Where there are three Bengalis, there’s a Durga Puja. So goes the saying. Bremen, Germany; Uppsala, Sweden; Bahrain; South Korea; and Clontarf, a suburb of Dublin, are just some of the offshore venues where the goddess comes calling every autumn. It’s easy to believe the old saying also because Durga Puja, popularly known as a Bengali festival, is in reality also celebrated in parts of Bihar, Assam and Orissa.
Etchings: (top) Bankim Chandra Pal making the idols for the Kashmere Gate Puja, Delhi, last month (Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint); a puja of the Bombay Durgabari Samiti in 1930. Courtesy: Bombay Durgabari Samiti
But we were convinced only when we went back 99 years in history to get a glimpse of the tradition, milieu and fanfare of the oldest community Durga pujas in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. All three are no-frills, traditional affairs; much like a household puja, resistant to change; and started by small groups of intrepid Bengalis in the early 20th century. We came away charmed.
Tejpal Hall, Mumbai
The office of the Bombay Durgabari Samiti is inconspicuous, and indeed out of place on Bank Street. It is a cacophonous lane in the vicinity of Mumbai’s General Post Office, the Asiatic Library and many banks. In the last decade, the street has also become a hub of architecture and real estate development firms.
On a mid-September afternoon, two workers in the Samiti’s office stare intently at their computer screens. The manager, Sunil Raha, sifts through papers heaped on his small wooden table. A stout, old ceiling fan whirs noisily above them. There’s a sense of purpose in the cluttered office. “We’re actually making the final proposals for sponsorship for the puja,” says Raha.
There are no visible traces of the long history of this place — it’s the 79th year of the Samiti’s puja, now held at Tejpal Hall, overlooking the August Kranti Maidan, in south Mumbai — until Raha takes me to the attic. It’s filled with old invitation cards from the 1940s, steel trunks full of leftover puja materials, yellowing newspaper clips from as early as the 1930s and bric-a-brac in dusty corners.
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The trust acquired this large room and attic in the 1940s, when the puja began to receive support from the then growing Bengali community in Mumbai. Now, it is known as the CEOs’ puja; the south Mumbai puja. Most devotees and members are corporate professionals, bureaucrats and a couple of Bengali jeweller families. Shobhaa Dé and her husband Dilip, and sometimes Lata Mangeshkar, are known to add celebrity flavour to an otherwise unpretentious, traditional affair.
Don’t expect non-vegetarian food stalls here; the organizers believe in serving satvik bhog and the couple of food stalls that are set up sell delicious shingaras (samosas) and vegetable cutlets. Sushmita Mukherjee, a participant since 1985 and now chairperson of the Samiti’s social and cultural committee, says: “The uniqueness of this puja is that we have resisted the usual fanfare like in most Mumbai pujas. There’s more attention to the rituals.” In other words, it is more like a traditional household puja. The priest comes every year from Kolkata, and so do the dhakis (drummers). The cook, for the last many years, has been a Bengali who owns a small restaurant in Mumbai’s Abdul Rehman Street.
The founders: Justice Khitish Chandra Sen and his wife. Courtesy: Bombay Durgabari Samiti
The beginnings of the Bombay Durgabari Samiti isn’t stuff that makes for fascinating lore. A few Bengalis in the city got together and started it. The joie de vivre with which justice Khitish Chandra Sen and his bhadralok comrades waited for a train trudging into Mumbai from Varanasi, carrying an idol they had commissioned for the city’s first Durga Puja in 1930, permeates the air at Tejpal Hall to this day. Sen and his growing coterie of organizers had to shift the puja from its first venue, at Sleater Road, near the Grant Road railway station, to Cross Maidan. It was moved to Tejpal Hall in 1972.
Like every year, this year’s pandal has a theme: terracotta decorations andshola (an ivory white, thermocol-like material) ornaments to adorn the idols. Earlier themes have included motifs from Jamini Roy’s paintings, and from jalsa (traditional cultural shows).
“Mumbai has thousands of Bengalis and for many, we are an elite puja. But the truth is it is just traditional and non-fussy. It’s open to all, but it is understated. That’s one of the reasons sponsorship is slightly harder to come by,” says Salil Dutta, current president of the Samiti.
Dutta, who retired from his job at Bharat Petroleum in 2002, was a long-time resident of Altamount Road, before he moved to his house in Kandivli, a Mumbai suburb. Even so, he has been planning much ahead for the festivities beginning 5 October, when the goddess will be mounted on her terracotta platform: performances by members and their families every evening; new additions to the bhog; a fixed space for devotees queuing up; and a memorable farewell to the goddess. After all, there are ways to preserve a 79-year-old, bhadralok’s puja.
Bhowanipore Sanatan Dharmatsahini Durga Puja, Kolkata
The Bhowanipore Sanatan Dharmatsahini Sabha Durga Puja, the oldest barowari or community Durga Puja, in Kolkata is just one year away from completing a century. It started with a budget of Rs1,000 in 1910; the budget for this year’s festivities is around Rs3.5 lakh.
Balaram Bose Ghat Road, home to the oldest community puja in Kolkata, can barely accommodate two-way traffic; during the puja, it turns chaotic, with thousands thronging the area for a glimpse of the goddess. A tall gate and multi-coloured lights greet visitors to the mandap by the banks of the Adi Ganga, a canal that flows into the Hooghly river.
Like the other two pujas we visited, this, too, is distinct in its unfailing adherence to tradition. The idol is handcrafted at the thakurdalan, a permanently covered space on the river bank where the puja has been taking place since its first year. In the early 19th century, it used to be a cremation ground and a sati daha, a space where widows immolated themselves at their husband’s pyre.
The fanfare:(top) The Bhowanipore puja in Kolkata; and the immersion procession of the Kashmere Gate puja, usually the last idol to be immersed in the Yamuna, marking the end of Durga Puja in Delhi.Courtesy: The Bhowanipore Sanatan Dharmatsahini Durga Puja
The bhog is cooked in an old mansion across the road, and almost everyone involved — the idol-maker, the priest, the drummer and others—belong to a lineage of volunteers associated with the puja since its inception. “Originally, only Brahmins were allowed to organize the puja,” says Biswajit Roy, a local resident and a member of the puja committee.
Organizing a puja in Kolkata was an exclusive right of zamindars (landlords) and rajas (kings) till the end of the 19th century. Thereafter, a few enterprising philanthropists of Bhawanipore, spearheaded by two families, established this puja. “At that time, many Bengalis had crossed over from Bangladesh and started living in this neighbourhood. The puja was also meant to make them feel at home,” says Rana Chatterjee, convenor of the puja committee.
Today, despite the 2,000-odd community pujas in the city, the first still retains its charm. Live shehnai recitals in the mornings and evenings are a permanent feature; and Hindustani classical music maestros such as Ustad Sajjad Hussain and Ustad Ali Ahmed have performed here. Some of the city’s celebrities, such as dancers Amala Shankar and Tanushree Shankar, are regular visitors. This year, veteran singer Dwijen Mukherjee will be performing at the mandap.
Kashmere Gate, New Delhi
As you step through the 20ft-high gate of the Kashmere Gate Durga Puja pandal, you’re transported back in time. The aroma wafting from dhunuchis (pots of lit camphor and coconut coir) pervades the expanse of the football field where the pandal is set up up every year.
Every evening, the priest performs aarti, a brass bell in his left hand and the panchapradip (a stand of five small diyas) in his right. Men clad in crisp silk kurtas and dhoti and women in colourful saris go about taking care of the nitty-gritty. Dhakis drum in unison, while their assistants keep up the tempo on brass cymbals.
Members proudly claim that nothing has changed in the way this puja has been observed since 1910. “The mould in which Durga’s face is cast has been the same for more than a decade,” says Kamaleshwar Sen, president of the Samiti.
Around 350 Durga Puja pandals come up in Delhi every year. The city is also considered the fourth location outside undivided Bengal to start celebrating Durga Puja. Started by four families and railway workers in 1910, it now draws at least 3,500 devotees a day.
It has the loyal following of third and fourth generation members. “Some families are scattered across the city, even as far as Dwarka and Gurgaon, but many of them make it a point to pack their bags and shift into the neighbourhood. We hire a couple of guesthouses for the organizing committee members,” says Amitava Chakravarty, who has not missed a single Puja in the past 40 years.
The venue was shifted four times, starting with Mirza Ghalib’s residence in Ballimaran in old Delhi, before the puja made the football ground of the Bengali Senior Secondary School its home in 1967.
Jatra (Bengali folk theatre), plays and folk songs draw crowds in the evenings. “Our entertainment budget is around Rs1 lakh out of the total Rs8 lakh budget,” says Mukherjee.
This year, too, there is no deviation from the norm. The idol will be made in the same style — the goddess, her children Ganesh and Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati, and the demon Mahishasur all on a single platform wearing shola and bright paper adornments. Only the priest, Mukherjee and two assistants will be allowed in the puja area. The dhakis who have been playing here for years will play this year too. And when it’s all over on Dashami (Dussehra), a bullock cart will transport the idols for immersion in the Yamuna.