On Dashami, Women In a Kolkata Para Hope 'Barir Purohit' Will Now Mean Different

They hope, someday, they will officiate pujas at home.

8 min read
On Dashami, Women In a Kolkata Para Hope 'Barir Purohit' Will Now Mean Different

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The pandel at the 66 Pally Durga Puja in Kolkata is quite muted this year when compared to other, more ostentatious structures that Kolkata, and this specific Puja itself, sees during this time.

If one visits the pandel in the early hours of the morning, therefore, one may assume that it may not be a “star Pujo” this year. After all, a pandel in the city had installed a live-sized murti of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, another had recreated the Burj Khalifa, while even others boasted of much finer artistry and creativity that 66 Pally. However, it is during the Pujo rituals that one realizes why this particular pandel became talk of the town.

When The Quint visited the pandel, on a raucous Ashthami night, four women were conducting the sandhe aaroti, but a harmonium and not the usual dhunuchi was their tool of choice for paying ode to Goddess Durga.

At first glance, the only thing crisper than the white and red sarees that Nandini Bhowmik, Ruma Roy, Seemanti Banerjee and Poulami Chakraborty were wearing, was their Sanskrit diction. For those of us who’ve grown up barely understanding what the purohit at the local pandel wanted us to say during anjali, that stood out more than the fact that women, and not men, were conducting the rituals.

It look a little pondering to then come to the conclusion that for the first time, an eternal truth about Durga Pujas in Bengal had been solemnized. For the first time, women who are usually involved with all the jogaar (planning) of the rituals for Maa Durga, were conducting them. For the first time, Maa was worshipping Maa.


Being a 'Woman Priest' In The Land Of Durga

Around the time of Durga Puja, Bengalis, especially the ones living in North India, have two things to flex.

First, the fact that eating non-veg during Pujo is a thing, unlike in North India which goes vegetarian during Navratri. The other, is that in Bengal, the worship of a ‘Goddess’ (and not a ‘God’) is the basis for its biggest festival.

A visitor takes a picture of the idol at 66 Pally.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

The latter, is often cited as an example to “prove” that Bengali women are more respected than women in other parts of India, which is why they’re more educated and progressive, have an impeccable sense of arts and aesthetics, taught to sing, dance and recite Tagore and in general, more “successful” than women in most other parts of the country.

Examples of Matungini Hazra, Begum Rokheya Shekhawat and even Mamata Banerjee are cited to further seal the argument.

The fact that Bengal has consistently had the highest rates of domestic abuse in the country is often left out of the scope of arguments.

In a way, the four priestesses, who form a group called Subhamastu, fit every description of what an “ideal Bengali woman” is to Bengalis. It is therefore telling that it has taken Subhamastu twelve years, even with all these ideal qualities, to conduct a Durga Puja in the state.

The women of Subhamastu at 66 Pally.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/ The Quint)

After all, if festivals in Bengal were ranked in cricketing terms, then on a scale of Parthiv Patel to Sachin Tendulkar, Durga Puja would be a Sourav Ganguly. And if you’re Bengali, you’d know why that is the top rank.

Subhamastu has earned itself a name in Kolkata over the years when they started officiating wedding ceremonies, famously doing away with the ritual of kanyadaan or “giving away the daughter”. The group was started by Nandini Bhowmik and Ruma Roy, the germ of which was planted by their professor at Lady Brabourne College’s Sanskrit department, Gauri Dharmapal. Dharmapal had crafted a simplified version of Vedic rituals and chants that she would use as a practicing priest in various religious ceremonies. These rituals and chants were then passed on to a group of students. However, soon Dharmapal and her students fell out of the practice. Around 2009, Dharmapal asked Bhowmik and Roy if they’d like to learn the chants from her and practice as priests. The two were excited and honoured by the opportunity and the idea of Subhamastu was born when Nandini officiated her elder daughter’s wedding.

Nandini and Ruma at the pandel, with Seemanti behind them.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

Thereafter, the group has expanded to include Banerjee and Chakraborty. After years of struggle which involved wedding engagements getting cancelled at the last minute, families getting a male priest to come and redo the rituals and the usual backlash around “changing” Hindu traditions, Subhamastu now sees their calendars booked out for months, sometimes years. Their ceremonies, which involved Rabindra sangeet and a thorough explanation of all the mantras being chanted, has become a novelty at Kolkata weddings. In 2020, a movie called Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti was also made on the group.

While Bhowmik and Roy are professors of Sanskrit, Banerjee is a singer and social worker trained at Shantiniketan, and Chakraborty is teacher who has a masters degree in sociology. If all of them were men, the academic rigour with which the group approaches these rituals is what would have set them apart.

The women perform Rabindra Sangeet during the rituals.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/ The Quint)

“We took 8 months to prepare for this. We had to do a lot of studying on all the rituals and the different ceremonies. We prepared over 20 songs and each part of the Puja was scripted with simplified Vedic chants, corresponding songs and their explanations. Our script was done by the end of July. Thereafter we had practice session everyday that sometimes started early morning and would go on till late evening. It is only when we were confident that we’d be able to do justice to the occasion that we said yes”, says Bhowmik.

Nandini Bhowmik.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

When the 66 Pally club approached Subhamastu, the group’s approach to the rituals was important a consideration as the fact that they were “women priests

The Durga idol at 66 Pally.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

The puja committee of 66 Pally, known for its innovative theme pujas said that they wanted to go a little low-key in terms of celebrations this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and also because they lost two people who were very important to the club. The club’s veteran priest, Tarun Bhattacharya, who’d conducted the Puja for over 30 years, died last year. Thereafter, the club lost its president, Rajat Sengupta, to COVID-19.

The pandel at 66 pally.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

“We wanted to use this opportunity to bring in a change and we hoped that the locality would embrace the effort”, said Pradyumna Mukherjee, an official of the 66 Pally club.


‘Can You Imagine Women Doing This So Well?’

While the Subhamastu team shuttled between home and the 66 Pally, trying to catch some rest in the time off between the morning and evening rituals, the pandel, especially in the morning hours, were guarded by a group of women from the para. While all of them knew since July that female priests were going to officiate the Pujo, most of them seemed even more impressed by how each ritual, mantra, custom was explained to them in detail.

Women at 66 Pally during Ashthami Anjali.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/ The Quint)

“We’ve grown up around Puja pandels so of course we know some of the mantras that are usually chanted and what they mean. But this is the first time that I know exactly what is done why during Durga Puja”, said Mrittika Sen, a resident of 66 Pally.

“Priesthood was seen as the fiefdom of men and Brahmins. The fact that they managed to overcome these social barriers to do this is historic in my opinion”, said Rebecca Mukherjee, another resident of the area. “We also understood, through them, that the reasons why women were barred from this practice were wrought with dogma and do not have any religious or cultural basis”.

Women of the locality pose with the goddess.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/ The Quint)

“Moreover, the fact that Rabindra Sangeet, an intrinsic part of the Bengali cultural heritage, was fused with Sanskrit mantras really appealed to me”, she added.

Nabanita Chakraborty, another local, hoped that this will stop society from regularly policing what religious activities women can perform and when.

“We are always told that certain rituals can’t be performed by women. That women cannot eat during a certain time or enter the temple during others. But look at these women and how much dignity they’ve added to the Puja”, says Nabanita.

“I’m hoping that even if a little bit, we will be able to change how society views women and their relationship with religion. During all puja rituals, our priests emphasized that devotion comes from the soul and not by observing external practices. For example, I asked her if I could give Anjali if I’d eaten something in the morning. They said that’s not important as long as I performed the ritual from the heart”, she adds.

“Maybe we can also officiate the pujas at our homes someday without it being considered a stigma or something out-of-the-ordinary.”

Pandel hoppers at 66 Pally.

(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

For others like Mousumi Chatterjee, whose Puja was marked by Subhamastu’s chants playing from the speakers installed in the area, the group’s efforts to make Hindu scriptures accessible to all was what made a mark.

“The way they explained each lines shows that they’ve not restricted Hindu scriptures of its knowledge just to themselves, Brahmins or even just educated folks. They’ve taken the effort to make this knowledge accessible to all and thereby spread the message of the scriptures”, says Chatterjee.

Her 20-something daughter, Ritika Chatterjee, chips in saying that all her mother spoke about during the Pujo were the women, their songs and their mantras. “She kept saying, “Can you imagine that women are doing this so well?”, said Ritika.

Nandini and the Subhamastu team are aware of the new ground they’ve broken and also how this achievement is different from all the others. But her stance on Durga and her being symbolic of women power is slightly different from the liberal, Bengali-chauvinist Twitterati.

“Our idea was to convey that Durga resides in all of us. Not just females but males as well”, says Nandini.

“The rituals, the process of harnessing power and using that power to channelize devotion is tough but fulfilling. Our journey and this Puja, proves that even if it’s a struggle to practice devotion, one must stay dedicated.”

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Topics:  Durga Puja   Vijay Dashami   Dussehra 2021 

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