Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Flavors of Bengal: A trip to the land of culture during its biggest festival, Durga Puja

The season of celebration is here with its luxuriant hues. A sudden conspiracy of lush green, slow currents of air moving; wafting with them is a smell of coolness, of shadowed tree trunks, of shady leaves, ferns. White headed Kashful nod their feather-light forms to announce that the goddess is here. The leaves of autumn, the orange-stemmed siuli flowers all herald the coming. On the early autumnal morning of Mahalaya, an auspicious occasion observed seven days before the Durga Puja, the whole of Bengal rises up in the chilly pre-dawn hours, to tune in to the “Mahisasura Mardini” broadcast on All India Radio (AIR).This two hour radio program is an exquisite audio montage of recitation from scriptural verses, devotional songs, and classical music and has overtime become an intrinsic part of the celebratory season. The legendary narrator Birendra Krishna Bhadra in soaring Sanskrit narrates the story of the annihilation of the demon Mahisasura, “Mahisasura Mardini”. His voice, immanent, inescapable, like thump of heart, invokes the demon-diminishing ‘Durgatinashini, Devi Durga’.  The goddess acquiesces.  With her four children by her side, Laxmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya, the divine consort of Lord Shiva, our beloved Maa Durga, descends on earth to celebrate the season of happiness with her devotees.

Although Durga puja is widely celebrated around India and abroad, it is regarded as the most significant socio-cultural event in the Bengali society. In West Bengal and Tripura, which have the majority of Bengali people, it is the biggest festival of the year. During Durga puja the face of Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal, changes overnight. There is festive fever and frenzy. The goddess becomes the muse bringing out the best in her devotees; the city becomes a jorum of art as the goddess descends in every street pandal (the temporary structures that house the goddess and her family) and in every home that celebrate her auspicious advent.

Kolkata, being my maternal home, has always been favorite city. Having a close connection with this city, I always grab a chance of visiting the myriad hued conurbation during the season of celebration. Amidst hectic academic schedule, when the chance of attending Durga puja in West Bengal came across, I embraced the prospect with open arms.


Late in the afternoon of Saptami, loaded with baggage as I disembarked at the Sealdah Railway Station in Kolkata and smelled the whiff of fresh autumnal air redolent of celebratory enthusiasm, excitement reigned. When I observed the Kolkata after two and a half years of absence, it struck me as quintessential as always. The yellow taxis were there, the rush, the traffic were there, and the people, wide-eyed and excited were there too. Entering the city, I heard the unmistakable sound of dhaak (Indian drum) accompanied by the obvious smell of burning incense and caught sight of one or two of the numerous pandals, temporary structures impleached with creativity housing the goddess and her family. There in the taxi on my way home, I got reacquainted with sights and sounds of the City of Joy seeped in its celebratory joyfulness.

The elegance of Kolkata during Durga puja lies undoubtedly in the city’s artistic depictions of the goddess in her hundred different avatars. Every local club celebrating Durga puja becomes abuzz with activity months before the celebratory season incepts planning on their showcasing of the goddess, their choice of pandal decoration. Although such artistic hype have undermined the religious significance of the celebration, the true spirit of the season remains unfrayed as  more and more people take to the streets during the four days of puja inspecting the various scaffolds and the gods within them and passing their artistic judgment.

This year I had the chance of reviewing some of the famous creative seats of the goddess. From the artistically alive, snazzy theme pujas of South Kolkata to the convention oriented somber pujas of suburban West Bengal; I observed the seasonal favorites and their myriad hues.


Saptami Crowd
In the evening of Saptami, I embarked on my noctivagant journey of imbibing the festive favorites. I found the streets full of people, lovers, revelers, men, women and children walking in narrow alleys and streets thick with perfume and smell of fried foods, their new clothes sweat-pasted on their forms. As I walked my way through the crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder about the numinous energy that draws people out of their homes in the wee hours of the night and makes them traverse over-populated backstreets and passageways in the hope of catching one glimpse of the goddess and her family. What is it, I wondered, that attracts modest human beings out of their beds and into the streets to celebrate seasonal happiness? Is it the goddess, or simply the spirit of the season she unleashes in human minds that transforms all grimaces into grins and renders all routines null-and-void?  It is both I concluded, having woken up from my reverie by the blare of bhepu, a portmanteau of the Vuvuzela and a blow horn, this soft cardboard made (un) musical instrument is highly popular in the festive season among young adults.
Singhi Park

The South Kolkata puja scene being incomplete without visits to the famous duo: Singhi Park and Egdalia Evergreen Club, I began my travelling spree with the former. Singhi Park, one of the oldest and most renowned haunts of south Kolkata, dates back to 1941. The puja has always preferred to be the antithesis of theme pujas in continuing the traditional way of worshipping the goddess, and this year is no exception. Their 62-ft pandal adorned with items used during any Hindu festival like conch shells, drums, bells, etc., was a replica of the Dakhineswar Temple. It had a creamy-white facade with red borders. The goddess and her family within were as traditional as the pandal. The tall and imposing goddess, embellished in her finery observed the proceedings with her fiery eyes. Although traditional in their choice of pandal d├ęcor and idol depiction, Singhi Park experimented amply with their lighting. Massive ceremonial gates adorned with scintillating light bulbs depicting traditional and modern motifs and contemporary incidents in their dazzling canvasses were placed in the entrance and egress area.


Egdalia Evergreen Club, the cultural brethren of the aforementioned Singhi Park, took the experimental route. Established in 1943 this popular puja is known for its innovations in designs and lighting. This year they came up with an Indo-German fusion creation that touched the heights of artistic creativity in depicting the traditional concepts in the fabric of modern art. The Mandap was the replica of an urban city road with footpaths and traffic signals. World renowned artist Gregor Schneider lent his ideas and concepts to this puja.

FD Block, Salt Lake, Kolkata

As South Kolkata shuffled between traditional and modern themes, the Durga Puja at FD Block Salt Lake, Kolkata, preferred to present thing big. At the venue a 40-ft Durga idol in golden created out of fiberglass emanated her aureate aura as onlookers stood spellbound at her feet gazing at her Brobdingnagian structure. Surrounding the idols were 12 temples, symbolizing 12 jyotirlingas. On the right side of the colossal fiberglass idol was another pandal with a huge Shiva in the Nataraj form.

The Suruchi Sangha puja at New Alipore, which is among the biggest crowd-pullers for its innovative themes, incorporated the majestic state of Kashmir facing an environmentally uncertain future in their theme. Its original conceptualization of bringing to life the ecological issues and thereby inculcating the audience to be more concerned about the environment won them many accolades.
The Goddess being decorated

The cultural extravaganza of Durga puja took a tectonic shift for me when after inspecting the famous pujas of south Kolkata I headed for the home of my in-laws in Kalyani, a suburb of Kolkata. The majestic idols gave way to modest pujas, the colossal pandals to homely scaffolds, the trendy clothes to traditional attire; in short the whole festive circuit suddenly began to course on a different track.

On the morning of Ashtami dressed in my best sari as I walked into the homes of one of the acquaintances, a family that has been celebrating Durga puja in the traditional style, I realized the change for the first time. The Ashtami anjali (offering, prayer) was about to begin and the goddess was being decorated. In a small four-walled minimalistic room the brass-bodied deity was adorned with a number of garlands made of: hibiscus, orange and yellow marigold, Bel leaves, tuberose and many more. The daughter of the priest put on the adornments with conscious attention as the onlookers watched the proceedings with clasped hands and welled-up eyes. If devotion were tangible, I am sure I could locate it in that little overpopulated room.  The supreme omnipotent majesty stripped off her thematic fineries struck me for the first time as Uma, the daughter of the house; her nectariously sweet face devoid of made-up art was as natural as it could be.

The Ashtami puja terminated with the distribution of fol (fruit) Prasad and the quintessential khichri bhog. Khichri, the trademark celebratory dish of Durga puja is a blend of rice and lentils and is served in hot dollops on banana-leaf plates along with fried accompaniments like eggplant fry, thin slices of eggplant dipped in gram flour and deep fried, and cabbage curry. But festival foods for Bengalis are never complete without sweets of various kinds. Milky treats like payasam, and traditional Bengali sweets like rosogollas, sondesh and mishti doi are also served as part of the Mahastami bhog.  
Sweet Offerings

Taking about foods popular in the festive season one must never ignore the endless flavors available in the street shops. During the puja time the market for street food is certainly, unequivocally as high as home-made and restaurant made delicacies. The options are endless too: chow mein, egg-rolls, panipuri, popcorn, ice-cream, idli, dosa, biryani and many more. Pandal hopping Bengalis often slow down for a bite of fast-food and the disposable plates and ice-cream sticks that line the side-streets outside any puja pandal are a testament to the fact that people love to indulge in the scrumptious delicacies available on the go. 

I too indulged in some of the festive flavors as I made my way to the popular pandals of the Kalyani. The Central Park Durga puja is the biggest in the area and attracted a large crowd. When I walked into the pandal on the eve of Navami, Dhunuchi Nach was being performed. 'Dhunuchi nritya' or ‘the dance with effervescent smoke' is a traditional dance form Bengal, which is performed in front of the idol of the Goddess Durga to the sound of dhak, the traditional drums.

Dhunuchi Ntritya, Central Park, Kalyani

A dhunuchi is an earthen pot with a funnel base and an open top. Burning coconut shells is put inside and then powdered incense, known as Dhuno (powdered smoke producing incense), is poured over it to create the atmosphere. A sweet smelling thick white smoke spreads and engulfs your senses. Then with the Dhakis and their drum beats, the Dhunuchi dancers balance the earthen pots, with the base delicately placed on their palms, between their teeth or on foreheads. They then dance to the drum beats with the burning Dhunuchis. The deep percussion of the dhaak, embellished sometimes with long white or multi-colored feathers, and rhythmic movement of the dhaakis, is inseparable part of the Durga Puja celebrations.

As the dancer performed his steps I stared at the goddess’s face for a good five minutes. The face visible through a miasma of smoke seemed to be bursting with life. The iridal dark-brown of the goddesses eyes seem to shine with majestic brilliance, the margaric smile that lined her lips, frozen, seemed to dilate with vitality. For a moment I felt transported, elevated into a different hemisphere, into a spiritual limbo where I heard nothing but the drum beats and saw nothing but the three glittering eyes of the earthen goddess.

After taking a full dose of cultural ecstasy, indulging in finger-licking good food, and spending time with loved ones, I witnessed the finale of the festive season. Vijaya Dasmi, the last day of the Durga Puja sung the farewell paean. On the eve of her sendoff, the goddess was smeared with vermillion, fed sweets and entreated to come back once again the following year.

Bidding the goddess adieu

At the epilogue of the saga, the four days of fun and frolic, of pandal-hopping and puja greetings struck me as some photic illusion. Married women with faces and partings rubescent with vermillion, children still under the hypnotic state of joy, young men who had to return to work, and geriatrics who couldn’t wait to get their children and grandchildren back the coming year all bade the beloved Devi Durga goodbye with tears in their eyes. I too joined the crowd and prayed for divine mercy and hoped to re-indulge in the season of celebration the upcoming year.

“Asche bochor abar hobe” (It'll happen again next year)!!

Non-English Words Used in the Blog-post:

1.      Dhaak— drum
2.      Saptami, astami, navami, vijaya dasami— four days of Durga Puja
3.      Durga puja — The worship of Goddess Durga, a Hindu festival. To know more about it you may read: