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Durga Puja in Bengal is a celebration as well as political event beyond religion

Will she, won’t she, will she...? Wednesday night passed very slowly for Manab Ranjan Datta, the prime mover of Purba Kalikata Sarbojanin Durgotsav, one of the 4000-odd Durga Pujas held in Kolkata. Never before had a full-fledged caste Hindu prayed so hard for the presence of a demonic Asura, not in this day and age at least.

But then, Datta was in a bind. The moving spirit of his club, the Narikeldanga Sanghati Chakra in north-east Kolkata, which organised the Purba Kalikata Sarbojanin Durgotsav, he had planned for this year’s Puja to be inaugurated by a descendant of Mahishasura himself, the buffalo-demon Durga is supposed to have slain to save the world. Or so her believers would have it.

The celebration of Durga Puja goes beyond religion in Bengal. Reuters

The celebration of Durga Puja goes beyond religion in Bengal. Reuters

Just as members of the Asura tribe, found mostly in Jharkhand but also in Bihar, Assam and parts of north Bengal, implicitly accept that it was their predecessor, a brave warrior, whom Durga had destroyed through deceit and treachery. So much so that the Pujas, the most joyous days in the Bengali calendar, are days of mourning and abstinence for them when they refuse to even see the face of a Durga idol.

So it was quite a coup when Datta was able to announce that a member of that tribe, Sushma Asura from Sukhuapani in the deep interiors of Jharkhand, would be unveiling his club’s goddess on Thursday evening, two days before the official start of the Pujas. The news caused quite a stir in the city.

Shades of the JNU controversy earlier this year do you think, when Smriti Irani let the world know about the Mahishasur Martyrdom Day celebrated by some students in JNU? “May my god forgive me for reading this,” began the then Union Human Resources Minister in Parliament and continued with a poster circulated by these students that read that the Durga Puja “is the most controversial racial festival, where a fair skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasura. Mahishasura, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasura into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning, during sleep.”

“What is this depraved mentality?” she wondered. “I have no answers for it,” she said. And dared her Trinamool critics to discuss this “freedom of speech” in Kolkata.

Smriti Irani could consider a trip to Kolkata in the next few days and pick up some pointers herself. Not just on the endless variety that makes the Hindu religion as practised in India so fascinating but also on why it’ll be a long time before Bengal is ripe for the picking for the BJP.

For whatever else, the Pujas may be – and there are enough people to lecture one and all that they are a huge waste of money, large-scale squandering of resources in a state that has little enough to begin with, dissipation of energy and enthusiasm that could and should be put to better use, etc etc – they really have very little to do with religion per se.

Rather, it is one big party that is supposed to be for four days but thanks to the benevolence of Mamata Banerjee now goes on for anything from a week to ten days. Offices are closed, restaurants are open, people of all ages are out on the streets in their fineries, gamely limping along in their new, ill-fitting shoes, revelries go on through the night, but the act of worship barely gets a look-see in the whole exercise.

Yes, the goddess, her four children complete with their transport, are on display in full grandeur in lavishly decorated temporary structures called pandals (a word that does not seem to be in any English dictionary) that crop up on every other road but the ritual of worship is at most limited to an anjali or a mass offering of flowers to the accompaniment of the priest’s chanting one morning and watching spellbound the aarti in the evening which is anyway spectator sport at its best with its pyrotechnics and frenzied beating of drums and clouds of coloured smoke.

The Puja organisers see their role more as stage managers or maybe art directors than as holy men, arranging for attention-grabbing pandals and idols that will bring in the crowds, get them their 15 seconds of fame on television and maybe win them one of the innumerable awards that every company, small and big, dishes out these days for any and everything, from decor to cleanliness to eco-friendliness to sheer novelty value.

Themes are the name of the game, each Puja centred around a theme of its choice, ranging from tribal art to Rajasthani folk dance to south Indian temples, Odisha handicraft, wish fulfilment, auto ancillaries, you name it, you will see it in the pandals here.

So divorced from religion are the Pujas, so social the occasion that Mamata Banerjee can bend over backwards to “appease” the Muslims and yet be most sought after as an inaugurator, have theme songs written by her sung in pandals and accept with equanimity idols fashioned in her image. There are several Durgas this year who look like Mamata Banerjee, the real-life demon slayer.

So secular are the Pujas that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has at last woken up to their usefulness as a medium of mass contact.

An artisan paints an idol of mythological demon Mahisasura ahead of the Durga Puja festival. Reuters

An artisan paints an idol of mythological demon Mahisasura ahead of the Durga Puja festival. Reuters

“Durga Puja will no longer be off-limits, comrades can be part of Puja organising committees,” announced a state secretariat member at the end of the CPI(M)’s two-day plenum in Kolkata on 1 October. “Direct religious activities” such as aarti and anjali could still be no-nos but “relatively secular trysts such as overseeing the construction of pandals, getting official clearances and collection of subscriptions could be allowed”.

In its heyday, the CPI(M)’s only public brush with religion was restricted to setting up stalls outside the bigger Puja pandals to sell Left literature and Soviet publications – and they sold too.

Purba Kalikata Sarbojanin Durgotsav of the Narikeldanga Sanghati Chakra is not one of the major Pujas of the city. Situated in an area that is still lower to lower middle class Bengali, it is neither rich nor glamorous. It has no A-list patrons though second-ranking Trinamool leaders have been gracing it for the last few years.

Getting an Asura was one way of breaking the mould, of getting their place under the sun. Accordingly, the pandal has been decorated with rows of figurines of tribal men and women in traditional costume bearing traditional arms ranged along the walls behind flickering flames wrought with plastic and electric lights – not the most artistic representation of tribal life one has to say.

Still, everything was set to welcome Sushma Asura, one of the few tribals who could speak in Hindi, to their humble abode. She was supposed to board the train from Ranchi on Wednesday night to reach Kolkata on Thursday morning where she would be staying for four days.

But the last few days had been giving sleepless nights to Manab Datta. The news from Asura land was not good. An Asura coming to inaugurate their Puja had got the publicity they had wanted but it had also reached distant Jharkhand and Sushma was threatened with a social boycott by her fellow Asuras if she dared to celebrate an occasion that is one of the saddest in their lore.

Wednesday found Datta on tenterhooks. Would she get on to the train that night or wouldn’t she? Was she coming or wasn’t she? Calls to Sushma’s cell phone went unanswered all day. Her phone was either switched off or out of reach.

Thursday dawned hazy and muggy with no Sushma Asura in sight. Tribal custom had prevailed over the bright lights of the big city.

Manab Datta was disappointed but not shattered. Sushma Asura would have been the showpiece for sure but she was never the real chief guest. That was reserved for Trinamool leader and MP Mukul Roy who duly did the honours on Thursday evening with suitable pomp and ceremony.

Finally, party politics is what goes for religion in Bengal and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. Only the very foolish would try to replace it with a real religion.

Updated Date: Oct 07, 2016 09:37 AM

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