiasm around organising pujas, especially with innovative ideas,” Sutar said.

This competitiveness increased further in the 1990s, with the start of India’s economic liberalisation, as the festival started drawing more and more corporate sponsors. The influx of money allowed puja organisers to aim for exceptionality, while young art college graduates started looking at designing themed Puja pandals as their launchpads as professional artists.

The Barisha Club Durga Puja pandal of 2021 with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as its theme. Photo: Himadri Ghosh/The Wire

The growing involvement of art with the beginning of the new century drew the attention of the city’s intelligentsia, who had, till the 1980s and 1990s, taken little interest in this so-called celebration of ‘popular culture.’

One important aspect of the entry of Asian Paints was that they also highlighted creative displays by the smaller pujas. This created an opportunity even for localities hitherto insignificant on the Puja map to gain attention.

Also read: This Year, the Durga Puja Returned to Its Core Group – Those Who Can’t Celebrate It

The prize money was never huge but the award meant prestige. Gradually, the crowd that these pujas started drawing helped their organising committees get sponsors and grow bigger.

According to historian Jayanta Sengupta, secretary and curator of Victoria Memorial Hall, Durga Puja’s transformation from being a wealthy family affair to a community-held event expanded a market for businesses to exploit. The entry of corporate sponsors, while adding elements of commercialisation, further expanded the population the festival touched, he added.

“Corporate funds required organisers to think out of the box to draw bigger crowds. There was competitiveness between organisers in the display of creativity. So, marginal folk art forms started finding place in the theme designs. Apart from rural artists and artisans, many people living on the margins of the society found their ways of economic involvement. Since economic activities around the festival increased, market economy, in a sense, connected a broader mass with the festival,” Sengupta said.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and author based in Kolkata.