Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
Today is Nobomi, or, as they say in Delhi, Navami. Just before rushing off to the Kashmere Gate pujo, which is in its 103rd year and is also our neighbourhood pujo, I thought I'd write a few lines on the Pujo phenomenon. Durga Pujo, as most people know, is the main festival of the Bengalis. Yes, we have Laxmi Pujo and Kali Pujo, Dol (Holi) and Saraswati Pujo, but none matches the grandeur of Durga Pujo. In fact, often it is simply called "Pujo," such is its pre-eminence in the Bengali imagination and the Bengali heart. Perhaps it is because it goes on for five full days, or, at least, four and a half days. Perhaps it is because it is not unduly close to any examinations in the school calendar. Perhaps it is because it is, in a certain sense, unique to Bengal. Perhaps it is because it comes with a change of season-the kaash flower is in bloom, there is a little nip in the air, anxious Bengali mothers think about airing their children's woollies. Perhaps it is because it sends idol makers, pandal decorators and lighting experts into a frenzy of creativity, trying to outdo their neighbourhood rivals or surpass what they had produced the previous year. Perhaps it is because it signals a period of licence and freedom from the quotidian. Housewives can put a lock on their kitchen doors; women and men can blithely take leave from office and exchange their shirts and trousers for sarees and dhutis; senior citizens can hobble into pandals on their grandchild's arm; children can go pandal hopping, eat puchkas and ghugni and burir chool (crone's hair/candyfloss) to their hearts'content, stay out late and never go to bed if they so choose. Whatever be the reason, that peculiar mix of excited anticipation and faint anxiety ushered in by the sonorous sounds of Birendra Krishna Bhodro's Agomoni on the radio in the early hours of Mohaloy, and the unbridled joy that follows, is not to be equalled by any other festival.
There are all the little rituals leading up to Pujo in Calcutta. The Pujo songs come out, special numbers composed for the occasion by leading music directors like R.D. Burman and sung by Lata, Hemanta, Shyamal, Asha, Aroti. Desh and Anondo Bazar Potrika come out with their pujobarshiki, fat anthologies of new novels, short stories and poetry written especially for Pujo by leading writers like Shirshendu Muklhopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shanker and Joy Goswami. The literary work is accompanied by superb illustrations by prominent illustrators, the style of each illustration being different from the next. Children's hearts are breathless with joyful anticipation as they see the bamboo structures of the pandals coming up in each locality with banners proclaiming "Aha, ki anondo akaashe, bataashey," Satyajit Ray's take on Wordsworth's "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive..." And of course the shopping. In the middle of all the sarees for Thakuma, Didima, Pishima and Kakima one could smuggle in a few of one's own favourites and then debate endlessly about which sari to wear on shoptomi, oshtomi, nobomi....
Once Pujo began it was an endless rush from pandal to pandal to see who could see the most and boast of discovering unknown gems in Calcutta's hidden bylanes."You mean you haven't seen that one-oh, you've really missed something," one could boast later to aggrieved cousins over Bijoya. Park Circus had the best idol, made by the legendary Romesh Pal, and the most rocking mela. Bagbazar won hands down for their traditional, ekchala, dhaker shaaj protima (all the idols together) and the delicious Jaina Shilpa Mandir hojmiguli (churan). In South Calcutta, Gokhale Sporting with their glittering gold embellished protima vied for top honours with Shomaj Shebi and Ballygunj Cultural. Shomaj Shebi was also the pandal with the most attractive young men and women, a sight for sore (male and female) eyes! And the pandals were veritable works of art, some depicting the Taj Mahal, some St. Paul's Cathedral, some Belur Math. The lighting too was extraordinary, be it a celebration of the Olympics, front pages of newspapers, or scenes from village life.
The festival ended on a sweet note, literally. Bijoya Doshomi was spent in visiting all one's close relatives and friends, being plied with homemade delicacies like mutton ghugni and malpua, and exchanging boxes of shondesh. All familial enmities and hostilities momentarily forgotten, one would touch one's elders' feet and look on in delight as the men did kolakuli-a wonderful, quintessential Bengali hug! And then one watched all the processions of idols being taken to the Hooghly for immersion, with a somewhat heavy heart, but with the hope that Ma Durga would return again next year.
The best part about Pujo is its eclectic nature. Even as people are reverently removing their shoes, folding their hands and doing anjali before the idol, there are others who are chatting, gorging, flirting and flaunting, without an iota of religiosity in their heads. Durga Pujo has a space for all-for the devout believer, the sceptical agnostic, the merry atheist, the committed sybarite. And what better image of female empowerment can there be than a multitasking woman, who is both wife and mother, who does the job of ridding the earth of evil with ruthlessness and skill when all the male gods fail!