Its that time of the year again. If you’re trying to walk down Gariahat road on a Friday afternoon, well good luck to you. Chances are, you’ll be immersed in a sea of extremely passionate shoppers trying to get the best deals while elbowing competing customers. Pandals are up , pavements are barricaded, resplendent advertisements and hoardings throng the cityscape, there’s a pujo sale with a massive discount at every mall imaginable, and you have that irresistible feeling in your gut. The Pujo asche feeling. (Or “Pujo is coming” as your average Mr. Biswas would put it)
“What’s the programme?”
The excitement is palpable. Everyone is busy making plans on different WhatsApp groups – Shoshti with school friends, Saptami with college mates, Ashtami with girlfriend, Nabami with extended family – while at the same time making sure that all the main pujos in North Kolkata, Salt Lake, South Kolkata are covered. And of course, the favourite Gen Y hangout – adda sessions at Maddox Square. Diptesh Ganguly, a 4th-year student of Jadavpur University quips “Since it’s the last year of my undergrads, with no certainty of where I will be next year, I’d like to spend most of my time with friends and family,trotting around the city. Moreover, since some of my non-Kolkata friends are staying back this year I’d take out time to party with them!”
Return of the natives
And this is not limited to Calcuttans. This is also the time when a whole bunch of people living away from the state, finally get the opportunity to return. 24 year-old Suryatrisha Ghosh, of Business Skill Faculty at TCS, Gujarat, is elated to return to home “I missed pujo last year. No way am I missing it this year too. Sure, Navratri is a big deal in Gujarat, but nothing can match up to Durga Puja in Bengal.I’m going to stuff myself with all the mouth-watering Bengali delicacies and live each and every moment with my friends from school.”
However, for the Bengalis who don’t get to experience Durga Puja in Kolkata, it can be quite heartbreaking,especially because all your Bong friends will be posting selfies and updates from the city on social media. Kajaree Giri , a 24 – year old MD Medicine student of PGIMS, Rohtak reveals “This is the first time I am away from my parents, my home, my city during Durga Puja. For me, Durga Puja means a very hectic schedule,juggling time between friends and family, catching up with loads of adda with my favourite people and the delicious street food that you get in abundance. Thankfully I have found the Bengali Association here. They organize a Bengali Durga Pujo, where I will be spending all my time this year.”
For the uninitiated ,here’s a brief introduction to Durga Pujas.
Five days of madness
The festivities are kicked off by Mahalaya , the ritual of offering prayers for departed souls. But the common Bangali will probably associate it more with the legendary radio programme ,Mahishasuramardini (The Annihilator of Mahishashur) that is broadcasted every year at dawn, made famous by the superbly talented presenter Birendra Krishna Bhadra, years ago. Every Bangali knows his voice, even if they have zero idea of the actual meaning of the holy verses. Mahalaya also signals the custom of painting the goddess’ eyes, in a sacred ritual called Chokhu Daan. This is the first stay of the fortnight that culminates in Lakhsmi Pujo, but Durga Puja as celebrated in West Bengal concerns only the 6th (Shoshti) , 7th (Saptami) , 8th (Oshtomi) , 9th (Nobomi) and 10th (Doshomi) days. (That’s 5 sets of brand new clothing, fellas! )
The many shades of Pujo
In West Bengal and specially in Kolkata, Durga Puja is basically celebrated in two ways, (to put it very roughly). There are traditional family pujas, which typically include descendants of former zamindars scattered across the world, coming together to continue the heritage of their royal forefathers. In Kolkata, you have the famous Shovabazar Rajbari, The Mullick Family Puja in North Kolkata, Hathkhola Dutta Family Puja, Mullick Bari Durga Puja in Bhawanipore and so on. The other type is the theme-based Pujas , otherwise known as the Sarbajanin Pujas, celebrated in the various localities within the city. Now, these are a source and product of great originality of thought and artistry from most every nook and corner of the state. Ishani Ray, a 24-year old Trainee Teacher and an avid painter calls it “the carnival of art and culture“. From terracotta artwork, vermilion-dipped strings, jute-based crafts to grand musical instruments, puja themes incorporate everything. The most creative pandals go on to win various accolades and prizes including Asian Paints Sharad Shamman , ABP Sharad Arghya , KMC Kolkata Shree Awards , CESC The Telegraph True Spirit Pujo, the list goes on.
However, there are a few major pujas which completely baffle both critics and pandal-hoppers and go on to win almost every year. These are Mudiali, Ekdalia Evergreen, New Alipore Shuruchi Sangha, Tridhara , Maddox Square, Hindustan Park, Telengabagan, Kumartuli, Ahiritola, Deshopriya Park; the list is endless. Local newspapers like the Anandabazar Patrika reported that the themes include, among many others, The War of Kurukshetra, Akshardham Temple, Feminine Energy, Colourful Umbrellas, Ancient Palaces, Mud Temple, Pandal made of Bells and Pitchers. Deshopriyo Park,whose 88-feet idol caused a near stampede last year, promises to live up to our expectations by erecting the Goddess with a 1000 arms. Well , the more the merrier!
Making sense of the chaos
If you’re rather intimidated by the plethora of details and the suggestion of overwhelming numbers of people, you can always choose to spend the five days at the humble para pujo. It will provide you the opportunity to observe the rituals closely, while taking part in the culture. Each day begins with the purohit and his assistants making arrangements for the puja, followed by the Anjali in the morning,where you offer flowers to the idol after repeating a few chants . The evenings include the Arati , which is accompanied by dhaker bajna (drum beat) and dhunuchi naach (a dance involving a incense burner), often culminating in friendly competitions including blowing the conch. Everyday, you’ll be served delicious bhog in the form of khichdi and labda. On Oshthomi, we have the Shondhi Pujo, to mark the time when the villain Ashur was delivered his fatal blow. This also signals the onset of Nabami. On the final day, to mark the end of the Goddess’ sojourn on earth, married women smear the idols as well as each other, with vermilion and exchange sweets. The idol is then taken away to the River Ganges to be immersed in the holy waters.
For someone who wants a taste of the celebrations, it’ll help to arm yourself with the following : accommodation with a friend or family who lives in the city ( and is therefore familiar with the roads and routes to the said pandals), a map of the famous pandals, water bottles (and maybe an umbrella), comfortable shoes (definitely not new ones because a lot of walking will be involved), a lack of expectation regarding securing a table at any of the popular restaurants (eating at home is a good option), an amazing amount of energy, and a genuine curiosity.
Overall, Pujas at Kolkata always promise to be memorable because ALL the action happens in the city. Jaw-dropping artistry and craftsmanship at the various pandals, mouth-watering street food, a brilliant array of electronic lights spread across and between the building and a gamut of cultural events make it a splendid experience. This is Kolkata at its best ! Whether you’re merely visiting or a permanent resident exploring the city for the 77th time, here’s hoping you have a grand time during debipokkho.
Image: Sindoor Khela during Bijaya Dashami / Dussehra