The Refugee History Behind Durga Puja Celebrations in Delhi's C.R. Park

Pujos in New Delhi's posh locality perfectly blend cultural nostalgia with globalisation-induced cultural regeneration.

In a city dotted with numerous Ramlilas during Navratri, a relatively isolated but posh South Delhi locality, Chittaranjan Park – C.R. Park as it is popularly known – celebrates with full grandeur the Durga Pujo, attracting visitors primarily, but not exclusively, from the Bengali community. The Pujo celebrations at C.R. Park provide an interesting contrast to Navratri celebrations elsewhere in the city, thus exhibiting the cultural diversity of India. While a large section of Navratri celebrants either observe fast or abstain from non-vegetarian food, onion and garlic, the Bengali community at C.R. Park celebrates the Pujo by feasting. This contrast surprises or even irks some people, but this exactly is what makes Indian cultural heritage truly intriguing and exceptional.

Bhadralok after Partition

For many, 1947 is the year when India became free after decades of colonial rule. However, for quite a number of people, it is the year when India was divided. They often locate random events of their lives either ‘before Partition’ or ‘after Partition’. Numerous studies, especially at the turn of the century, have brought out the passion and pain unleashed by the Independence and the subsequent Partition of India. Whether it is Urvashi Butalia, Gyanendra Pandey, Vazira Zamindar or Joya Chatterji, they have captured explicitly the irony of the time which witnessed displacement, abductions, rapes and genocide of millions of people as the spiral of violence swept from east to west of the Indian subcontinent.

Also read: In West Bengal’s Power Structure, Politics and Pujas Go Hand-in-Hand

Nevertheless, unlike the dominant imagery of Partition refugees as a displaced, helpless and vulnerable lot, there was a group of refugees who not only managed to escape the inhuman treatment meted out to Partition victims, but also rooted themselves firmly in their ‘land of refuge’. These were the bhadralok (literally, elite) refugees of former East Bengal. After the Partition, the intelligentsia and civil servants of erstwhile Bengal who were hitherto proud of their elite cultural refinements found themselves in a precarious position as Bengal was partitioned into two: West Bengal, which remained in India, and East Bengal, which went to Pakistan, and later Bangladesh after the partition of Pakistan in 1971.

The bhadralok who migrated to India after Partition soon began demanding a niche for themselves in Delhi. They even formed the East Pakistan Displaced Persons Association (E.P.D.P.) in 1954 and began lobbying for a residential neighbourhood. The bhadralok leading the lobby included Chandra Kumar Mukherjee, Subodh Gopal Basumallik, Ashutosh Dutta, Bimal Bhusan Chakraborty and the then chief election commissioner, S.P. Sen Verma.

A colony for elite refugees

The bhadralok refugees were eventually alloted land in the 1960s, in what used to be the far-flung, uninhabited and forested area of South Delhi. To get the plots, members of the East Pakistan Displaced Persons Association were required to provide some documents of their erstwhile residential status belonging to East Bengal, and they were required to be ‘already residing and gainfully employed in the capital’. Thus sprang up a new colony, called the E.P.D.P. Colony, in the deserted landscape of South Delhi, where one could often hear wolves howling at night. Soon, many ‘non-kulin’ Bengali refugees and Bengalis from the surrounding who had not been actually displaced during Partition also migrated to the periphery of the E.P.D.P. Colony. Within decades, this barren, rocky neighbourhood of refugees transformed into one of the poshest localities of Delhi, rechristening itself as C.R. Park.

Devotees bidding farewell to Goddess Durga after the five-day Durga Puja celebration in a pandal in New Delhi on Dashami Day on October 9, 2008. Credit: PublicResource/Flickr CC by 2.0

The bhadralok refugees of the colony then turned the area into a showcase of high Bengali culture. Right from the newspaper (Aajkaal), to evening snacks (such as ghughni and jhal muri), to main cuisine (shorshe eelish or Hilsa fish cooked in mustard), C.R. Park displays a zealous Bengali cultural heritage in a cityscape dominated by modernised Punjabi culture. Now, Durga Puja – or Pujo as they call it – which falls every year in the month of Ashwin, becomes a central rallying occasion to reproduce, celebrate and flaunt ‘authentic’ Bengali culture, thereby forging a sense of unity and pride among members of the community.

The Pujo spirit and cultural replenishment

The multiple ways in which a small community of the Bengali diaspora at C.R. Park replenishes its cultural heritage and community feeling every year around September-October during Durga Puja to preserve its unique identity is truly remarkable. The typical idol of goddess Durga, with elongated eyelines, Bengali chants devoted to the goddess, the fragrance of shiuli flowers (night jasmine), the mesmerising sound of dhak (a huge membranophone musical instrument) accompanied by dhunuchi dance (aarti performed with a special kind of mud pots), the multiple stalls selling Bengali cuisine including non-vegetarian food items, and various cultural performances held every evening – all these aspects of the Durga Puja provide a very different version of puja celebrations vis-à-vis Durgotsava celebrated in the rest of North India.

Also read: Kolkata’s Durga Pujas Are Keeping Urban Folk Culture Alive

A cursory glance of the Pujo celebrations at C.R. Park gives us an insight into how a cultural heritage is preserved, recreated and reproduced over generations at a place quite far from its original birthplace. If one goes by Clifford Geertz’s famous technique of ‘interpretive anthropology’ – exemplary illustration of which is Geertz’s own analysis of the Balinese cockfight – the Pujo celebrations at C.R. Park provide a perfect ‘text’ to delve into the world of erstwhile elite Bengali refugees. Separated from their native place, they leave nostalgic imprints in every nook and corner of C.R. Park, including in Pujo celebrations. Apart from being a nostalgic endeavour, it is, as mentioned earlier, also an attempt to replenish the Bengali high culture, an objective which has taken centre stage in recent years. Notably, the cultural nostalgia of the older generation is evidently missing in C.R. Park’s young generation Bengalis, who, unlike their grandparents or parents, do not have first-hand experiences of their ‘native’ place and post-partition migration.

Globalisation has further eroded the cultural niches like that of C.R. Park across the world. In the light of all this, Pujo celebrations at C.R. Park in the recent years have become a kind of showcase of ‘authentic’ high Bengali culture not just for the outer world – which was the case a few decades earlier – but also for the younger generation of Bengalis as well those who are otherwise exposed to the Hindi-Punjabi cultural landscape of Delhi. This explains the intensified scale of Pujo celebrations at C.R. Park, which attracts stupendous funding from the inhabitants of the colony and the periphery.

Incidentally, as capitalism found its own novel ways in the third world countries to make inroads into the lives of people, Pujo celebrations at C.R. Park exhibit a perfect blend of capitalist culture coupled with cultural regeneration. The exhibition of luxury cars, merchandise and other expensive stalls set up inside the pandal campus at C.R. Park provides an ironical contrast to mass fairs which once used to be associated with Pujo celebrations in erstwhile East Bengal.

Saurav Kumar Rai is a senior research assistant at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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