The clay figurines are made in Kumartulli, with the party of the second part’s clientele extending to the US, UK and Africa’s Indian diaspora, and shola pith, clay and recyclable deity figurines a hit on these shores. Many private pujas bank on Chanadannagar and Burdwan for their deities, and an entire industry of folk bank on the orders in turn, processing them around the year.
Calcutta’s tryst with its mid-20th century North Indian merchant immigrants made sure a small caucus of tangentially close culture of Rajasthan exists in every festival. One year, we’d landed up at a friend’s quintessential, fascinating Marwari puja, and the mercantile family, worshipped along with Chandan-decorated piles of red-cloth covered files that contained the annual accounts of their business, install the Amba devi deity, and business folk, friends, aspiring friends and extended family flock to the courtyard of the palatial household, absorbing an entire community’s worth of revelry in its nine-days of garba. The Dandiya raas (dance), with its concentric dance floor and couple and group dances, is a nuanced tradition urban India has romanticized well over the years, and many a-friend from Calcutta travels to Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Vadodara and Jaipur in couples and families for an evening at the famous open lawns, where popular artistes dole out garba songs in Gujarati to the dancing congregation of thousands, dressed in the typical, heavy, flowing ghagra-cholis. Life is different for the Navratri worshippers in Western and South-Western India, where the flamboyant garba stage, smoke stages and couples’ march dandiya is telecast live for all nine days of the festivities. Many a third-generation immigrant in Kolkata has fuse their taste with the locals, and a mix of the cultures reflect in a walk down Calcutta’s lanes on Mahanabomi.
A little away from the many distinct pandals and night-time frolic and food feasts of Salt Lake’s three dozen localities is the famed Swabhumi dandiya celebration. On the occasion that we happened to land up there, a separate dandiya and freestyle-disco seemed to have been made for dancers, and crowds of Sandhya-aarti worshippers crowd there after the evening’s worship concludes, exploring the frolicking side to them. With altercations with street ruffians, evening aartis, the echoing dhakis, brightly lit up night time streets and feasts of street food vendors extending across the pavements, and innocuous police chases, many of our tales hide in the memory lanes outside Swabhumi.
In this fusion of cultural experiences lies Calcutta.
But non-conformist protest and altercations are in the fabric of the event. Rani Rasmani of Jan Bazar owned hundreds of bighas of land in Calcutta, and would celebrate the event with much pomp, including all-night music festivals (jatras). A European sahib once complained about the noise, and the next day, the Rani would take out an even noisier procession along the street built by her family. Traffic was blocked for hours, and the Rani, owning many of the arterial lanes, was allowed to sell the lanes and road to the frustrated government. It led to the contemplation of an early licensing protocol for all music-enabled processions.
On Mahasaptomi, hundreds of the nine chosen plants bound in the shape of the female, signifying the nine female powers, are released into the river, a derivate of an Indus Civilisation agricultural practice.
Google Maps is helpless and unhelpful at this time of the year, and we’d often lose our way into the roads; a prompter guide-like member of the group often walking ahead into the distance, lost in the maze of low-ceiling, sheltered shanties on the pavements and bustling, jostling crowds with sindoor and smoke stains on them. The thought of parting segues to a queer resonance with the present, where old friends now across continents, celebrate and re-connect differently in the pandemic puja, reminiscing over these old days. Bijaya Dashami, the final day of the celebrations, absorbs and answers the parting thoughts, and a grand farewell, in recent years turned into a major, organized display of the immersion of listed idols into the Ganges by the Chief Minister, begins with the carrying, atop lorries, of the pandal-deity to the riverside. Kailash Kher and Tagore’s polarly different songs float out from the attached music systems, and some traditional households release a nilkantha or roller bird, Sacred to the Lord Shiva, towards Mount Kailash, to tell the god of his wife’s imminent return to her home.
With cries of ‘Jai Ma Durga’, the images are rowed midstream and immersed. Earlier, a second roller bird would fly back to the house where the festivities had happened, to inform the organizers of the safe departure of the deity.
Calcutta’s festive spirit is hit by the confusions of the pandemic and fuelled by the election year, for a satisfactory celebration in many parts of the city decides the aftertastes of the local leaders’ work.
But the economy and polity of the city, so inextricably linked to the Puja, are reflected most in the lakhs of workers in rural Bengal and Assam, that clamour, negotiate and gratifyingly get their bonus wages for the year from corporate paymasters. The teeming unorganized sector that drove Calcutta’s last great demographic change (Next Section) in the 1930s, and truly govern the city, are more affected, and are back out to collect their share of bonuses from the pre-pandemic customers and clients, like the grocer at my gate. He’s smiling like nothing changed, waiting at the door. A reverie that this writing induced breaks when I see him. There’s a world’s worth more of ideas that the Puja unlocks, but some musings must remain unwritten, for the future penury of private memories is too high a cost for a good writing.
The grocer’s spirit, with dangers of sounding like a Christmas-parallel, is simple: The world’s greatest festival has burgeoned and metamorphosed over the years, and will continue to. Pandemic or no pandemic, the resonance, revelry and reverence of Durga Puja cries out its greetings with the iconic slogan that promises it’s return the next year: Aschhe Bochhor Abar Hobe.