Durga Puja in the time of COVID: Kolkata's sarbojanik pandals must keep out the faithful, for community's welfare

Durga Puja is not just a time of revelry, the climax of Kolkata’s cultural calendar. It’s also a huge economic high point.

Sandip Roy October 21, 2020 09:04:14 IST
Durga Puja in the time of COVID: Kolkata's sarbojanik pandals must keep out the faithful, for community's welfare

In a normal year, Durga Puja begins a week after Mahalaya, the day the ancestors are honoured. 2020 is anything but a normal year. The inauspicious Mala Maash, a month with two new moons, commenced right after Mahalaya on 17 September. Durga Puja had to wait till Mala Maash ended a month later.

The joke went that the Goddess Durga had left Mount Kailash as usual with her family but in a year of COVID it’s just taken them longer to get here. Hence the unseasonal gap. Now it seems thanks to the Calcutta High Court, the Goddess will be in home quarantine inside her pandal.

The Calcutta High Court has decreed that visitors will not be allowed into the Puja pandals. Visitors must be 5-10 metres away depending on the pandal size and only a predetermined set of organisers can be in the pandal proper. Puja Corona is shaping up to be “Puja koro na” according to local wags.

But the jokes mask the hard truth that the tussle between life and livelihood has no easy answers.

Durga Puja is not just a time of revelry, the climax of the city’s cultural calendar. It’s also a huge economic high point. A 2013 Assocham report estimated it at Rs 25,000 crore and growing at 35 percent CAGR. Durga Puja pandal theme designer Anirban Pandalwala says 30 percent of the state’s GDP is in some way linked to Durga Puja. “One puchkawala pays Rs 20,000 to book a street food stall during Durga Puja,” he says. “Can you imagine how much money is riding on the festival? For some people it’s an indulgence, for others it is a livelihood.” “If Durga Puja were an industry it would be certainly one of the most dominant in (West Bengal) after agriculture,” says Abhishek Addy of Walmart.

Durga Puja in the time of COVID Kolkatas sarbojanik pandals must keep out the faithful for communitys welfare

It’s not surprising that the state government has tried to have its Puja sandesh and eat it too. They want the Puja to happen but they also don’t want to be responsible for an infection spike. The government gave out Rs 50,000 to each community Puja but at the same time demanded the pujas be masked, sanitised and socially distanced.

The Calcutta High Court clearly thinks that in practical terms this just will not fly. They have good reason to think so: The last few days of Puja shopping saw thousands of people jostling and shopping like it was still 2019. The social distancing markers on the ground in local markets have long faded. The coronavirus curve in Kolkata, which had started dropping in early September, started shooting up after Mahalaya as the Puja shopping picked up in the malls. Kolkata already has over 90 percent bed occupancy at private hospitals and fresh COVID-19 cases in Bengal have consistently crossed 3,000 over the last month.

That Mamata Banerjee is worried is clear from her rather muted reaction to the court verdict. She simply said, “We will stay indoors and watch the Puja virtually because of the pandemic”. With the BJP making an all-out push for the state elections scheduled for 2021 and always eager to try and cast Mamata Banerjee as a “minority appeasement” politician, the last thing Didi wants to be known as, is the Chief Minister who cancelled Durga Puja. The government might secretly be relieved that the court has taken the decision out of its hands, although the Forum for Durgotsav might move the High Court saying the order will be too difficult to implement this late. One indeed wishes the ruling had come earlier instead of three days before the Pujas.

Durga Puja in the time of COVID Kolkatas sarbojanik pandals must keep out the faithful for communitys welfare

It will be challenging to enforce. Thousands of people will still hit the streets whether or not they can go into the pandals. If the city has over 350 clubs and 1,200 Pujas (close to 3,000 if one counts private Pujas at home) there’s no way it has the police manpower to both do traffic control and play Puja pandal monitor. In fact while Pujas had been scaled down even before the court order, the Central Association of Private Security Industry in Bengal tells the Times of India that the demand for private security guards has gone up nearly 30 percent. That says something about the surreal times we live in — we need fewer priests, more guards. But in the end, to be truly successful, discipline and restraint will have to come from within, it cannot be imposed by court order.

Some Puja organisers have led the way long before the Calcutta High Court weighed in — and not just with "Durga slaying the Corona Mahisasur" themes. Mandira Kar with the renowned Santosh Mitra Square Puja told a television channel that they were closing their Puja off to outsiders. Instead they had come up with a new slogan: Hentey Noy, Netey Dekhun (This time see the Puja on the net, not on foot). Maddox Square has cancelled its famous adda sessions in the park to cut down on crowds. The bigger Pujas have all gone online. Pandalwala says he had designed the floor painting — alpana — in such a way that the alpana markings themselves have become a way to enforce social distancing.

While Puja pandals once prided themselves on snaking queues to get inside, this year many of them have built pandals so that the images are visible from the street itself. The Pujas had already been shrunk down anyway — idols that used to be 14-15 feet tall are now 5-6 feet high, says Jaydeep Mukherjee of Meghadutam Foundation, which has been promoting Durga Puja as an international tourism and cultural attraction for a decade. Mukherjee has brought in international bloggers and journalists to judge the best Pujas with awards like “Soulful Creation” and “Signature Creation” and “Exquisite Idol”. This year that entire award ceremony will move online at ijaward.com.

Durga Puja in the time of COVID Kolkatas sarbojanik pandals must keep out the faithful for communitys welfare

Even the smaller house Pujas that exist outside the ambit of the court orders have changed the way they will operate. Chandreyee Chatterjee says her home Puja has drawn up a roster so that all family members do not all crowd in every day. Some will come on Saptami, some on Ashtami and so forth. “We are trying to have a maximum of 5-6 people around every day,” she says. “We usually have family and friends come to eat and celebrate with us but we’ve asked people not to come this time.” Instead of 4-5 priests they are only using one. Usually someone is hired to come and cook the community bhog feast, but this year family members will take on that task. She admits the Puja will feel “completely different” this year but says “it’s something that we have to do if we are socially conscious”.

It is difficult to keep up a state of socially conscious hypervigilance but as a social media post sharing the picture of a smiling Kolkata doctor who just died from COVID-19 reminds us, we still pay a steep price for the pleasure of reveling in festivals, football trophies and political gatherings. Dr Priya Shree was only 29.

The neighbourhood Pujas of Kolkata are called sarbojonin pujas, celebrations for the larger community as opposed to Pujas in private homes and mansions . The word sarbojonin has become a cliche, a word added by default to Puja titles without thinking about what it truly means. The pandemic has forced the state and courts to think long and hard about what it means to put the community first in a sarbojonin puja. Ironically it seems the best way to keep the community safe during a pandemic is to not allow it inside the sarbojonin puja pandal.

It just adds a special poignancy to the chant that accompanies the end of every Durga Puja in the city — Aasche bochhor aabaar hobey (Next year it will happen again). There is always next year.

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