The dhakis are back.
To writers around the world, solitude and quiet are the best catalysts to thought. But if you’ve been in Kolkata in your teens, the sound of the vociferous, cheerful, commanding drumstick on the dhaki throws open the dam of thoughts and emotions in one flourish. And so it is, that a cheerful contemplation always begins at this time of the year…
It’s in the news. The famous Maddox square Park Pandal, given the pandemic, won’t be hosting its usual puja this season, and it’s somewhat difficult to digest that. Nostalgia strikes with the news. The Maddox pandal is a decades-old collecting spot for families and friends out on evening pandal visiting sprees, and came to be the Puja-season’s equivalent of a campus. Calcutta’s families, couples, literary elite and aspiring literary elite and students from across college campuses spent many an idyllic hour on the wooden dais and surrounding lawns of the Puja. Many a college-activity and social debate has taken place there, and like all good things festive-like, the Maddox puja had begun to host a DJ and singer with giant stage apparatus in the last years, making the post-8pm festivities like a rock concert. The Maddox, over the years, has become endeared to a host of culturally, intellectually, and ambitiously different people, and like most of the Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata, bears a distinct personality- made of the visitors, rituals, legacy and location of the pandal.
One of those years, a few debater friends of ours had parked themselves on the lawns. The Goddess was bearing witness to their useless rants on Bengali politics, when a sage-like priest joined us after the crowd thinned, and in his chat with us, took us down interesting arterial lanes of trivia.
The story goes that Mahisasur, the Buffalo Demon, would wreak havoc on Earth. In response, the gods created Durga, a young goddess with divine powers, and a weapon in each of her 16 hands, embodying goodness, enlightenment, womanhood. Her ushering in on Mahalya, the second day of the lunar month of Ashwin’s rising moon half, also commemorates Lord Rama’s invocation of the Goddess before he went into battle; and marks her return to her maternal home. Festivities last nine days, with a symbolic slaying of the Demon by Durga, and of Ravan by Rama, and preparations last months.
The rituals at Maddox still used the traditional daker saj to dress the deity. In many traditional family-organized pujas, the ladies of the organizing family honour a long-standing tradition and still dye the sarees worn by the clay model of the Goddess Durga, and decorate them with a hand-made zari (brocade). Elsewhere, intricate cuts are made on shola, white cork or pith. Coloured foil is used, called daker saj because the foil (saj) was earlier imported via post (dak) from abroad. The puja at Maddox follows the most elaborate rituals, and the sthapana (installation) of the deity lasts many hours, as do the evening aartis each day, that attract many-a Kolkatan to the wide Maddox Park.
The first Durga puja on record was by Bhabananda, ancestor of the Maharaja of Nadia, in the early 1600s. It was a private affair in the halls of their palace. In Calcutta, the oldest puja dates back to 1610 puja by Sabarna Choudhury, and apparently still goes on unperturbed. A plaque at the Bindeshwaritala shrine dates the first non-elite family puja back to the 1168 Saka, or 1761 AD at Guptipara, where legend has it that 12 angry youth, prevented from attending the local elite household puja, formed a committee that held the first community puja, beginning a long tradition of the ‘committee’, now, of course, hijacked by the political connotation, and purpose of it. These pujas came to be known at baroari (twelve friends), till the word sarbojanin was used instead by the Indian National Congress that organized a puja in 1910. The celebration was a nationalist forum in religious guise; a pledge of national solidarity was taken, with the country metaphorized as the goddess. Soon, the lathi khela, yoga and drills were added to denote strength and attract more people to the pandals, and swadeshi goods sold in the adjacent stalls. Martial arts from jujitsu to karate were added after Independence. Many books, communist literature the most popular, were displayed alongside the pandals. The puja became a fair of sorts.
A longer rewind lands the listener to a time when the urban mercantile aristocracy founded the family puja at Shoba bazar Raj. A rich tradition of business and entertainment began.
After winning the Battle of Plassey in 1775, Robert Clive, iconic head of the British forces, wanted a grand thanksgiving service, but the only church in the area had been destroyed in the war. So, his munshi suggested that, to appease the locals, Clive go to the Devi Durga instead. In agreement, Clive came to the Shoba bazar Raj (it’s still called the ‘Company Puja’ by some of us), and the number of sahibs attending it was a metric for prestige soon. A grand tradition of high-profile visitors and Anglicized entertainment started. English entertainment, wine and dance was provided to the guests.
As sophomores, we’d set out on the streets deep into the arterial lanes in Gariahat and Salt Lake, and an unmatched revelry for friends, groups and partners lies in the dhunuchi smoke, splintering drum beats and excited chatter of dressed-up crowds along the rows of shops and counters set up across the streets. In lonely, temporarily better-lit alleys adjoining the main pandal streets, and across crowded pandals, the low whispers and shouts of friends and timeless shopping, walks, food, fair and changing inter-dynamics flow into the wee hours of the morning, and the formative bonds of many youth. The troupe you’re with as you ‘pandal-hop’ is somewhat a cultural reflection of those you’re comfortable sharing escapades of lost lanes, new food, best festivities and the longest holidays of the year with. Deep in the by-lanes crossing Tridhara’s iconic pandal, we’d lose our way one year and end up in unassuming, smaller, local pandals on empty streets that rarely got listed officially in the piles of magazines and pamphlets that begin to print the ‘places to go to this Puja’ weeks before the festivities begin. One such pandal bore a fascinating Durga, set in the backdrop theme of international peace, with the UN and Amnesty logos, and a globe and olive branch sprinkled around the pandal.
The subarnanaiks or gold merchants were prominent Puja organizers. Among them, the Dattas of Thanthania were financiers to the iconic Jardine Skinner and Company, the sole agent for textiles, and for tea for J. Thomas and Company. In their heyday, they invented the double tangle baling machine, also importing the fabric for the old red turbans of the Calcutta police.
Staunch Vaishnav’s, they hesitated in worshipping the warrior goddess, so a more pacifist deity was moulded, with the Goddess’ four children modelled around her, and the entire family on the back of Lord Shiva’s bull. The puja conforms to the detailed, orthodox writings of the Nandikeshwar Purana, and the offerings of rice and accessories here, never diminish from the stipulation in the scriptures. It was a rare depiction of Durga, and set off something of a trend in pacifist deity-modelling. Today, this Calcutta festival is a bulwark of creativity in the untrained, unorganized artisan, a mixture of devotee and artist, with even the smallest of pandals using mirrors, plants, brocade and shells to make architectural distinctions, and social media, feminism and corruption as modern-day themes for the inner recluse and long decorated, LED light-enabled approaches to the pandals. Over the years, it has grown to be Calcutta’s annual festival of expression, and Kumartulli works round the year to produce the finest clay structures of Durga and her family. On one of our escapades, we landed up at the regal FD Block pandal in Salt Lake, attracted by a dome covered in giant-size Facebook ‘like’ buttons, Gmail logos, Twitter icons and the like, its top visible from many streets away. It landed us in another of the many fairs – with food and stalls and ideas- that Salt Lake is host to as it boasts its sprawling outdoor parks. It is known: Durga herself has adapted with the times, and the Maa comes in all avatars of women empowerment, education, traditional, modern and domestic. An important surviving puja is the Shimla Bayam Samiti on Vivekananda Road, started by a nationalist group from the 1920’s, where Subhash Chandra Bose inaugurated a 20-ft tall deity modelled by Nitai Pal in the 1930s.
Any government hoping to last the year knows well to manage the electricity and law-enforcement supply and allocation of the city in this week of puja with exquisite care, and power cuts disappear at this time, with innovative, varying sizes of bulbs used liberally in pandals at every corner of the enormous city (with some pandals made entirely of bulbs). Lighting needs for pandals and the thousand-odd entertainment programs stretch across most of the nine days and nights. Some encourage very elaborate illuminations, and with pleated stretched, designer cloth over gazebo structures replacing the old bamboo ones in the city’s posher residential localities’; and light and sound shows that last into the next morning, a late departure from the topla reeds, and tarpaulin.