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One probably has to be a Bengali by birth to be able to organise this enormous event called the Durga Puja. The decorative pandals, and exquisite clay figures of gods, goddesses, demon and animals are actually just the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath is colossal coordination : among weavers, carpenters, wood carvers, pandal makers, screen painters, artists, conceptualisers, architects, florists, lightmen, electricians, makeup artists, copywriters, printers, publicity managers, queue managers, caterers, space marketing people, public relations persons to negotiate with the police and neighbours, accountants, cooks, mechanics, fitters, welders, and of course, fund raisers. One also needs to acquire some kind of social status to rope in celebrities, to be able to convince friends, and also friends of friends, to be able to put up a show on this grand a scale in various cities.
Besides, a puja pandal is also a veritable forum for social reform. Durga Puja is not worship alone;worship is only incidental to it;the Durga Puja is actually a cultural event for the Bengali, an attempt to present to the world the various things that make up contemporary reality. A Durga Puja once rolled out is easier to maintain, but to start it anew every year makes for some sociology of community mobilisation worthy of documentation. While we have had histories of the Durga Puja written, we never had the sociology of the Durga Puja: Bengalis, constructed as a loser community, doing well only when outside Bengal;a community known for internal bickering putting up a show that requires so much of dense accumulation of social capital.
Durga Puja is perhaps the only event in which it's not just the emotions and passions of the Bengali that come to the fore, but also his enormous spirit of entrepreneurship. Actually, the Puja is the great displaced symbol of the Bengali spirit of enterprise. Puja happens precisely because avenues for a Bengali are blocked on so many fronts. Thus, to my mind, a study of the Durga Puja must be located in Bengal's industry and not so much in its worship. A Bengali goes to Kalibari for worship, to the Ramkrishna Mission for sublime transcendence, but a Durga mandap is never to be confused with her search for god. For the Bengali, the Durga mandap is her ramp walk, her ballroom, her art exhibition, her theatre for spectator art, her club lounge, in short, her space to locate and present her entire being.
Bengal historically exported medicines, oilseeds, mustard, poppy seeds, textiles, and other craftwork like woven baskets and fishing nets, ropes and wooden planks for boats. After the colonial encounter, Bengal's trade shifted, expectedly, to agro-based products like indigo and jute, and later to pure agricultural produce: paddy, or dhaan. Paradoxically, the destruction of industries also urbanised Bengal, which was mostly built out of a culture of babudom, where babus were petty zamindars making money from paddy auctions. Durga Puja was set up by such urbanised nouveau-riche. Wealth made them desirous of power but the colonial government denied them the means to exercise it. Durga Puja was thus a paradox;it was at once the manifestation of a new wave of the cultural renaissance made possible with the rise of a new bhadralok class, but at the same time a signifier of tremendous powerlessness - because of the usurpation of government by the English East India Company.
However, a tradition was born, and only increased in number, scale and scope after independence. It also has much to do with Bengal's sense of industry and innovation that still exist, not just out of its culture and creativity. Bengal's printing is still one of the best in India, textiles continue to rule and, interestingly, it was the only province where displacement due to Partition - or retrenchment from shuttered factories - has only spurred trade and manufacturing. Local trains in Bengal sell stuff through which China once captured the world market. Bengal's industries are based on community capital, social networks, patronage, creativity and innovation. To this the Durga Puja adds another vital angle, aesthetics. Durga Puja is the Bengali's dream industry. It has teamwork, camaraderie, needs social capital, community resources, civic consciousness, public relations, in addition to culture and the arts. This kind of business also has another attraction;it ceases to be after a week leaving the Bengali to pursue other interests.
And there is hardly a Bengali eye that is not tearful when the idol of Durga is immersed into the Ganges - or any another major river in some other part of the country - to return to her home with Shiva. We see in her immersion the pain of having to send a daughter away to her in-laws' home. Stories in Bengal are rife with Uma's mother weeping at her imminent parting with her daughter, as she joins her consort Shiva in the faraway mountains. Plus, one cannot have a Durga Puja until one loves the daughter;hence communities with a strong preference for male heirs and tendencies towards female foeticide can never set up a Durga Puja.
Any study of the Puja phenomenon will prove rather fascinating and amply rewarding for a sociologist looking to delve deeper into its appeal - as the great dislocated symbol of the Bengali spirit of initiative.
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator
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