April 04, 2020
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Festive Spirit

Beyond Worship

The life of a Bengali family revolves around Durga pujo -- the four days between Mahalaya -- Ma Durga's earthly journey from her heavenly abode -- to when she leaves for her husband's home in Kailash parvat

Beyond Worship
The not-so-dreadful summer of 2008 is on the wane and the morning breeze has begun to bring in the festive tidings. It has to start, as always, with Mahalaya—Ma Durga’s earthly journey from her heavenly abode. Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s vintage Chandi Path—Mahisasur Mardini, an AIR recording of the early ’50s—reverberates in the air…Ashiner Sharad Pratey Beje Uthlo Alor Mongol!

For Bengalis, Bhadra’s baritone signals the beginning of four days of non-stop fun and frolic. Durga Pujo, around which the life of a Bengali family’s life revolves, has arrived. For the next four days, every chore and habit that marks the daily schedule will have to be rejigged. A true Bengali must show up in time for the morning Anjali—the only true pujo component in Durga Pujo, lasting a mere 15 minutes.

Once the customary pujo for the day is over and blessings received from Ma Durga, groups of families and friends will go on a pandal-hopping spree. It is a common joke in the Bengali community that it only takes two Bengalis to start an argument, three to start a political party and four to start a Durga Pujo. Almost every neighbourhood has its own Pujo. The dissensions and defections within the community sometimes lead to two or three Pujos in the same neighbourhood.

By noon the pandal-hoppers head back to their own Pujo pandal. It is bhog time – a community lunch distributed by the mashis and meshos of the neighbourhood. The fare is different each day. The first day of the festivity being Saptami, only khichuri and ghanto is in offer. But there is something extra special about the bhog khichuri, the home khichuri never tastes as good. No one minds queueing up. Putting up a friendly fight to get an extra helping is the day’s sporting activity. Everyone punts on the Ashtomi’s bhog menu - will it be pulao-chhanar dalna or luchi-chholar daal?

The only lifestyle pattern the Bengalis share with the Romans is the afternoon siesta. Moreover, this is Pujo-time; batteries have to be recharged for the evening show. Preferably, a fresh set of clothes will be taken out for the sandhya aroti. Care has to be taken that the specially put-together pujo wardrobe lasts out the four-day jamboree. Boro-mashi wore a jamdani silk sari in the morning and instead of the parar-pujo had visited the Kalibari pujo for anjali. For the sandhya aroti she plans to trade her jamdani silk with chhoto-mashi’s katha stitch sari and go to Kalibari again because some famous dhakis have come from Calcutta for the dhunochi naach. She will wear the jamdani again for the Ashtomi anjali which she plans to offer at the parar pujo.

Chhoto-mashi can’t ask for a better exchange offer for the evening. Bablooda’s younger brother, who has just landed a plum job at an MNC, was introduced to chhoto-mashi in the morning after the anjali at the parar-pujo. She senses that Bablooda’s brother, whose name she can’t recollect at the moment, could be a prospective match — not for anyone else but herself! It’s a tempting proposition, what with his five-figure salary in the new job. Chhoto-mashi learned from the tête-à-tête she had with Bablooda’s brother while queueing up for prasad after the morning anjali that Bablooda’s brother will be going to the Cantonment pujo in the evening for a Purno Das Baul concert. Chhoto-mashi herself is not very fond of Baul singing but she tells herself that she could always acquire the taste, specially when the dividends could last a lifetime. Boro-mashi’s jamdani silk sari will be perfect for the second encounter.

Jethu remembers the pujos of yesteryears with longing. The Bengali community was far more close-knit those days. The four days of Pujo were an exclusive Bengali affair. One could hear only Bangla being spoken at the Pujo pandal. Every evening, after the aroti got over, the men and a few women of the para would stage a Bangla play or a jatra for which they would rehearse for weeks, often skipping office or household responsibilities. Some worthies from the paras, who were better off monetarily,  would invite a troupe from Calcutta to stage Bangla plays. Jethu doesn’t remember even one announcement being made at the pandal in Hindi. A cultural programme performed in any other language other than Bangla was out of question.

These days he cringes to hear the young speak Hindi and English, even on days exclusively reserved for Bengalis. Shejokaka reasons with Jethu that times have changed. Big corporate sponsorships have come in. The more footfalls you have in a Pujo pandal, the more money the sponsor will give you. Shejokaka pleads with Jethu to see the brighter side of corporatisation. Better funding has made it possible for Pujo committees to engage highly skilled artisans to work on pandals. These days you can see exact replicas of the White House or our very own Taj Mahal. All erected out of just bamboo and cloth. Not only are the pandals a grand spectacle, they  generate employment for hundreds of craftsmen whose only means of earning a livelihood comes from these four days of Pujo. So what...Shejokaku explains...if some Hindi cultural programmes are dished out. You see, big Bollywood stars come to perform at Pujos. It ensures a larger congregation, people from all communities turn up, which is exactly what the sponsor is paying for. And why should Durga Pujo be an exclusively Bengali affair? Why should it not be an inclusive pan-Indian festival? After all, the Durga Pujo which Jethu is so nostalgic about is itself a much-modified version of the even older tradition of Durga Pujos held in zamindari households. The parar pujo or pujo for the masses is a phenomenon that gained popular acceptance only towards the end of 19th century.

Jethu sees Shejokaka’s point but refuses to budge from his position. He contends that everything that is new may not be good. He cites the example of All India Radio’s misadventure in 1977. AIR, in order to give Mahishasur Mardini a makeover, had scrapped Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s recording and instead broadcast  superstar Uttam Kumar’s medley. The experiment was a colossal failure. Effigies were burnt on the streets of Calcutta. This was at a time when Uttam Kumar was worshipped as a demi-god by Bengalis. Jethu made his point triumphantly: even the magic of Uttam Kumar could not oust the golden voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Some things can never be altered, even if you take the most populist route. AIR suspended the new programme immediately and had to revert to the original version, which it broadcasts to date.

Between anjali, prasad, bhog, aroti, chhoto-mashi’s romantic liaisons, boro-mashi’s vanity, Jethu’s grumpiness, Shejokaku’s avant garde candour and a score of other pujo nothings, the four days pass by before you realise it is all over for this year. Ma Durga’s protima is being dismounted from the pandal amidst feverish chants. Bolo bolo Durga mai ki jai! There is an air of sadness in the air. Ma is bidding adieu to her paternal home as she leaves for her husband’s home in Kailash parvat. One could see her eyes well up in longing for all of us. The chants that fill the air now are Asche Bocchor Abar Hobe – she will come again next year.

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