Appropriating the goddess

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the inauguration of Durga puja at Bosepukur Sitala Mandir puja pandal in Kolkata in 2014.   | Photo Credit: PTI

October may not be the best of months to visit Bengal, when the mother of all goddesses, Durga, descends. The blaring music, the tonnes of garbage, >round-the-clock coverage of pandals by television channels, the chaotic traffic — there are several reasons to feel cynical about Puja, the nine-day festival celebrating the goddess’ victory over the demon Mahisasura. Many complain that Durga Puja is not driven by devotion “any more” but by pure commercial interests. However, it has always been a celebration of pomp since the modern-day Durga Puja was discovered by the big land owners who introduced the festival to the Bengalis. In recent years, particularly after the victory of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2011, the Puja has seen the twinning of politics and commerce on an unprecedented scale.

At the core of this are mega-competitions, where each Puja committee competes for awards — a rivalry that has transformed the festival into an “industry.”

Suvojit Bagchi
A 2013 report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) claimed that despite a slowdown in the economy, the size of the “Durga Puja industry is about Rs 25,000 crore and likely to touch Rs. 40,000 crore by 2015 with a growth of 35 per cent per annum.” There is, of course, scope for error in any such estimates, but even if the actual revenues were only a third of the estimates, Durga Puja would still be the largest money-spinner of Bengal.

But what attracts big brands to a cash-strapped market during the Puja?

“Two reasons,” explained Dipankar Chatterjee, National Council member of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). “Bengal may not be a manufacturing hub, but is a huge consumer base with a robust appetite for fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs). So, money may not be flowing-in to promote high-value products but for FMCGs.” The other factor is promotion of the Puja as the “Christmas of the East.” “People come from eastern India or Bangladesh. So, the best time to pitch or brand a product is during the Puja and also in the city to catch eyeballs,” Mr Chatterjee concluded.

Politics at the pandal

Political parties realised the potential of ‘holy-nexus’ between brands and Puja — traditionally organised by neighbourhood men’s and boy’s clubs — but no one latched on to the festival the way TMC did. The TMC, however, had an advantage, unlike its predecessor, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M]. During the freedom movement, many clubs were patronised by “militant political groups” which were mostly aligned with the Congress in later years to control many Pujas, especially the major Durga and Kali festivals. The TMC, a by-product of the Congress, was culturally close to these clubs with millions of unemployed men as members. With the eclipse of the CPI (M) and its local committees, the TMC started organising managing these men.

Now, almost every big Puja is headed by one of TMC’s Dadas (elder brothers) — as >the Puja organised by Urban Development Minister, a Dada of Chetla area in the south, rivals that of the Dada of Behala, the Education Minister, who headed 28 Puja committees in 2015. The mega-budget pujas, led by leaders, create temporary employment opportunities like a home-grown “industry”.

The CPI(M) though it had realised the potential of the puja “industry”, was hesitant to go the whole hog. While some of the leaders resisted the party’s “whip” to associate with pujas, the CPI(M)’s top management maintained a calculated distance due to “ideological reasons.”

The TMC has no such ideology but rather “a compulsion,” said a now-sidelined TMC MP. “We did not have local committees like the CPI(M) to engage boys, but needed one and the best way to do it was through pujas and Puja committees,” he said. The Puja Committees and the neighbourhood clubs are like two sides of a coin and thus it was mandatory for the TMC to win them over as they were mostly aligned with the CPI (M). A recent book, In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata by historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta explains how the TMC won over these clubs.

“The sharply transformed political life of the festival finds manifestation in newer scales of Didi’s [Mamata Banerjee’s] largesse and licenses — as she doled out pre-Puja donations to local clubs, waived at will corporation regulations and taxes over commercial hoardings, made it mandatory for various municipal departments to sponsor ten Pujas in the city and one Puja each in the district,” writes Guha-Thakurta.

Real estate link

The role of the local building promoters and land-grabbers, the second line of donors, is also significant. Several instances indicate that promoters used their access to the leaders, which they ostensibly gained by funding various pujas, to grab land. Rajan Sarkar (name changed), a small businessman in the Behala Bakultala area in south Kolkata, said he has been “forced to sell his land at one-third the market price” to promoters, who funded the local Puja. Members of at least three clubs in south Kolkata told The Hindu that there is “huge pressure” on them to vacate the land adjacent to their clubs. The president of one of the club’s said promoters had offered a sum of “[Rs.]two crore” to acquire the land parcel. Many of these promoters are close to the ruling party’s councillors or MLAs.

The issue is more acute outside Kolkata. A study in Birbhum district by a social activist Kunal Deb, who runs an NGO, Uthnao, states: “Dozens of goddesses, who were earlier worshipped at home — Olai Chondi (to prevent Cholera), Itu (for prosperity) — are now worshipped by young men. They raise funds every month or every week lack of jobs in industry and agriculture (are) the reasons for extortion in the name of donation.” However, the report adds a caveat: “The TMC is not surviving by only micro-managing pujas…Mamata Banerjee is still the undisputed leader in the State.” No wonder that she was invited by more than 3000 organisers to inaugurate pujas across Bengal and Ms Banerjee obliged nearly 10 per cent, knowing that this would be the last Puja before the 2016 Assembly polls.

The TMC’s hijacking of the goddess would have been still considered a non-issue if half of Kolkata did not grind to a halt days before the Puja. The Deshapriya Park Puja committee flouted norms to raise an 88 foot-high idol in the open, though the High Court has set a 40-feet limit for pandals, assuming idols will always remain inside the structures. The organisers, aided by their key sponsor, Star Cement, advertised that they had installed the world’s “largest idol” and the high profile campaign led to huge crowds, bringing traffic to a standstill.

Since the organiser of the Puja is the brother of one the most powerful politicians of south Kolkata, Debasish Kumar, the administration seems to have no other choice but to overlook the violations. Mr. Kumar is in-charge of Parks and Gardens in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and Deshapriya Park, where the “largest idol” was raised, is, incidentally, the most prominent park in south Kolkata. Mr. Kumar explained that it is a “neighbourhood Puja” and thus there was “a compulsion” for him to be involved in it.

Such ‘compulsion’ from >Birbhum to Deshapriya Park is generating positive results for the TMC in successive elections. The leaders have done well, for the time being, to harness the most demanding but productive of the forces, the youth brigade, to monitor and manage the neighbourhood, especially the lower and mid-lower income areas. The CPI (M) achieved a similar objective using party’s programmes. The TMC’s strategy is expected to work till someone makes inroads into the puja industry which does not seem likely in the near future.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 7:21:16 AM |

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