Dear Kolkata, Remember When ‘Para’r’ Durga Pujo Was A Big Deal?
Let’s go back to the old ways. Stampeding crowds and ostentatious behaviour never was, and still isn’t, true Pujo.
Kolkata is fast approaching a crescendo, the effects of which are already being felt; the world’s largest street festival – Durga Pujo – is barreling towards what is easily one of the greatest health crises the world has faced in living memory, as active COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
Most pandals are following State guidelines on construction – open on three sides or no way to enter the pandal, the idols can only be seen from afar. Infrastructure requirements are far easier to comply with than people however, and herein lies our vulnerability.
Pandals & Idols Have Left Religion, Mythology Far Behind – They Are Now Statements
As a child in South Calcutta’s (as it was back then) Bhowanipore area, I recall Pujos being a very local, family and neighbourhood event. Bamboo-framing covered in miles of colourful cloth made up the pandal.
The idols, albeit just as imposing to an 8-year-old, weren’t a multi-storey statement, Ma Durga was larger than life, but she really did look like a family member who lives abroad and has come home for a visit.
My family and I emigrated to the UK, so I was not privy to the steady growth and commercialisation of local festivals. Leaving in 1990 and returning in 2013, Durga Pujo was so different, I felt I had seen it for the first time. Pandals and idols have left religion, myth and lore far behind. They are now statements – who spent the most, built the biggest pandal, attracts the largest crowds, the most visually stunning dioramas and who has the tallest Durga. Crowds today are in the crores; we ‘Bongs’ take pride in our ‘para’ culture, but one can hardly spot familiar faces at pandals today as we were wont to in the past – such are the heaving masses.
Durga Pujo: Then & Now
Gone are the days of friends from the neighbourhood eating coloured candy while the teenagers break-danced to the latest Bollywood remake of a Michael Jackson hit. Steel and iron have replaced the bamboo frames.
The local ‘Dada’ – charged with designing the pandal during heated adda sessions, lasting months before pen was put to paper – has been shunted out.
Now it’s about a Singaporean or an NRI from Texas who nobody has heard of. The bamboo can still be found – frames made to channel the masses, cheek by jowl, as they shuffle to see the idol. Seeing the idol isn’t the objective anymore – being seen to have seen the idol is; selfie posts on social media rule. For those who don’t shuffle along, Kolkata Police officers have more bamboo available in the form of lathis, backed up by screaming that can’t be heard and shrieking whistles.
Having seen this grow even bigger since 2013, and only having been out ‘pandal hopping’ twice since, it is abundantly clear that COVID is no impediment this year.
The pre-Pujo sales are as aggressive as ever, attracting throngs of giggling youngsters out more for window shopping and hanging out than buying, families with wailing children, hawkers bellowing, and all (an unscientific assessment) with less than 40 percent mask compliance, social distancing is a bygone policy.
Alongside all of this is the ever present watchful eyes of the Kolkata Police, a usually feared presence ready to issue challans for just about anything, now mostly mute spectators sitting in brand new patrols cars with ‘Shakti’ emblazoned on the sides.
‘True’ Spirit Of Pujo Was Never About Stampeding Crowds, Ostentatious Behaviour
In the midst of all this, we have embraced capitalism and the growth it has brought to the celebrations and industry, whereas what COVID points to right now is to wind back time and return to the small para’r pujos.
Technology has provided us with endless hours of seminars and meetings, which then evolved into online schooling too. There is sufficient scope to merge grand pandals with digital viewing from the comfort and safety of our own homes.
This will reduce infections and not only civilian deaths, but also help the Kolkata Police who have suffered numerous deaths.
The governments, both State and Centre, appear to have ‘given up’. With six months to state elections here, and religion as the staple political diet, nobody wants to stifle a festival. Ganesh Chaturthi, a few weeks ago, was the clarion call for back to back festivals and celebrations that end on 2 January; Durga Puja, Chatth Puja, Navratri, Kali Puja, Diwali, Laxmi Puja (not in order – then a gap till Christmas season, which is widely celebrated in eclectic Kolkata, and finally winding up with New Years. Though the latter is not a street festival, homes across the state will be crammed with house parties.
There was once a time when pujos were about friends, family and neighbours. COVID now necessitates that we revert to the old ways.
Stampeding crowds and ostentatious behaviour never was, and still isn’t, true pujos. Staying home with those we need to keep alive and healthy while spending time with our ‘visiting daughter’ – Ma Durga – would be the wise choice in the coming few weeks.
(Anthony Khatchaturian is a historian and commentator. He tweets @AKhatchaturian. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.