Let me start by saying Durga Pujo in Kolkata is not your usual Pujo, a word that roughly translates to “offering of prayers to a deity.” It’s not about penance, abstinence, or thriftiness. Think of all the fun festivals around the world. Dare I say Rio? New Orleans?
Okay, now that we are in the right direction, let’s add a fierce goddess (Durga), astride a lion, in battle with a shape-shifting demon, being replicated in various art forms in handcrafted tents (pandals) around the city. If it wasn’t for her, and the rituals and prayers that accompany her presence, this wouldn’t have been a Pujo per se.
As I have often tried explaining to many around the world, India is diverse and complex. All of us are not vegetarians, and neither do we all do the head-nod or head-shake or whatever you call it. The dots are not a must-have accessory for men and women, no matter what Brian and Stewie from Family Guy say. We have different languages and customs. This particular pujo is native to Bengal, and the people who hail from there, aka Bengalis.
While watching an episode of Wild Kratts, my five year old found out that the Royal Bengal Tiger is from Bengal, and yes, we are quite worried about their dwindling numbers. We are partial to football (you say soccer I say football) and fried fish, and the arts. Not necessarily in that order.
So, can you think of a better place to show off the handiwork of native artists than the intricate designs adorning the various Durga idols and the surrounding pandals? Themes are decided months in advance and then brought to life by skilled artisans. The artwork is brilliant, and I must admit it’s not easy to watch it all being dismantled after just four days.
But for those precious few days, we revel in the celebrations with friends and family. Nowadays many age old customs have been modified to include the outliers, the outcasts, and the marginally ignored. Clay modeling forms the base of the idols, and only after the basic shape has been formed, the idols are painted in bright colors and pretty designs. Once a male bastion, this field of creativity has now expanded to include women.
It is heartening to see silly old traditions being replaced by fresher, fairer perspectives. Being sensitive to the environment is another trendy aspect of this annual bash. Prizes are awarded for the greenest pandal and so on and so forth.
As with any festival, shopping and food and drinks are a big part of the pujos. No Bengali worth their salt is going to pass on the flavorful and sinfully rich mutton kosha or an aromatic mustard fish during the festival. Fun cocktails embracing the spirits of the pujos make the rounds in restaurants. Diets be damned. Fasting is unheard of. Other parts of India may celebrate their festivals by staying away from food. Not us. Not the Bengalis.
Thanks to the mask of anonymity provided by the Internet, there’s been a recent spate of hateful comments around this very theme. How come Bengalis gorge on egg-mutton rolls and chicken biriyani while the rest of India fasts? Well, to that I say, chill and watch this video by Bong Eats.
By the way, Bong is short for Bengalis. Sorry to disappoint anyone who came here looking for the actual thing.
As for shopping, think Christmas. Think Black Friday. Get the picture? Not one to lament about commercialization of a mildly religious institution, I think this meteoric rise in spending does wonders for the economy.
And guess what, tourism gets a boost as well. My brother had friends from Spain and Japan making the trip to Kolkata just to experience this joyful madness, the gorgeous chaotic extravaganza that is Durga Pujo.
Note: In no way do the above photos do justice to the creativity of the artists or the variety of art found in Kolkata during this time of the year. For more pics, you could google Durga Puja or hop over to this article on The Wire.