The dhakis drum up slow, halting beats. Most of them—drum-beaters who play the dhak, a large version of the dholak—are middle-aged Muslim men from West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. Seasoned dhakis mastered the instrument long ago, and played in West Bengal for years before they were invited to Mumbai during Durga Puja.
The tempo of the beats rises, minute by minute.
The priest readies a concoction of scented agarbatti and camphor.
Women in crisp cotton tangail saris blow into white conches.
Bhadralok start the dancing aarti, well rehearsed in it, and dressed for it—usually in a white silk dhoti and kurta. Think Sanjay Dutt in Parineeta.
Historically, bhadralok qualified a generation of Bengali men who hobnobbed with British officers, mindlessly imitating their every bow and bend. Bengalis boast they were the very men responsible for Bengal’s great renaissance in the arts in the early 19th century.
In Mumbai, the 21st century avatar of the bhadralok is easily recognizable at Durga Puja pandals across the city.
For the unacquainted, Durga Puja coincides with Navaratri, and is celebrated largely in West Bengal, Orissa, Assam and parts of Bihar. Goddess Durga’s marquee standing atop Mahishasura, a half-lion and half-demon figure, and her four children, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganesha and Kartik, are clothed in coloured, zari-embroidered cottons and silks, offered flowers, incense and vermilion, and on the last day, Vijaya Dashami, given an emotional farewell.
Many probashi (a generic term for Bengalis living outside West Bengal) families get together and hire buses to visit pandals—and the circuitous route involves stops at Chembur, Parel, the August Kranti Maidan, Bandra, Lokhandwala and Vashi. It is a time when Bengali-ness takes over. Shrill, endless chatter and a serious penchant for non-vegetarian staples such as luchi (east Indian name for the puri) and mutton curry cooked in mustard oil are just two of the many things that characterize Bengali joie de vivre; and these are in abundance during Durga Puja. For most Hindus from the east, non-vegetarianism and religion are perfectly compatible.
The first (or last, depending on where you are starting from) stop for pandal-hoppers in Mumbai is Tejpal Hall, the only famous puja in south Mumbai. It is an auditorium used throughout the year to stage Gujarati and Marathi plays, overlooking the historic August Kranti Maidan. It hosts the city’s oldest Durga puja, dating back to 1929. A Bengali entrepreneur started it on his own first-floor terrace in the neighbourhood. Later, it became a Puja patronized by Bengali CEOs and businessmen.
The impossible-to-miss, only celebrity quotient here: Shobhaa De (always in a Bengali sari and with traditional red and white bangles meant for married Bengali women) and her husband Dilip De.
It was my first Durga Puja in Mumbai, nine years ago. A culture shock of sorts. For those of us who have grown up in the East, especially, anywhere outside Kolkata (where Durga Puja is celebrated with grandeur), memories of these four days of the year have smaller, simpler associations. New sets of clothes, one for each day; visits to toy fairs and later, to trinket and jewellery stalls; jostling past milling crowds for helpings of the bhog (khichdi with a dollop of ghee melting into it, a sweet tomato chutney, stir-fried mixed vegetables and payas or rice pudding); being fed and gifted with goodies by the neighbourhood aunt because girls below the age of 12 are invited on the second day of Durga Puja for a special ceremony called the ‘kumari puja’ (offerings to the child avatar of Durga).
Here in Mumbai, people queued up to take off their shoes. There was a line to offer flowers to the goddess and another long one for the bhog buffet. But still, after 10 days of the Ganpati festival, it seemed like home.
The real hoi polloi destination is Shivaji Park—somewhat of a chaotic village fair which, with age, I have learnt to avoid. The Bengal Club of Bombay has its office here, and this year, it is celebrating the 72nd year of The Bombay Sarbojonin Durgotsav. (Sarbojonin literally means ‘for all people’.) At any time of the day, you’re unlikely to be able to move past the crowd to see the idols up close. Vendors scream, trying to sell saris, jewellery, books and food.
The suburban celebrations begin at Bandra and Khar. They are intimate, unpretentious and restricted to Bengalis living in the area. A reason to eat, socialize and chat—what we call adda.
Further up north, the two pandals in the western suburbs—Santacruz and Lokhandwala—are patronized by the Bengali who’s-who of the film world. A few years ago, a city tabloid reported how miserable Rani Mukherjee felt because she had to miss her family Durga Puja while on a shoot in New York. Her grandfather, Shashadhar Mukherjee, film producer of yesteryears and brother-in-law of actor Ashok Kumar, started the family puja 60 years ago. High on Bollywood quotient, it is now a for-invitees-only affair. This year’s festivities are special because it is Mukherjee’s niece’s first.
The biggest, most extravagant pandal in all of Mumbai was started in 1996 by singer Abhijeet, then at the peak of his career as a playback singer.
Now mostly out of work, the singer famous for singing Shah Rukh Khan ditties is more than eager to talk about his annual extravaganza. First of all, he reminds me that his musical talents were first spotted in Mumbai when he performed at a Durga Puja pandal (that’s another integral part of Durga Puja celebrations—if you can sing or dance, you’ll be up on the makeshift stage next to where the goddess stands. “Cultural programmes”, after the evening aarti, are a must.) This year, he says, 20 corporates have agreed to sponsor his annual extravaganza. “Ma Durga will be atop a chariot inside a palace with waterfalls. It’s being designed by the film set designer Bijon Dasgupta.” The budget is about Rs2 crore, he is quick to add. This puja is open to the public and approximately 3,000 people eat the free bhog served on all four days.
My first and only trip to the Lokhandwala puja was about seven years ago. I expected beautiful idols, fireworks and great food. Instead, I got hits from Hindi films blaring from mammoth speakers. “This year, we’ll have folk singers and performers from Bengal,” promises Abhijeet.
I would avoid. After the bhadralok’s aarti, adda and dinner would be perfect in Bandra.