Come to Kolkata during the autumnal festival of Durga Puja and you will see why it's called the City Of Joy. Everything comes to a standstill. It is ten days of revelry with lakhs of people from different communities coming together to celebrate the arrival of the ten-armed goddess and her children. Walk around neighbourhoods and you will imbibe the sounds and the heady aromas associated with the Pujo rituals. The chants and bells that accompany pushpanjali and aarti, the sound of the dhaak (drums) and the fragrance of the dhuno during the dhonuchi dance every evening. And the call for bhog - the daily community feast (that gets offered first to the goddess). People dress up in their festive best and check out the idols, the many jaw-dropping pandals (the temporary structures that houses the idols) and the glittering light installations.
This year, over 3,000 pandals took shape in city neighbourhoods and parks, making it all look somewhere between twenty Mardi Gras carnivals put together and a giant, city-wide art installation. The mind boggles when one realises that the same phenomenon is repeated not just across the entire state but everywhere in the world where Bengalis live. Did you know that Mexico City saw its first community Durga Puja this year?
It doesn't matter where you are from, what community you are from, what your religion is. The festival is egalitarian and inclusive. The community Pujos are known as ‘sharbojanin’, which means “belonging to everyone”.
Gotta Have Faith
This is reflected right from the artwork at pandals which is sometimes done by Muslim craftspeople. For instance, a community of crafts people in rural Bengal - the patachitrakars - paint many of the pandals and backdrops with folk art. Also, you will find Pujos in the city that have been organised by Muslims for many decades. The Pujo committees at Mominpur Tarun Sangha and Ekbalpore Sharbojanin Durgotsab Samity are headed by Muslims.
Smashing Patriarchy, Breaking Norms
Durga is an embodiment of Shakti or divine feminine power and it's no surprise that a festival dedicated to her breaks patriarchal norms and social barriers every year. Think female dhaakis (the drummers have traditionally been male), sex workers organising a Pujo in the red light area, Sonagachi, and some of the oldest and most popular pandals choosing to have their pandal showcase sex workers' rights. Pandals also focus on gender parity. For instance, transgender women perform chokhudaan, the traditionally male ritual during idol-making when the eyes of the goddess are drawn (it symbolises the infusion of life). A 2018 Pujo hosted by member of the West Bengal Transgender Development Board, Ranjita Sinha, gave Durga a different avatar as Ardhanarishvara – an androgynous deity composed of Shiva and his consort Shakti representing the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies. That wasn't the only breaking of norms - the purohit was a Vaishnavite (the usual Pujos have a Brahmin) and he was a trans-male.
To Be Able To ‘See'
Did you know that the Samaj Sebi Sangha Pujo created a tactile experience in their pandal for the visually impaired? Around 12,000 screws went into creating an installation of the face of the goddess so people could feel the texture and shape better - to make the goddess ‘visible’ to the blind. Structures on the walls used criss-crossing threads on nails to form patterns and phrases in Braille.
Inclusion isn't just a buzzword, it's at the heart of Durga Puja. The festival’s mission: unite and immerse all people in the celebrations. That's the energy which makes the festival so unique - it's traditional and yet in tune with the contemporary. And this what makes visitors fall in love with the ethos and return repeatedly. "I've been all over the world but I've never seen anything like this," says Dominick A. Merle, a Canadian travel writer in his 80s who has attended the festival three times already. "It reminds me of John Lennon's Imagine - people from all sections on the streets, waiting in line, shoulder to shoulder, rich, poor, young, elderly. For one week, Kolkata almost creates a perfect world. It's like Camelot!"