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Winning hearts: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during the inauguration of a Durga Puja pandal in South Kolkata this year.   | Photo Credit: PTI

What’s Durga Puja in Kolkata without some controversy?

Some years, it’s about Bengalis eating egg rolls and mutton biryani during Durga Puja. One year it was about a Puja pandal playing the azaan alongside Sanskrit hymns as part of a theme of communal harmony. This year, it’s a pandal in the Dum Dum area that used a heap of slippers to symbolise the farmers’ protest. A lawyer said that as a “Sanatani Hindu” he could not stomach the use of footwear in a Durga Puja pandal while the organisers maintained that the slippers are not inside the mandap. Their aim was to highlight peasant movements across time. A sign at the pandal said “Lakhimpur Kheri, we will not forget you.”

But the controversies are not surprising. Durga Puja has become a political football. In 2017, the Mamata Banerjee government tried to restrict the days of the Durga Puja immersions to avoid clashes with Muharram processions. The court rebuked the government and the opposition BJP got yet another chance to accuse her of being “anti-Hindu”.

Different tunes

“Even Puja is under threat,” Narendra Modi told a rally in Midnapore in 2018. The BJP promised Durga Puja “without hindrance” if it won Bengal. It clearly saw Durga Puja (sans egg rolls) as a way to win Bengali hearts. The BJP’s Mahila Morcha even organised its own Durga Puja in 2020, which Modi inaugurated virtually, with his speech live-streamed to all 294 constituencies in the State. Babul Supriyo, then a Union Minister and a fiery critic of Banerjee, came and sang at that Durga Puja. Not to be outdone, Banerjee announced ₹50,000 for each of the State’s 37,000 clubs that organise Durga Pujas and won brownie points in the Durga-bhakti competition.

The BJP didn’t win and this Puja, the Trinamool Congress put up posters of Banerjee as “ModiShahsurmardini”. Babul Supriyo, currently singing a different tune as part of the Trinamool Congress, helped launch the Chief Minister’s album of songs by blowing into a melodica while Didi worked the keys. The goddess would not have been more surprised if yesterday’s Mahishasur had suddenly become a part of her happy family today.

Brand puja

All this to say that Durga Puja has been well and truly politicised. The Left Front, which had a certain disdain for popular culture and religion, didn’t patronise Durga Pujas wholesale. Banerjee saw the local clubs as a means to cement her hold over the State: supporting their Durga Puja (and all kinds of pujas, for that matter) gave her a chance to play Lady Bountiful and earn their loyalty. She also wrote songs and got famous singers to sing them, turning the old tradition of the Puja album into a political branding exercise.

In Bengal, the goddess and her family are always seen as an extension of your own family. That is what has allowed Bengalis to take what many others sometimes feel are liberties with her. Every year, the cover of the annual Anandamela children’s magazine’s Puja issue portrayed Durga’s family as just another Bengali family (with myriad pets), doing family things together, albeit with one member sporting an elephant head.

That’s what led to Jawed Habib’s hair salon putting out a Puja advertisement showing Ma Durga and her family enjoying a day at the salon as they got ready for the big festival like any other Bengali family. That ad brought the salon chain under troll attack for “disrespecting” Hindu gods and Habib had to apologise on Twitter. In 2019, Habib joined the BJP and the troll vahini also moved onto newer controversies.

Each year Puja means a slew of nostalgic articles about Bengali memories of Durga Puja — the sounds of the Mahalaya radio broadcast seeping through a sleepy dawn, the fields of white kaash flowers as fluffy as clouds in the autumn sky, pandal-hopping into the wee hours of night. But all that nostalgia will not change the fact that some of the old spirit of Durga Puja has been lost not just under the onslaught of giant commercial hoardings for ghee, Hajmola and nighties, but also because it’s become such a political slugfest.

Durga Puja has always tried to reflect the zeitgeist. So it’s no surprise that 2021’s pandals memorialised the pandemic that has wrought so much damage. The Tridhara pandal in South Kolkata put up faux marble plaques marking the names of those lost to COVID, from famous names like Soumitra Chatterjee to the not-so-famous. The Telengabagan pandal depicted an oxygen plant. Another honoured emergency workers. But perhaps these last two years, riddled as they have been with loss, are also an opportunity to reflect on a larger loss — of a certain innocence that once marked Durga Puja.

Sandip Roy, the author of Don’t Let Him Know, likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.


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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 3:00:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/family-drama/article37000908.ece

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