“Maa chole gelo (Maa has gone)?” asked a toddler, looking up at his mother with sadness in his eyes. He was barely four, sitting with his family on the white cloth-draped chairs as the last float went past. The mother looked down and smiled.“Hein re baba, kintu bhabishna. Abar ashben porer bochor (Yes but don’t worry, she will come next year again),” she said as dhaak beats over the loudspeakers put up all over Red Road blared for the last time. As I overheard the conversation, I suddenly realised that the little boy was right. It was over. The madness, the rush akin to too much sugar consumption, the celebrations; it was done for this season.
Durga Puja in Bengal is unique, one of its kind in the world really. A year of preparations, months of hard work to create the beautiful pandals and idols, five days of celebrations coupled with an insane energy that pulsates through the people of the state, sleeplessness and an orgy of street food it all came to a grand end on Red Road on October 3 when the West Bengal government’s immersion carnival captured imaginations world wide.
Starting from Fort William to the immersion ghat on the banks of the Hooghly, 61 idols, the most popular in the city and districts, sashayed down the kilometre long stretch which looked decked in bridal finery. Over 50,000 in attendance and over five million joining in virtually, the three hours of decadence was nothing short of spectacular. As the chief minister Mamata Banerjee greeted organisers and people involved with a smile on her face, it’s her all need to thank. After all, it’s her initiative, second year running, which has put Bengal on the tourist map world wide.
Imagine Disneyworld and the Rio carnival, add elements of Mardi Gras and the celebrations at Tenerife with unique artistic and creative Maa Durga idols on massive floats, each decorated with themes pertaining to today’s reality - education, Indian diversity and communal harmony among others; laar paar shada saree (traditional white sarees with red borders) draped quintessential Bengali women; intricately-designed kurta-wearing and dhunuchi-bearing gentlemen; children performing traditional Indian dances and skits – does that give you a glimpse of the celebrations that erupted on the final day of the revelry? It’s that time of the year when one must visit Kolkata to witness the celebrations first hand. Words don't do justice to the feeling that underlies it all.
I found my seat much before the scheduled start of the carnival but realised people had been arriving well before noon! Having seen the initial bamboo frames being built on either side of Red Road from Chaturthi (fourth day after Mahalaya), come D Day, it was a massive transformation. The stands were draped in blue and white with each supporting pole beautifully decorated with green leaves. Durga Puja and art made of little lights (originally by artisans from Chandernagore) are symbiotic. As the city streets start to get decorated by them, it’s an indication that Pujo is in the air. Such illuminations were on display everywhere - rockets, moving animals, footballs and players (as the FIFA U-17 World Cup is just after Pujo), even Mr Bean!
The smell of fresh flowers hung in the air as dignitaries, officials and visitors took their seats. Participants practiced their dance steps for the last time dressed in red and silver as dhaakis beat their instruments in rhythm. Breaking away from the traditional mould, women dhaakis standing proud and tall, enthralled all. And once the chief minister walked down Red Road greeting all before taking her spot, it signalled the start of the celebration of the walk-through art gallery that becomes the city every Pujo.
Famed Odissa dancer Dona Ganguly’s troupe began the proceedings as visitors watched spell bound. Then it was time for the famous idols to take to the road. One of the biggest crowd pullers was the Bahubali-themed pandal created by Sreebhumi Sporting Club in Lake Town. Led by the organisers of the Pujo, followed by dancers enacting Maa’s victory over Mahishasura and dhaakis, the bejewelled idols from the palace of Mahishmati came down Red Road in full glory. Ekdalia Evergreen, celebrating the 75th year of their Durga Puja, followed suit.
One by one came the others - Kalighat, Dum Dum Tarun Dal, 25 Pally, College Square, Barisha, Chakraberia, Kumartuli, Kashi Bose Lane, FD Block Salt Lake among the 61 floats that entertained the guests. Led by a policeman dressed in pristine white and riding his loyal Enfield, each float had the respective organisers with their entourage of dancers and singers in front. They greeted the Chief Minister and continued down the road as Maa and her family stood pretty on the massive vehicles. Millions caught her last glimpse before she continued her homeward journey to Mount Kailash.
The audience also got an idea of the theme of each pandal as each float bore symbolic decorations. For instance, the Rajdanga Nobo Udyan pandal had six entrances, each representing a different faith. That their theme was communal harmony was evident on the float when it passed the waiting spectators as parts of the entrances were placed on it and decorated with lights and flowers.
As I sat and watched, I appreciated the thought behind the carnival. It’s an excellent idea because while pandal hopping is a much-sought after activity during Durga Puja, it can become impossible to tick off or ‘check-in’ everywhere. At the carnival, one can see the gorgeously sculpted idols, each standing out because of the carefully planned thought process of the artist, and the various traditional and themed Pujos of the city and districts. Each organiser was given time to talk about their respective creations during the event. Not only did that help the viewers worldwide understand the theme and why they used it this year but also appreciate the art and installations on display on each float. The feeling of carnival cheer was a bonus!
Apart from locals, consulate staff and foreigners drawn to the city for the Pujo celebrations were among the audience members for the immersion carnival. Just that over five million live streamed the fantastic effort is a testimony to the growing popularity of the event.
As the last float went past the audience after three hours since the start, there was a sense of sadness which engulfed all. One really didn't want the celebrations to end and reality of routine to creep in. But as they say, all good things come to those who wait. The toddler’s mother was right, it wasn't the end. It was just time to get ready for next year’s festivities!