Durga Puja: Past and present

First published in Different Truths, October 2020

যে দিকে তাকাই সোনার আলোয়

দেখি যে ছুটির ছবি,

পূজার ফুলের বনে ওঠে ওই

পূজার দিনের রবি।

Whichever way I gaze, a golden haze

Mesmerises with dreams of holidays.

The festive floral forest invokes

A glorious gala sunrise.

That is an attempt at translating Tagore’s poem describing the puja season, which is perhaps the biggest festival for Hindu Bengalis all over the world. For us, during our childhood, it heralded a time of celebrations. There would be a cold nip in the air and whiffs of jasmine and madhabilata(Rangoon creeper), and a haze of festivities.

Durga Puja, was quintessentially a time when families got together and celebrated an annual community event, met with friends and relatives and had a whopping good time, which included new clothes for those who could afford. Food, festivities and fun punctuated with fasting before the offering of flowers or pushpanjali every morning. Multiple Durga puja pandals were set up all over town. We patronised one but went pandal hopping to see all the pujas.

Other than appreciating the ornate statues of the Goddess with her family in each pandal, we bought and savoured seasonal delicacies in the temporary stalls that cropped up around the community celebrations.  These celebrations were open to all and sundry without any charges and I have never been able to adjust to the fact that often overseas celebrations outside of India restrict visitors by imposing monetary charges. These overseas festivities to me never quite capture what I found in my childhood. They create only a shadow, but it is never the real thing, I feel.

The reality of those days still stays seeped in my bones and spirit. Every evening, there were drummers who played this huge drum, called dhak, amidst the incense and crowds. In the evenings, people danced to dhak, in front of the goddess with incense, dhoonochi nritya. Then there were entertainment shows in the pandal. Most had fun watching the evening and the late-night programmes that were to an extent performed by amateurs, our friends and neighbours. Some of the performances would be by artistes invited all the way from Bengal.

The other event that happens parallel to the puja is Dussehera. Dussehera is a north Indian celebration of Rama’s killing the evil king Ravana, who with his ten heads ruled the island of Lanka (Sri Lanka). Interestingly Rama also prayed to the Goddess Durga to help him defeat Ravana. Ram Lila, a performance of the story of Rama’s life, were performed all over town adding to the chaos of festivities. Sometimes, followers of Rama would drop in to watch our festivities and occasionally, we would trickle over to watch the fun of amateur Ram Lila productions. These performances of the life of Rama ranged from the elaborate and exclusive hosted by exclusive dance troupes, often based on Indian classical forms, to those performed by amateurs. The puja programmes, I remember were often interrupted in Delhi with loud music from amateur Ram Lila performances within the same park. The Durga puja we attended was held in a huge community park. The two blaring microphones of Ram Lila and Durga Puja coexisted without major outbreaks of intolerance exhibited by any of the parties. When, I think of it, I wonder is it still the same? I have not been to such celebrations for almost the last three decades because we moved out of India.

Durga Puja is an old — very old — tradition. No one is quite clear about the origins of the festivities other than that it started in West Bengal. Some myths link it to Rama’s invocation around this time and to the legend of Mahisasur. It probably started somewhere around the late 1500s.

For us, the advent of the season was heralded a few weeks before the real five-day-long event, on the day of Mahalaya, when we appeased our forefathers with offerings and prayers, much like other cultures do on days like All Souls Day or the Qingming festival. Mahalaya trumpets the start of the Puja season. We children were told Durga started her descent to Earth with her family on this day. This event, in those days, meant listening to the famous rendition of Mahisasur Mardini by Birendra Krishna Bhadra, a legend unto himself. We would wake up at 4 am and sit glued to the radio — I must say I did try to get my forty winks in too but never quite managed. The music was powerful.  The lyrics and the rendition still bring tears to my eyes with its majesty. It strengthens. It heals. It emboldens. To me, Durga was the all-powerful, the ultimate female force. She was given weapons by each God and Goddess, to destroy the demon Mahisasur.

Birendra Bhadra’s rendition ingrained her immensity into our systems. The festivities, which lasted five days for us, gave me an assurance that women were powerful enough to battle all evils and win without losing their femininity. For, the statue that was made was of a ten handed Goddess who not only rode a lion to destroy Mahisasur but also nurtured her children and lived in harmony. For me, this myth was so powerful and impactful that I could not then and still cannot comprehend how women see themselves as helpless. That is more after more than half a century of my Earthly existence. For almost thirty years, I have not heard Birendra Bhadra’s rendition as we live in time zones different from his home. I hear snatches of it in the daytime or evening but never in the way I listened to it as a child.

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