Durga Puja in The City of Joy – A Festival Like No Other
by Srijita Datta
With the approach of autumn during the last throes of monsoon, for five days in Calcutta, excitement pulsates throughout. People stream into the streets with cheer and alacrity in each step. The fluffy clouds and the azure sky alive with the graceful sway of the white ‘kaash’ flowers and is set in the rising in the crescendo of beating ‘dhak’ drum. It signifies that the Mother Goddess, Ma Durga is being invoked, beckoned to begin her descent to the mortal world.
The City of Joy is gripped in a maddening flurry of footfalls and revelry like no other time and during no other occasion. People are inspired, band together and create massive makeshift monuments to the Goddess and pandals are strewn across the city. Around them, teem people donning newly bought apparel without regard for time of day or night. The uninhibited bliss of merrymakers create an atmosphere seldom seen in this chaotic city. It is as though for five days, the place is blanketed with fairy dust, imbued with a kind of magic. Though, according to legend, it was first performed by Lord Rama to gain the blessings of Ma Durga, so he could defeat the demon Ravana and rescue his wife, Sita, the festival around Durga Puja for so long the focal jubilee in Bengal, represents the spirit of Bengalis- it is something that converges every Bengali passion; culture, art, creativity, the love of life, the warmth, the joy of celebration and the cult of the Goddess.
As the days inch nearer and nearer, the sound of conch shells are heard from every traditional Bengali household, coalescing together into a somber symphony that strikes a chord with the right nostalgic crescendos, as if pleading with the Goddess to descend upon the earth sooner and sprinkle a bit of happiness and allow us to forget our difficulties, even if for a short period of time.
The city is ornamented in its brightest finery, shimmering LED lights adorning every nook and cranny; with festoons, decorations, and grand theme pandals,the city looks like a newly wed wife, unrecognizably beautiful, at her very best. The passion of the artisans who have toiled day and night behind the creation of the pandals of intricate complexities, turning them into sometimes grandiloquent pieces of art is visible, evocative of their unbounded craftsmanship. Add to that, the cacophony of celebratory voices and the exhausting pandal hopping itinerary, and one is bound to be overcome by the enchantments of the festive season.’galis’ or narrow by-lanes of north Kolkata into which cars can scarcely squeeze, divinity is shaped. Where the holy river Ganga is not very far off, we may find generations of artisans working together, the chaotic din of many tasks being carried out at once, merging into unison. As we are busy bargaining with stubborn shopkeepers at Gariahat or New Market buying new clothes or gifts for loved ones, quietly and subtly, Kumortuli is bustling with ceaseless activity. The idol-makers toil over their creations with single-minded devotion and the Goddess is crafted with exacting precision. Her calm yet luminous eyes painted in red and black glare down at Mahishasura, the buffalo-headed demon representing the ego of humankind, whom she has conquered. Her serene lips seem to be curled into a quiet smile at the corners for the love and admiration we shower her with. For the artisans, perfecting these eyes is most significant, for it is these features that bring out her divine regality. Some toil for days just to get the them right. It is due to their dedication that when we look up into them after uttering the sacred incantations of ‘pushpanjali’, they seem to glance into our very souls and help us see inside ourselves. We become one with the Goddess, forming a spiritual bond with her, because of those big, carefully painted eyes outlined in red and black. The idols are the artisan’s own just until they have completed putting the finishing touches, and then will belong to everyone.
Once we move away from these old, winding lanes and move into the more modern part of the city, we come across a different pulse. The air throbs with expectation. The ‘dhaak’ beats give us goose-bumps. Echoes of mirth, pieces of conversation, the alluring aroma of delectable street food, the hopes and expectations of thousands, and the warmth of the people all culminate into an amorphous mass of intoxicating joy filling the air. And soon the hearts of Calcutta beat as one, rippling to the rhythm of rolling drumbeats.
Pandal-hopping ensures that the city never sleeps during those five days. There are so many pandals to see, so many decorations to admire, just so much to do! The phuchka-wallas, the bhel-puri wallas go into overdrive,their stalls needing to be replenishment seemingly every five minutes! There is ice cream, the potato chips, jhaal-muri… and of course rossagolla: the food alone could fill the pages of a book. The enchanting rhythm of the Dhaak makes even non-dancers want to sway, and when accompanied by the heavily incensed ‘dhunuchi’ nach, the excitement is unmatched and rivaled only in our fondest memories of festivals past.
More than mere celegration, the puja rituals offers cathartic redemption: they release and purge, meet old demands and give rise to new, rekindling renewed hope, vigor, youthfulness and liveliness. It is as though a bright torch is lit within us and its light renews, strengthens, burns away the baggage of the past. Tired souls in thosewho have been anxiously waiting for this respite since the past year, are finally soothed. They are left in the knowledge that the coming year shall offer the opportunity to make amends.
These five days are filled with the hopes of the thousands of people who believe in the never-ending fight between what we consider to be good and evil, and Durga Puja is perhaps the only time when we can place our prayers at out Mother Goddess’s feet and pray for some sort of justice in a cruel, terror-stricken and merciless world. And people are bonded in this sentiment, hope tying us together like an invisible thread. And while the unity inevitably fades during the course of the year, it is revived the following year at this time.
When I stand amidst a sea of people before our beloved Goddess, and find peace among the lively chaos and chanting, I bow my head down in prayer and ask Her only for one thing: that this endearing spirit not be destroyed, that this hospitality, this tradition, this festival never melts into oblivion as many others have, and that if even for a short while, we can all forget our petty differences and pledge peace in this war ravaged world.
And uncannily, I get to know the answer every time – that the spirit can never be destroyed, because deep in every person’s heart is the need for peace, every individual seeks peace. The Goddess brings an uncommon comfort, a balm to our wounded souls; and because of that, the spirit will never die. But the five days, as exhilarating as they are, seem to simply whizz past. And suddenly, it’s time for her departure again. It is time to bid her farewell, albeit unwillingly, and our tears are swallowed by the holy waters of the Ganges as she takes away with her all our love and gifts us, Her children, the strength to carry on for another long year, although not without the conviction that the following year will be even grander than the one gone by. But no matter what, like true Bengalis, and staunch optimists, we never fail to say “Ashche Bochhor Abar Hobe!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Srijita Datta, 19, studies English Literature at Jadavpur University – and is hopelessly in love with the City of Joy (especially the north domain with its world charm that hits the right nostalgic crescendos within her). She has worked with the youth supplement of The Statesman and had been adjudged the best writer for the year 2012-13. She also won the first prize in a poetry competition by Tulika Publisher, Chennai, in 2014, and her writing has appeared in a few regional online magazines as well. She is a stickler for nature and wildlife although history interests her immensely as well. She loves reading poetry (particularly Rimbaud, Tennyson and Eliot) and is obsessed with fantasy novels, hoping to pen down a trilogy someday.