What a Durga Puja away from pandals means for Bengal

What a Durga Puja away from pandals means for Bengal

An unfinished building, a rusted auto-rickshaw, empty glasses in a tea stall and an unlit hearth are some of the vignettes of life in the times of coronavirus portrayed at a Durga Puja pandal (marquee), as Kolkata turns into a city of art amid the pandemic. The theme of the artwork created by Somnath Dolui on a 50-feet-by-20-feet area for the Belgachia Sadharan Durgotsav (Tala Park) committee...

An unfinished building, a rusted auto-rickshaw, empty glasses in a tea stall and an unlit hearth are some of the vignettes of life in the times of coronavirus portrayed at a Durga Puja pandal (marquee), as Kolkata turns into a city of art amid the pandemic.

The theme of the artwork created by Somnath Dolui on a 50-feet-by-20-feet area for the Belgachia Sadharan Durgotsav (Tala Park) committee is “abdho”, meaning confinement.

Through his poignant depiction, Doli says, he wanted to showcase how the pandemic-induced lockdown halted life, making the future uncertain.

“Here, I tried to symbolically manifest the sufferings that I had undergone during the lockdown, the misery that I had seen around as we all were forced into a confinement by the pandemic, leaving our future uncertain, just like that building which we are not sure will ever be completed,” he says.

The uncertainty is further depicted by the interplay of light and shadow inside the pandal, which took one-and-a-half months to construct.

Observed under the shadow of Covid-19, the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time, it is but natural that a pandemic-related theme is dominating Kolkata’s landscape from north to south during this Durga Puja.

It’s always about themes

Puja pandals and the idols of the goddess have always been a reflection of the times we are living in.

Most Durga Puja committees across West Bengal use varied subjects — from contemporary to imaginary themes — to deck up their marquees, a tradition that started over six decades ago.

Artist Pallab Bhaumik’s creation depicts the hardship faced by migrant labourers during lockdown.

It was in 1959 that the Jagat Mukherjee Park Durga Puja committee at Jatindra Mohan Avenue in north Kolkata decorated the walls of its pandal with murals to add a creative fervour to the festivities, thus introducing thematic celebrations of puja in the city.

The theme-based decoration, however, gained popularity in the mid-1990s with corporate houses beginning to sponsor the puja, making the festival a medley of art and culture for which the government has now moved for an UNESCO heritage tag.

The thematic pandals provide a platform for craftsmen and artisans to give an expression to their imagination and creativity before a large audience, an opportunity to gain instant fame.

For instance, goddess Durga depicted as a migrant worker at Barisha Club in south Kolkata this year has become a raving hit on social media, drawing praises from Bollywood celebrities to common men alike.

Conceptualised by Rintu Das and sculpted by Pallab Bhowmick, the goddess in this pandal reflects a migrant woman who lost her job in the lockdown and walked home for days with ‘son’ Kartik in her arms and her two daughters–Lakshmi and Saraswati—in tow. Instead of the distinct halo in the background (associated with the goddess), there are 10 arms carrying food sacks.

“Moving work by sculptor Pallab Bhowmick for this year’s pujo in one of the major pandals of Kolkata–Maa Durga as a migrant worker with her children. #MaShakti,” tweeted Bollywood actor Raveena Tandon sharing a picture of the idol.

This version of Durga, however, has managed to draw the ire of many who have blamed the artists for “distorting Hinduism”.

But then what’s a Durga puja without its share of controversies, wonders Shambu Das, a resident of Barisha.

“The idol has brought back to life the plight of the migrant labourers… One of the biggest humanitarian crises of recent times. Nothing can erase those heartbreaking memories.”

Even the organisers are planning to preserve the fibreglass idols in a museum, instead of immersing it in river Ganga at the end of the festival.

In one more Covid-related theme, Sealdah Yuva Dal’s puja this year is a tribute to the frontline warriors. Chetla Agrani chose Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry ‘Duhshomoy’ (the worst of times) as its theme to depict the pandemic- induced darkness in life.

Another image of goddess Durga as a doctor wearing a white lab coat killing a coronavirus-shaped Mahisasur with a giant syringe has gone viral. The goddess’s four children in the viral picture have been depicted as a police officer, a nurse, a teacher and a sanitation worker — all frontline Covid warriors.

But not all puja committees have weaved their themes around the pandemic.

Tala Barowari Durgotsab committee’s theme is “shaktirupeno sangsthita” under which it has depicted achievements of Indian army to establish peace. Legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy — Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar — is the joint theme of Badamtala Ashar Sangha, 66 Palli, and Nepal Bhattacharjee Street Club located in close proximity to each other in South Kolkata as they joined hands to pay tribute to the maestro on his 100th birth anniversary.

But the fact these pandals will not be open to the public (as per the Calcutta High Court order) has left the organisers disappointed.

No entry, no earnings

As the Calcutta High Court declared Durga Puja pandals “no-entry zones” for visitors, most of Kolkata’s about 400 premier puja committees have made arrangements for live streaming of puja from their social media platforms. On Tuesday, the court upheld its earlier verdict of making pandals out of bounds for visitors, but it has allowed in big pandals entry of up to 45 organisers inside the marquee at a time. For small pandals, the entry limit is 15.

The latest developments have put the organisers in a quandary. The economic cost of the muted celebrations will be huge, claim many of them, as the state’s largest festival has become heavily commercialised over the years. As per an earlier ASSOCHAM’s estimate, the ‘puja economy’ contributes a little over 10 per cent to the state’s GDP.

“While we may manage to sail through, many small committees will face difficulties in paying their artists and workers because sponsors will not put their money on less-crowded pandals. They will pull out,” says Abhishek Bhattacharjee of Tala Barowari Durgotsab committee.

The rusted auto-rickshaw jutting out of an unfinished building is part of an art installation by Somnath Dolui for the Belgachia Sadharan Durgotsav (Tala Park) committee in Kolkata. The theme here is ‘confinement’.

The restrictions on pandal visit has dampened the spirits of many like Bhattacharjee even though they respect the court’s decision. What is bothering them most is the financial loss.

Most of the puja committees are forced to curtail their budget due to drop in corporate sponsorships as well as personal subscriptions and donations.

“Normally, during Durga Puja there is a huge rush at food stalls set up in and around the pandals. This time there won’t be any such thing. Also, you can see very few ad banners, hoardings and displays at prime locations such as entry gates. This is because no one wants to spend on advertisements where there won’t be any crowd,” says Bhattacharjee.

Rintu Das, the brain behind the Barisha Club’s concept of migrant worker Durga idol, says this time he was given a budget five times less than the previous year. “But I took it as a challenge.”

“We have slashed our budget by 40 per cent,” claims Proloy Banerjee, treasurer of the Kalighat Nepal Bhattacharjee Street Club. “This year, the puja committees were compelled to make additional expenditure to ensure safety protocols.”

He, however, admits that the Bengal government’s grant of Rs 50,000 each to the state’s 36,946 puja committees did give some relief to the organisers.

Nobel laureate economist Abhijit Banerjee also backed the government’s decision saying that organisers needed the additional amount to adopt COVID-19 safety protocols.

Most of the safety measures like sanitising tunnels, however, became redundant following the court’s bar on entry of visitors due to the ongoing pandemic, says Manoj Sau of Mudiali Club in south Kolkata.

The crowd restrictions in the last Durga Puja ahead of next year’s Assembly elections has also affected public outreach drive of political parties.

Puja politics

As part of their outreach, political parties every year put up stalls around pandals to distribute party literatures, pamphlets and other materials.

Puja pandals and the idols of the goddess have always been a reflection of the times we are living in. This year most of the themes are weaved around the pandemic. 

In what is seen as a move to compete with the ruling Trinamool Congress, the BJP this time went a step ahead and announced its own puja, the first such attempt by any political party in the state’s history.

Incidentally, several top Trinamool Congress leaders are themselves organisers of several big-ticket pujas in the city. However, no puja is organised directly under the banner of any political outfit.

The BJP had initially planned a gala celebration at its puja which is being held at the government-run Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre (EZCC). This puja will be virtually inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi today (October 22) in presence of a small crowd of state BJP leaders.

But instead of an open-air cultural programme as planned initially, the party will now hold the function at the EZCC auditorium where Odissi dancer Dona Ganguly, wife of Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president Sourav Ganguly will perform.

Amid all this, perhaps the only ones to remain unscathed are the shopping enthusiasts.

Covid-19 failed to dampen the puja shopping spree as has been evident from the sea of people seen in most market places on Tuesday, on the eve of this year’s puja that will be celebrated from October 22-26.

“It is not possible to regulate the entry of customers. It’s for the people to think about their own safety,” says Dulal Saha, owner of a cloth store in Gariahat as his customers jostled with each other inside his shop, flouting social-distancing norms.

Leading shopping malls in the city such as South City, Quest, Acropolis, Lake Mall are also witnessing a surge in footfall ahead of the Durga Puja.

But after the HC order, some of these shoppers are now wondering where to flaunt the new clothes and jewellery. “New attire without pandal-hopping is like cake without icing. But this is a sacrifice worth making this time,” says Thakurpukur resident Anamika Roy.

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