The goddess can be recognized by her step.
Virgil, The Aeneid, I, 405.
In the month of September-October when the season ‘Sarat’ brings a bunch of white clouds in the blue sky, the whole of Bengal celebrates ‘Durgapuja’, Bengali’s biggest festival. When beautiful kashful (grass flower) paints the green land with a touch of white, the goddess Parbati visits her father’s home (i.e. earth) with her four children Ganesh, Kartik, Saraswati, Laxmi for five days and her arrival is celebrated with a great enthusiasm. The wave of enthusiasm flows all across the Bengal with a spirit of togetherness.
Ghosh writes, “The city-scapes acquires a new dimension which is illusive and real at the same time, ‘A post-modern exhibition’ that pays no heed to time, place, country and culture.”
If one goes around asking any Bengali living anywhere around the world, he or she would definitely maintain that Durga Puja is the festival for him, that he waits for all year round. The amount of anticipation and preparation that goes into arranging one small traditional Durga Puja, even if it is restricted to a nuclear family, is immense and unimaginable for an outsider. Even in such circumstances, the scalability is extremely overwhelming. There has been an ever increasing hype amongst the people of the city to visit and marvel at the grandeur of famous Pujas around the city. The amount of grandeur is hardly ever judged by just the idols – the pandals, the decorations and the organisation of relentless crowd, throughout the day and the night, are all considered for evaluation by an average Bengali. Hence, in the last few decades, innumerable themes for Durga Puja have largely come into fashion. Each group of organisers have put all their effort into making their own Puja grander than the rest. That is exactly where commercialization of a religious ritual has come into being, and has been growing, like termites on unkempt wood, in most of the Pujas for the past few decades.
At one level, Durga puja is all about being an exhibition. This is where the goddess, with the festivity that surrounds her, meets the metropolis at large, for the entire city becomes one ongoing exhibition. The city stands transformed—into fantasyland palaces, make-believe fortresses, historical monuments, and glittering golden barge. Altogether kaleidoscopic wanderings and displaced cartographies become one huge ‘spectatorial complex’, with a point of view veering between that of the flâneur and that of the stalker. Call it transportation or transference or even transversal, this making of one thing into something else is what captures the essence of Durga puja as a public art: transferring the familiar locality into the magical; a small piece of land into something large, almost huge; crafts into art; workmen into craftsmen; craftsmen into artists; folk art into what can be called (high) modernist folk art, and so on. Nothing is impossible in the catholicity of representational choices: Jaipur’s HawaMahal (Palace of Wind), the Bangalore Vidhana Soudha (Assembly House), the Senate building of Kolkata University, a church from Tsarist Russia, European castles, the gigantic wreck of the Titanic, a model of the Columbia space shuttle, the Hansheswari Temple of nearby Banshbaria, a dilapidated zamindari mansion complete with wild foliage and creepers. Nothing can remain purely religious in its rendition. Durga puja is a giant factory of ‘secular mass identity’. (Ray, 2017)
Evidently commercialisation has become so much a part of the norm that it is hardly noticed. Instead, community pujas which did not rely on advertisements and corporate sponsorship, during a survey of selected pujas often specifically mentioned their dependence on public subscriptions from the neighbourhood as a mark of local solidarity.
Yet commercialization and globalisation has in a sense always been a part of the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata. One of the earliest and notable city pujas was celebrated by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar in 1757 to commemorate the East India Company’s victory over Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah at Plassey. Nabakrishna was Lord Clive’s banian and the talukdar of north Kolkata. He built a special thakurdalan (hall of worship) where the puja was held and dignitaries entertained. Lord Clive was the guest of honour at his puja and is said to have offered Rs 101, baskets of fruits and a goat for sacrifice. At the celebrations food and clothes were distributed to the poor, a thousand animals are said to have been sacrificed, and there was nightlong entertainment for the distinguished as well as the multitudes. There was elaborate feasting and nautch (dance) performances for the invited, while the populace was entertained with bawdy songs and ribald mimicry (Banerjee 2004: 36-37). Clearly, while Durga Puja had travelled from the households of the rural raja or zamindars (landlords) to the urban arena of Kolkata, it was still confined to the households of the elite.
The baroari (public) worship of the mother goddess commenced from the last decade of the 18th century when twelve Brahmin men formed a committee to conduct their own Durga Puja in Guptipara village in Nadia district of West Bengal, partly because some of them had been denied entry into a household celebration. So they set about performing the worship through a collection of subscriptions from neighbouring villages. Along with the rituals, various entertainments like swang (ironic mimicry), puppetry display, jatra (folk theatre) and half akhrai (a form of bawdy singing and dancing) were also performed.
The public celebration of Durga Puja was a reaction to the restrictive and hierarchical practices of the household pujas. It was said that during three main days of the puja at the Deb household in north Kolkata only the British were invited to the meals. Uninvited guests or trespassers were kept out of the household domain. While entertainment during the puja was free for the masses, entry into the domestic realm was restricted. Along with the opulent display of the household pujas of the collaborating elite, the public worship of Durga also became prominent in the city. By the first decade of the 20th century the baroari puja had become sarbojanin (for everyone), with the entire para (neighbourhood) or community involved. The sarbojanin Durga Puja had become a parar pujo.
In 1910 the Sanatan Dharmotshahini Sabha organized a sarbojanin puja in the Bhowanipur area. (Banerjee 2004: 49). Its institutionalization was effected by the locality known as Baghbazar in north Kolkata in 1918. Their example was soon followed by the neighbouring locality of Simla, where the Simla Byam Samity (a gymnasium club which fostered physical culture among the nationalist youth) also started a sarbojanin puja. Both these pujas were associated with the militant nationalist movement and sought to express their nationalist leanings through covert decorating motifs and the display of martial arts prowess on birashtami. The transformation of ashtami (the eight day of the bright lunar cycle of Aswin), the day when most people offered community worship at the pandals, into a day for the demonstration of martial arts prowess, served as a nationalist challenge to the colonial authorities. (Ghosh, 2006)
McDermott (2016) identified a strong nexus between the religious and economic interests. She has presented the contested viewpoints explaining the rise of the Durga puja in Bengal. She concluded that both the view-points are inherently biased. But the main factors that emerged from her deliberation to be instrumental behind the rise of worship were the exercise of political control and expression of social prestige. Its growth has also been attributed to the emergence of new sites of public sphere in neo-liberal economic conditions.