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Madurai celebrates with one idol

SOMA BASU
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EVENT SOMA BASU on why some things about Durga puja can never change

From the dawn of Mahalaya last Saturday I have been going gooey-eyed listening to Birendra Krishna Bhadra on YouTube. I have grown up listening to his soaring incantations invoking Ma Durga on All India Radio. His recitation of Mahishashura Mardini in baritone voice is something no Bengali would miss. It marks the advent of autumn and the most important annual festival in Bengali calendar celebrated with all pomp and gaiety.

My fondest memories of Durga Puja go back to the years spent in Delhi. We would wake up early in the morning to tune in to the rendition of the shakti chants. Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s booming voice would fill the house. The magic in his voice and power in his delivery kept us glued as we imagined the thin white clouds in crystal blue sky moving like the kash phool on the field to herald sharadotsav.

Our house had one night-flowering jasmine tree in the front compound. The small patch of green underneath the tree would turn white with the shiuli flowers and I and my sister would excitedly go and pick up the flowers till our respective baskets were full. The mild fragrance of the white shiuli flowers would fill up the puja room.

Durga pujo was the time for us kids to show off our new dresses and skills. But there was simplicity in whatever we did and purity in the way pujo was conducted. It was team work. Aunties from the neighbourhood would be at work in the pandal from morning dressed in crisp cotton saris. Every member of the family was involved in some way – whether cutting the fruits or packing the sweets for prasadam, supervising the bhog preparation or distribution, coordinating the various contests and cultural activities. It would be a silent coordinated effort in elegance to make your pujo the best.

The puja pandal became a second home for five days (from Mahasashti to Vijayadashami). Everybody felt important. Everybody was treated equal. Everybody returned happy. That is the power of the Devi, whose blessings we all sought while offering pushpanjali or doing the dhunuchi dance or watching the sandhya aarati to the dhaaki’s (drummer) rhythmic beat. Children would play around with no restrictions or curfew. Moms and dads would chat endlessly. Evenings would glitter with pandals decorated in creative light works and people turning up in colourful dresses. If the sumptuous bhog drew people during the day, food stalls and special counters selling knick-knacks attracted crowd in the evening when the focus also shifted to stage performances and whole night screening of Bengali movies.

Its amazing how nobody felt tired. Little children slept off in the pandal in their parents’ laps and everybody was back the next morning looking fresh, bright and beautiful in a new set of clothes.

The joy of Durga pujo is infectious. It is a sarbojonin puja in the truest sense enticing people from all communities. I lost touch with the celebrations in Madurai. The school my children attend doesn’t close for autumn break. I rarely pick up new dresses now for the season. But I do keep track of the growing number of puja pandals in different places. Kolkata has over 2,000 durga idols and Delhi is close to a thousand. There is competitiveness among pandals which turned theme-based in the 1990s and continues to be a rage. The concept ushered in innovation and experimentation with design and decoration of pandals and idols. But it also scaled up the flamboyance of the event marked by allied commercial activities, corporate sponsorships and massive marketing. Pujas are far away from the quieter these days and many fear the festivity could be on the brink of a cultural backlash.

Are the charm, simplicity and purity of Durga Puja lost? Perhaps not. I can still see the clear blue skies with their fleecy white clouds and the golden shine of the autumn sun. I can still imagine the swivelling of the white kash phool in the autumn breeze. My assorted sentiments have not weakened as I share my childhood Durga puja stories with my children.

There are not too many people from Bengal in Madurai, But a small group of Bengalis have come together to bring goddess Durga to Temple Town. Today (Thursday) evening, which marks mahashashti, the rituals of bodhon will be performed at Patcharisikara Mandapam on South Masi Street. It means awakening of the goddess by unveiling her face.

The Puja Samiti president Soumen Kunti assures there is “no theme pujo here”. “We are celebrating durga pujo in traditional way,” he smiles. “The chaanda (fund) collection is less this year but we are managing for the third consecutive year,” he beams.

My heart goes out to Soumen and his team.

( Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell her about someone you know who is making a difference )

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