Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ma Aschen...

The onset of autumn and the white kash phool (flowers) signifies the homecoming of the Mother Goddess and brings with it the aura of festivity and celebration turning my Kolkata into the most happening city in India. Reason: Durga Puja is in the air. Though the festival is yet to kick off (about 20 days till Shasthi – can’t hardly wait!), preparations have been enough to envelop the city in a medley of ornamentation, illumination and the aroma of mouth-watering delicacies. There is a Bengali saying that there are 13 festivals in the Bengali calendar of 12 months. Durga Puja is undoubtedly the biggest of them all. To say that it is being celebrated with fanfare and gaiety in this part of the country is an understatement. The best time to visit Kolkata to experience the grandeur of the city is during Durga Puja when the entire city transforms into a wonderland. Read on to find out why…

Let’s take it from the top - Durga Puja, meaning Worship of Ma Durga in Bengali, also referred as Durgotsab (Festival of Durga) is the major festival celebrated by the Bengalis the world over. The festival is dedicated to Ma Durga, the Goddess of Shakti (power). It is believed that festival of Durga Puja commemorates the victory of the goddess over the demon Mahishasura symbolising the triumph of good over evil. The festival marks Ma’s victorious homecoming to her father’s home accompanied by her four children – Ganesha, Karthik, Lakshmi and Saraswati.

There is another mythological tale about the origins of Durga Puja involving Lord Rama. When Ravana abducted Lord Rama’s wife Sita, and held her hostage in Lanka, a fierce battle ensued. Although there were huge casualties on both sides, Ravana could not be defeated. So Lord Rama decided to seek the blessings of Shakti or Ma Durga in order to defeat the 10-headed demon. 108 black lotuses were needed for the worship of the Divine Mother and Lord Rama had managed to procure only 107. He was on the verge of laying one of his eyes that was lotus-shaped and black in colour at the Goddess’s feet when Shakti, satisfied with the measure of his devotion, granted her blessings, and the righteous eventually triumphed. And since that day Durga Puja is celebrated. In fact, according to Puranas, King Suratha used to worship goddess Durga in spring. Thus Durga Puja was also known as Basanti Puja. But Rama preponed the Puja and worshiped Durga in Sarat (autumn) and that is why it is known as 'Akal Bodhon' or untimely worship.

The festival usually falls in the month of September or October (‘Ashwin’ as per the Bengali calendar). The dates are set according to traditional Bengali Calendar. The fortnight of the festival is called Debi Pokkho (Fortnight of the Goddess). Debi Pokkho starts off with Mahalaya, the last day of the previous fortnight Pitri Pokkho (Fortnight of the Forefathers), and ends on Kojagori Lokkhi Puja (Worship of Goddess Lakshmi on Kojagori Full Moon Night).

The main six days of the festival are as Mahalaya, Shashthi , Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Nabami and Bijoya Dashami – but the festivities truly begin on Sashthi and go on till the visarjan processions of Bijoya Dashami. There is a different ritual for each of the days of the Puja.

The traditional six day countdown to Mahasaptami starts from Mahalaya. Goddess Durga visits the earth for only four days but seven days prior to the Pujas, starts the Mahalaya. Listening to the familiar voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra reciting the Mahishasur Mardini on All India Radio Akashvani station in the predawn hours of the day is a Mahalaya tradition since 1930. Later on the Mahalaya show on Doordarshan also became a tradition – in all my years I can recollect catching either possibly twice – am not really a morning person, sadly.


It is on this day that the eyes are painted on the protima (idol) of the Ma Durga – the ritual is called Chokku Daan. Also, Mahalaya is the day when many throng to the banks of river Ganga, clad in dhotis to offer prayers to their dead relatives and forefathers. People in the pre-dawn hours pray for their demised relatives and take holy dips in the Ganges. This ritual is known as 'Torpon'.

The main Puja rituals start with ‘Bodhan’ (the invocation of the Mother Goddess on the first day) on Sasthi and ‘Naba Patrika Sthapan’ (the important ritual of setting up a banana tree clad in a saree (Kola Bou) beside Lord Ganesha and worshipping her as his ‘wife’) on Saptami. Then there is the ‘Pushpanjali’ (floral offerings to the Goddess) in the morning and the Sandhi Puja (with the 108 lamps being lit) in the evening of Ashtami, the most important day of the festival. Bhog is served to all devotees after Anjali on Saptami and Ashtami.
Puja Rituals Freeze Frame

There used to be animal sacrifice on Nabami (the third day of the festival and the ninth according to the Bengali almanac) but I have not seen it in all my years and neither do I support this practice.

The ‘Sindoor Khela’ (the ritual of putting vermilion on the forehead of the Goddess by the married womenfolk), followed by the tearful immersion of these huge images on Dashami (the tenth or the last day of the festival) in the Ganges rounds of the celebrations.

The origin of Durga Puja dates back to the days of the Mughal Empire in the16th century. Initially the Pujas were organised by affluent families since they had the money to organize the festival. Some of the traditional household Durga Puja continue even today. A good example is that of actor Ranjit Mullick’s household Puja - the Mullick Bari Durga Puja that had been started at the time of Nawab Husen Shah of Bengal nearly around 15th century. Suratha at Srikhanda pioneered the Puja. In the 19th century the Puja was shifted to the Masjid Bari Street of Calcutta by Ishwar chandra Mullick. Later the Mullicks shifted to Gupti Para and finally settled in Bhowanipur. Since 1925 Durga Puja is held at the Bhowanipur residence. The idol is still worshipped in traditional "Ekchala" form (see the Mumbai Ram Krishna Mission Puja photo to see an example of the “Ekchala” protima)

Mullick Barir Puja

During the late 19th and early 20th century, a burgeoning middle class, primarily in Calcutta, wished to observe the Puja. They created the community or Sarbojanin Barowari Pujas. These Pujas are organized by a committee which represents a locality or neighbourhood. The prominence of Durga Puja increased gradually during the British Raj in Bengal, when the Hindu reformists made Ma Durga a metaphor of India (or Bharat Mata), the goddess became an icon for the Indian independence movement. Thus, in the first quarter of the 20th century, the tradition of Baroyari or Community Puja was popularized due to this. After independence, Durga Puja became one of the largest celebrated festivals in the whole world.

The Sarbojannin Pujas collect funds called "chaanda" through door-to-door subscriptions. These funds are pooled and used for the expenses of pandal construction, idol construction, ceremonies etc. Corporate sponsorships of the Pujas have gained momentum since the late 1990s. Major Pujas in Calcutta and in major metro areas such as Delhi and Chennai now derive almost all of their funds from corporate sponsorships. Community fund drives have become a formality. Communities have created prizes for Best Pandal, Best Puja, and other categories – most notably the Asian Paints Sarad Samman.

Durga Puja is widely celebrated in West Bengal*, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Tripura where it is a four-day annual holiday. (No wonder I love being back in Kolkata for my first project with Tata Capital!) The anticipation of Ma Durga coming back to her father’s home after defeating Mahishasura starts much earlier – I countdown almost a quarter (sorry I mean 90 days – I couldn’t help myself being so used to counting a year in terms of quarters at work) before…

(* except, as reported by TOI on 07.09.09, by the people of "the 'Asur' tribe, a century-old labourline in Majherdabri tea estate in Alipurduar, some 120 km from Jalpaiguri, where self-confessed descendants of demons have made a little world of their own. While the rest of the country is preparing to celebrate clan in scattered communities in North Bengal and the Chota Nagpur region are preparing for mourning. This community some 8,000-strong believes it is the bloodline of Mahishasur, the Asura king who conquered heaven and earth and drove the Devas out of Swargalok until vanquished by Goddess Durga. The rest of the world may celebrate this myth as the triumph of good over evil, but for the Asurs it is the darkest period in their collective consciousness." - what an incredible story!)

It would be fair to say that today it is as much a socio-cultural occasion for the community as much it is a religious occasion. The images and idols of the Goddess, known for her exquisite beauty and fierce power (made by the skilled artisans of Kumartuli), are worshiped with flowers, incense and the beating of dhaak. Catching up with relatives and friends, visiting pandals, eating mouthwatering food and dancing to the drumbeats is the best way to enjoy the Durga Puja festival.
It is a time when everyone truly lets their hair down. Young and old alike, dressed in their Puja finery flock to pandals. All night pandal hopping is a Puja tradition. There is a sea of people at all the big Pujas in Kolkata at any given point of time during the five days of celebration. It is not uncommon to face a traffic jam in front of Mohammad Ali Park or Mudiali at three in the morning. Parking is challenge and very often one needs to be prepared to walk a fair distance after parking to visit the pandals. The Kolkata Traffic Police really need to be complimented for the show they put up each Puja – without their careful planning and traffic control, the city would practically collapse during the festival.

Pujas are also a time for the young (and the young at heart!) to mingle with the opposite gender - Maddox Square for instance is hyped as a “fashionable” Puja to be seen at and to see PYTs. The bhog at some Pujas are famous too – Baghbazar bhog stands out in my memory – I remember once we (by that I mean our extended family of 16 + Brownie the dog) for Bhog on Ashtami.

It is a rich feast for the all the five senses with its bright lighting (a Chandannagar speciality) at the pandals, vibrant colours, the fragrance of dhuno and dhoop, rhythmic beats of the dhaak and the melodies of the Pujar gaaner albums and most importantly, as far as I am concerned, absolutely lip-smacking cuisine on offer! Little wonder that Durga Puja is now being featured on celluloid in blockbusters like Devdas, Yuva and Parneeta. In my opinion, the best Bollywood Puja scene I have seen was Sanjay Dutt dancing the dhunochi naach in Parineeta.

The festival has attained a social character over the years. Kolkata witnesses an upsurge in business activities at least a month ahead of the festival. The MBA in me cannot help talking about the financial and marketing aspects of the Puja:

(i) Durga Puja preparations begin months in advance. Organisers attempt to come up with new themes for Pandals and secure the services of professional artists for the purpose. Today Puja pandals seem to sprouting everywhere in Kolkata - practically one every 100 metres. The BBC reported in 2007, that there were nearly 10,000 Pujas in Kolkata alone!

Apart from loudspeakers blaring forth pop and Hindi film music and other forms of entertainment (there are also cultural programmes – song and dance competitions, skits and plays, sit-and-draw competions – bonshe aanko protijogitas – I have won my fair share of these back in the day), there is a fierce competition among organisers to compete with and outdo each other in the extravagant and lavish show they put up.

The much acclaimed pandals reflect the engineering skills of the craftsmen. For instance, in 2007 Harry Potter Puja in FD Block of Salt Lake (see picture below) complete with the Hogswartseque Pandal (spread over 350 sq ft with its tallest tower scaling 94 ft – the budget for the pandal alone was Rs. 5 lakhs ) was the top draw - this particular Puja had shot to fame with a pandal based on the blockbuster Titanic in 1998! In fact, the Puja committee has been sued by JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, for breach of copyright.

Altogether, being in the midst of Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata is an unforgettable experience. And why not, the four days of festivity (though it’s a ten-day festival, the last four days are celebrated in grandeur), is an experience which one treasures.

Puja committees are known to spend in lakhs on attractive pandal d├ęcor and innovative illumination of these pandals by the famed electricians of Chandannagar, a suburban town. Lighting (as we call it locally) referring to galaxies of twinkling lights (tuni bulbs) that illuminate the night sky usually depicting the hottest events – from Saddam’s execution to India’s T20 World Cup victory, is another attraction of the Durga Puja. Wonder whether the Swine Flu will dominate the lighting this year?

Puja Lighting

Last Puja (2008), The Telegraph reported: “Branding rights are the key words this Durga Puja. The Badamtala Ashar Sangha Puja committee (see picture on the right) has sold “all branding rights” to the US-based media company Manhattan Communication India, run by a group of Calcutta boys. The Calcutta Puja will have Mithun Chakraborty as its brand ambassador.

“This is an effort to marry creativity with commerce on a corporate platform. Puja in Calcutta showcases wonderful artistic innovations and we are happy to play a supporting role,” Gautam Majumder, a senior official of the company, told The Telegraph” – just have a look at the budgets in the table alongside – they are far from Barowari…

However, this years, The Telegraph reports that the global downturn is telling on Durga Puja budgets across town with sponsors feeling the pinch, aren’t willing to splurge anymore and struggling to join in the festive celebrations this second quarter. Most other large Pujas in the city are feeling the pinch. The organisers say that the cost of raw materials and labour has gone up by 10-15 per cent, but they have not been able to increase theirr budget. Companies are backing out citing lower allocation for sponsorships because of the meltdown. As a result, the budgets are too being rationalized like corporate salaries for MBAs!

(ii) The entire Bengali community especially gears up for the festival weeks ahead of D-day (Durgotsav Day, duh?!) and it’s mayhem in the mean shopping streets of Gariahat and New Market with Boudis and Mashimas on the warpath!

Puja Shoppers on Sunday 6th Sep 2009 in Kolkata

For Bengalis, the festival is a time for celebration and expenditure. Markets reflect the festive spirit enveloping the entire city – recession? What’s that? The shopping centres in Kolkata dole out fabulous discounts and offers to the people to cash in on frenetic shopping spree in the lead up to and during the festival. Dressing material, sarees, clothes and furnishings worth crores of rupees are sold - From wristwatches to washing machines, from jewellery to journals, anything sells with Multinationals and Mishtir Dokans all vying for the spoils. The serpentine queues of people waiting to buy shoes in front of Sreeleathers on Lindsay Street and Freeschool Street are legendary.

Multinationals have also learnt to use the opportunity to offer discounts and attract consumers with freebies, gifts and lucky draws. Many, however, agree that the real spirit lies in the smaller more traditional markets – my best Puja shopping memories are walking around crowded New Market with Ma. The standout memory of the Pujas down the years were waiting for the new clothes to arrive and planning which ones to wear on which day…

(iii) It is a time of prosperity also for publishing houses with their eagerly anticipated Puja Barshikis (Puja Editions) capitalising on the festive mood of the reading public. From the established heavyweights like Anadamela and Desh to little magazines, all thrive this season. And why not? Nearly every Feluda (my favourite Bengali superhero) story was published annually in the Pujabarshiki Desh and some of the stories were published originally in Sandesh, a children's magazine co-edited by Satyajit Ray.

Puja Barshiki

Once upon a time, there also was a big demand for audio cassettes of Pujar Hits with artistes of the caliber of Manna Dey, Hemanta Mukherjee, RD Burman, Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar cutting special albums at the Puja time. Asha has come out with an album this Puja after many many moons…

My Puja Memories – Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Mysore and London...

Kolkata - Still the most special place for me during the Pujas and always will be...

My Kolkata Puja Snapshot

My earliest memories of the Pujas in Kolkata are that of our para (Lake Market) Puja - Lake Juba Sangha – where my grandfather as the honorary president. (Just so you know, Juba in Bengali means youth and my grandfather just turned 87! That is how it is in Kolkata, most youth clubs, have such young presidents…) Neighbouring the well known Adi Lake Pally Puja, ours is an unpretentious Puja held on a modest shoe-string budget – the pandal gets ready in three days flat and usually is in the most outlandish colours (because by then all the other pandals have been made and cloth is at a premium – we have to make do with what we can) – but it is the Puja of my childhood and always will remain my ‘home’ Puja. I will also always fondly remember the all night pandal hopping adventures with my cousins that we embarked upon every year.

When I was in class six, my family shifted to Tollygunge to Golf link Apartments - the building housed about 60 families of officers of various PSUs like Andrew Yule, Oil India and Hindustan Cables (where my father worked at that time). The following year (1991 methinks), our building committee where my father was the secretary decide to start our very own Durga Puja. That was the best Puja of my life. All the residents of the building participated in organizing the Puja – for instance, the aunties planned out the various cultural events in which all the children (including me) participated – plays, dance dramas, skits, song and dance shows – I played the villain in a skit (the character of Ravana in the skit I wrote called Modern Ramayana!) and the head of dacoits in a musical (Alibaba). Unfortunately that was my last time on stage… anyway, the five days were spent in absolute bliss and with the entire community coming together. For the next 3 years that I lived there, the Pujas never lived up the first Puja but heartingly, the Puja is still organized every year till today.

Debasree's Puja

In recent times, I have been fortunate to have been invited by Debasree, a friend of my sister, to the Puja organized at her home. It is a very intimate Puja at her residence and the atmosphere is very peaceful. Visiting her Puja last year filled me with joy and peace. I hope to make there it this year too!

Shiladitya's Puja

My third cousins – Bublaida and Tublaida – also have a traditional Puja in the courtyard of their ancestral home in Potoldanga in North Calcutta. I remember visiting their Puja as a child and being taken aback by the buzz and sheer activity. My friend Shiladitya also celebrates Puja at his North Calcutta home but not Durga Puja – they celebrate Jagadhatri (Ma Jagadhatri is an incarnation of Ma Durga) Puja - a few days after Durga Puja. That is a beautiful Puja too and warrants a special mention.
IndusInd Bank Puja Billboards

Pujas were special while working at IndusInd Bank – not the least for the 4 day break from work! In 2003, when I joined the bank, my branch head gave me the opportunity to design the brochures and billboards to promote our debit card – it was such a high to see my designs come alive on the 20’ x 20’ hoardings on Dhakuria bridge and Gariahat bridge.
All Night Pandal Hopping

One time, I went out for an all night pandal hopping with my friends from IndusInd - Aditi, Upasana and Prashmita. It was brilliant fun – I still thank my lucky stars for the not being on the giant Ferris wheel with them… a guy on the ride couldn’t handle it and actually puked mid-air!

I also remember going out with another friend - Uday and his friends – a couple of Pujas. They are still the only ones who have managed to get me on a giant wheel and trust me it was scary. Funny what a couple of beers will do a man…

This year I look forward to going on an all night trip like the old days with my family – WBSTD (West Bengal State Tourism Dept) actually runs a coach service for a Puja night tour every Puja – we are lucky to get the last 4 tickets for the tour this year! (Do check the blog for the Puja pictures.)


Keyes High School (L) - RKM (R)

In 1997, my family shifted to Hyderabad and when Puja time came we hunted down the Pujas in town. The Keyes High School Puja (near Sangeet Theatre) and the one at Rama Krishna Mission (near Tankbund) are the ones we frequented the most. The Pujas here were organized with as much enthusiasm as anywhere else, but perhaps with the Calcutta hangover, that year Puja seemed to have lost its shine. In our five years at Hyderabad, the Pujas became more fun as we got to know more probashi Bengalis – my sister even participated in a dance drama, a couple of years down the line. But my memories of the Pujas in Hyderabad remain quite hazy…


The Royal Vijaydashami Procession

One Puja while we were based in Hyderabad, my family took a vacation to Bangalore and Mysore. The Dushhera procession at Mysore on Vijay Dashami will always remain in my memory. I remember standing in the crowd with Baba to see the procession - both of us actually stood on a bullock cart to get a better view – and it was worth it. The highlight of Dushhera in Mysore is the Vijaydashami (or what we call Bijoy Dashami in Bengali) or tenth day procession. On this day, a procession of guardsmen in royal livery on horseback and caparisoned elephants carrying the idol of goddess Chamundi in a gold howdah march through the city streets. The procession begins from Mysore Palace and concludes at the Banni Mantap. This is followed by a torch light parade in the evening, a spectacular fireworks display and much jubilation in the streets. All in all, a very grand show indeed.


The Calcutta-esque Crowds at a Delhi Puja

The Pujas in Delhi are perhaps comparable to the Calcutta Pujas with the sizeable NRB (Non-Resident Bong) population in the nation's capital. I have been in Delhi during the Pujas a couple of times and sadly missed out the real Delhi Puja experience both times. The first was when I was in class four or five, when we were visiting my father’s elder brother and his family. I remember visiting the CR Park Puja – but the Puja festivities were dampened with the Mandal Commission tension that had gripped the city at the time. Durga Puja celebrations in New Delhi, the capital of India, are concentrated mainly in the Chitranjan Park area, which is a Bengali predominant locality. The Durga Puja Pandals in the Chitranjan Park area are also considered to be the best in the city.
The other time was en route to Jaipur and Agra in 2002 with Mama – and all I remember is a hurried visit to a couple of Pujas in Mayur Vihar. I really want to experience the Dushhera Ram Leela in Delhi during a Puja. What I say in Dilli 6 really caught my fancy!

My Family & I at the Camden Hall Puja

You must have guessed by now, that like most other Bongs, my family is bitten by wanderlust during the Pujas. In 2006, my father realized a life long dream of taking his family to the UK. We traveled there during the Pujas and like good Bongs, we even managed to visit a Durga Puja in London held at the Camden Town Hall! It at the end of a freezing day of exhausting sight seeing and all we had was a map downloaded from the net (see picture below). We knew we had to take the tube to Kings Cross and walk about 15 minutes to reach the hall. We lost our way and finally a helpful Bobby helped us find the place – it was well worth it! Ma’s darshan in an alien land warmed our hearts and rid us of our exhaustion.

The Camden town hall Puja in north-central London is one of around 20 Durga celebrations held across the British capital every autumn - festivities whose ranks have swelled in tandem with a growing number of Bengali immigrants taking up jobs in banking, finance and information technology. However, most of the Bengalis we met at the Puja were Bangladeshi immigrants while the Indian Bengalis are spread thinly across the British capital.

Latitude: 18°58 N, Longitude: 72°49 E aka Mumbai: The Mumbai Pujas

In the past couple of years while studying in Mumbai, Puja was a time when I took upon myself to almost become the brand ambassadors of Bongs at my college. Puja time were spent with friends at singer Abhijeet’s Lokhandwala Puja, Rani Mukerjee’s Puja near Poddar High School (now this has shifted to Khar park), the Rama Krishna Mission Puja at Khar and the small Puja at Juhu opposite St. Joseph’s Church (close to the Big B’s residences). One year I also managed to visit a Puja at Lower Parel on my way back from an interview with MTV. Thank God for so many Bongs in Bollywood and the Mumbai Pujas are known for the star visits.

And yes I did give the dandiya parties a miss!

The Pandals are already under construction...

Ma aschen – the countdown has begun only 20 days to go for the Pujas and I am getting more impatient by the day! The Pujas are THE event in any Bengali’s year. The atmosphere is sheer magic. The sad part is that we wait for so long for the Pujas to begin and every year the festivities are over in a flash. I have always shed a tear when Ma has to return to the heavens on Dashami – but the reassuring chants of Asche Bochor Abar Hobey fill me with hope everytime… And then there is also Ma at the 23 Pally temple on Harish Mukherjee Road (see picture below) which I can visit anytime of the year.

For once in my life, I agree with Vir Sanghvi - he was spot on in writing:

Tell outsiders about the importance of Puja in Kolkata and they'll scoff. Don't be silly, they'll say. Puja is a religious festival. And Bengal has voted for the CPM since 1977. How can godless Bengal be so hung up on a religions festival? I never know how to explain them that to a Bengali, religion consists of much more than shouting Jai Shri Ram or pulling down somebody's mosque. It has little to do with meaningless ritual or sinister political activity.

The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Bengal converge: emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of being together, the joy of celebration, the pride in artistic expression and yes, the cult of the goddess. It may be about religion. But is about much more than just worship. In which other part of India would small, not particularly well-off localities, vie with each other to produce the best sandals? Where else could puja pandals go beyond religion to draw inspiration from everything else? In the years I lived in Kolkata, the pandals featured Amitabh Bachchan, Princes Diana and even Saddam Hussain! Where else would children cry with the sheer emotional power of Dashimi, upset that the Goddess had left their homes? Where else would the whole city gooseflesh when the dhakis first begin to beat their drums? Which other Indian festival - in any part of the country - is so much about food, about going from one roadside stall to another, following your nose as it trails the smells of cooking?

To understand Puja, you must understand Kolkata. And to understand Kolkata, you must understand the Bengali. It's not easy. Certainly, you can't do it till you come and live here, till you let Kolkata suffuse your being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you'll love Kolkata forever.

Wherever you go, a bit of Kolkata will go with you. I know, because it's happened to me. And every Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal.

It's a feeling that'll never go away...

--> Some of the photos above are my originals - really thankful to whoever has clicked the rest - brilliant snaps!

And do check out for amazing picture of Durga Puja!