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

As the Bengal CM fights charges of mismanagement and fudged COVID-19 numbers, she will be needing goddess Durga by her side more than ever before.

This is a year like none other in our life times.

With COVID-19 wreaking its devastation across the globe without yet any foreseeable end, the pandemic has brought in its wake a worldwide spate of cancellations and postponements.

From Tokyo Olympics to London’s Wimbledon, from school and university summer examinations and graduation ceremonies to the biggest international trade fairs across Europe, from Easter prayers and processions to iftar gatherings and mass prayers for the forthcoming Eid, from the Poila Baishakh celebrations in Dhaka to Germany’s Oktoberfest.

The list keeps growing; in some cases (like this year’s Wimbledon tournament) the cancellations are for the first time since the World War II, in others, for the first time since the Spanish flu endemic.

The question that is now hovering in my neck of the woods is whether the same will happen with Bengal’s autumnal Durga Puja, a festival that Bengalis have long claimed as their own ‘world-class’ event.   

Never, is the cacophonic answer.

Never can this annual mega event of the Durga Puja brook a prospect of either cancellation or deferral. There are still months to go, and there is the added reassurance that the Puja this year is later than usual, taking place a whole month after Mahalaya, in the third week of October.

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I remember how the 1978 floods that ravaged Bengal on the eve of the festival could not bring a halt to that year’s Durga Puja, even though it drastically curbed its scale and numbers. But this pandemic is a calamity of altogether different proportions, not a one-time natural disaster, nor one whose spiralling trail of death and destitution can be confined to a time, a place or a social class. 

To even begin thinking of preparations for a festival seems a travesty at a time, when millions of people are locked out of wage and work, when the fight against hunger in India is as grim as the battle against the virus.

Puja talk in this time of unprecedented crisis smacks of the worst propensities of financial excesses and extravaganza of the Kolkata festival, as the fierce critics of the city’s Durga Pujas will hasten to add. Nonetheless, the matter of how and in what form the Durga Puja can be held this year is one of immense importance.

Bhabatosh Sutar’s work depicting Durga and Ashur, preserved at the Patuli lakeside. Photo: Tapati Guha Thakurta

To the state, to the party and leader in power, to the Puja organising committees and clubs, not least of all, to the different creative communities and commercial stakeholders in the event. 

This importance comes not just from the cultural sentiments and self-indulgence of Bengalis. Nor is it just a matter of a religious observation of the ritual calendar of the annual homecoming of the goddess – where the proposition of halting Durga Puja for one year would be as unacceptable as the skipping of the rituals of Lent and Easter or Ramzan and Eid for their respective religious communities.

The Durga Puja is far from just a religious event. Had that been the case, then an easy resolution to the problem would be to plan on excising all large social gatherings and the mass public dimensions of the festival and restrict it only to the traditional household Pujas and a small set of strictly monitored community ones. But anyone familiar with the contemporary profile of Kolkata’s Durga Puja will be quick to recognise this as an impossibility.

Here lies the key to understanding both the intractability of the problem at hand and the enormity of the place that this single festival has come to occupy in the socio-economic, cultural and political functioning of the state, especially, the city of Kolkata. 

The importance of the Durga Pujas as the defining cultural event of Kolkata is inextricably tied up with the very scale of performance of the contemporary city festival…with the spread of the 4,000 and more units of licensed big and small Pujas, with the blitz of advertising and publicities, with the profusion of awards and sponsorship, with the spectacle of artistry and craftsmanship, and with the indispensable presence of large touring crowds.

And it is this  scale that gives the festival its crucial role in sustaining a host of artisanal and artistic livelihoods, the consumer economy of the state, and the specific mode of politics that has been patented by Mamata Banerjee.

A Bishwa-Bangla Durga Puja Awards banner, 2016. Photo: Tapati Guha Thakurta

The prospect of a rollback – of a sharp compression of community, corporate and the government investment in the Durga Pujas – would seriously jeopardise each of these sectors. Over the past two decades, the city’s Durga Puja has grown to the kind of mammoth proportions and has generated the kinds of extensive networks of economic and political sustenance that it defies any easy retreat to smallness and simplicity. There is little scope here of going back in time and reinventing the wheel – given the magnitude of the wheel today and the innumerable spokes within it that keep it moving.  

Like all grand festivals of this dimension, the calendar of planning for this autumnal event spans practically the entire year. Most thriving Durga Puja designers in the city would have sealed their commissions, sites of work and fees by November last year; the biggest image making workshops would have closed orders for the number of Durga images they will make for this October by the first month of this new year; and the main corporate and media sponsors would have budgeted for their Puja advertisements and sponsorships before the lockdown.

I know from my previous research experience in this field that the new financial year and the month of April is when the labour-contracts are made and the more on-the-ground work for the Pujas take off.

So, it was no surprise (although inevitably jarring as the news-lines on coronavirus infection spikes and deaths kept moving through the bands beneath) when the news-channel ABP Ananda hosted a panel discussion on Sunday, April 26, on the uncertain fate of Durga Puja 2020. 

The title of the show was ever so Bengali, “Pujoy Corona Knata” (“Corona Thorn in the Pujas”), as was the discussion that ensued. Two of the panellists were Trinamool Congress (TMC) politicians and the most powerful of the city’s Puja patrons – Subrata Mukherjee of Ekdalia Evergreen Puja and Sujit Bose of Sreebhumi Sporting Club Puja.

These are two of the most ostentatious, self-brandishing and mega crowd-pulling Pujas of the city, whose rise to fame (or we could say notoriety) is directly linked to the powers of these political henchmen. 

They have never gone new-wave, priding themselves on the older conventions of gaudy lighting and the sheer size and glitter of their architectural pandals and Durga images. On the other side was Puja artist, Bhabatosh Sutar, who since the early 2000s has blazed the trail of the city’s new genre of ‘art’ Pujas, excelling in his signature brand of artistic goddesses and the art installations he builds around these.

Bhabatosh’s Puja career today is no less tied to political patronage with its generous designer fees and production budgets. Yet, in this television discussion, he argued that lack of funds cannot bring a halt to his artistic creativity. His challenge would be to still produce his best with whatever funds may be available, and experiment with non-expensive material and untapped rural skills that he always tries to bring into his productions.

An idol of Goddess Durga being being decorated with gold ornaments during Durga Puja festival in Kolkata on Tuesday. Credit: PTI/Ashok Bhaumik

An idol of Goddess Durga being being decorated with gold ornaments during Durga Puja festival in Kolkata. Photo: PTI/Ashok Bhaumik

Sujit Bose, on the contrary, was most vocal that his kind of Puja (Sreebhumi) could not draw back from the glitz and spectacle that had become its identity. For this is what people across the ‘world’ (from touring crowds to the NRI Bengalis) have come to demand of his Puja. The person in the panel representing sponsorship kept bringing in the point about the inevitable contraction of all corporate funding for this year’s Durga Puja, and the ethics of allocating funds for advertisements and awards rather than for humanitarian relief in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Even to ask residents of a locality for public subscriptions (‘Pujor chnada’) in such a situation – to keep going those community Pujas which still rely primarily on these subscriptions – would be unethical, he said, adding that most Puja committees will be reluctant this year to issue printed receipts to residents, even when payments are made.   

At the end, everyone on the panel was of the consensus that all talk about the Puja of 2020 can realistically resume only when the state comes out of the lock-down. And, of course, nobody can yet foresee the when.

Meanwhile, we are already looking at how some lives and livelihoods at the centre of the artisanal economy sustained by the state’s year-round cycle of Pujas  are facing the brunt of the lockdown. The plight of the idol-makers of Kumartuli has been in the news recently.

The demands for idols from festivals such Annapurna and Basanti Puja, or the Halkhata rituals of Poila Baishakh and Akshay Tritiya that would have sustained them during this month all fell away, as did the orders for fibre-glass Durgas for travelling abroad, which would have been be coming in around March.

For the veteran idol-maker, Pradip Rudra Pal (who also appeared briefly in the ABP Ananda panel), running his own large workshop at Telengabagan, the 65 Durga idols that he has taken on this year are already half-made, when work got suspended five weeks ago.

And he has to arrange for payments for his work force for this period, to ensure that it can return to complete the images. But, if the looming uncertainties of all these seasonal livelihoods and festival trades are a matter of concern, what remained unsaid but bristled all through the television  discussion is another set of anxieties.

These are about the many political pitfalls of a low-key, lacklustre Durga Puja for Mamata Banerjee and the TMC in this crucial pre-election year of the state. 

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Over the two terms of her regime, we have seen the dramatically transformed political career of the Durga Pujas. Not only has ‘Didi’ converted the Durga Pujas into an overtly state sponsored festival and drawn maximum cultural and political mileage out of its Bishwa-Bangla branding.

She has also allowed this master-event to set the template for a year-round cycle of festivities organised by local clubs, which have become the mainstay of her idiom of populist politics. What she has perfected is a festival mode of politics: a mode in which festivities serve as both the surrogate and the performative grounds of the political.

In Bengal’s unending line up of felicitations of its divine and human pantheon – where, for instance,  come the month of January, Vivekananda and Netaji Pujas can seamlessly blend with proliferating Saraswati Pujas in every neighbourhood – Didi’s tryst with Durga is special and deeply personal. Durga is the ‘universal mother’ (‘Biswajanani’) whom she as Bengal’s mother (‘Bangajanani’) now brings to life on Mahalaya morning by the ritual paintings of her eyes, with posters of this act permeating the city.

And hers is the face that most powerfully competes with that of Durga in Puja hoarding after hoarding, and persists through the year on all other government-sponsored event banners – be it the annual Kolkata Film Festival, the FIFA football tournament of 2017, or her new “Didi-ke Bolo” outreach campaigns of 2019. 

Following last summer’s Lok Sabha election debacle, that was a huge slap in the face for her party, Mamata Banerjee used the Durga Pujas of 2019 to greatest effect to gain back much of her lost grounds, keeping at bay both the central and state BJP leadership from this cultural stronghold of her festival.

A wax model of Kolkata mayor Firhad Hakim, as part of the Didi-ke Bolo campaign, at a Khidirpur Durga Puja, 2019. Photo: Tapati Guha Thakurta

The message was loud and clear – it was she and her political team, especially her Muslim city mayor, Firhad Hakim, who stood forth as the best guarantee of the inclusive, non-communal nature of Bengal’s Durga Puja.

She made sure that none of the major Pujas in the city were available for the likes of Amit Shah or Babool Supriyo to inaugurate. But the BJP in Bengal continues to breathe heavily down her neck, and her age-old antagonists, the CPI-M, never misses a chance to hurl stones her way.

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In these pandemic times, as she pitches herself at the forefront of the battle against the killer virus, and as she fights with equal ferocity the slew of charges of the central government of mismanagement and fudged COVID-19 numbers, she will be needing goddess Durga by her side more than ever before.

When will Kolkata’s COVID-19 graph flatten? What will a post-lockdown scenario look like? Among all these unknowable factors, the questions that also need to be asked are – how easily can Didi make a transition to a more austere form of governance, devoid of festivities, large social gatherings and her incessant statue-building and beautification projects? 

Can she politically afford a thinning down of the scale of the Durga Pujas, without forfeiting the grounds that the festival has secured for her?

In what new ways will she continue to mobilise Durga to her aid in fighting her many battles that lie ahead? We will have to wait and watch. 

Tapati Guha-Thakurta is former director and Professor of History, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta. She is also author of In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata (Delhi: Primus Books, 2015).