There are very few festivals that are religious in fervor but incorporate a wide range of social, creative, environmental and political ideas and showcase them on a platform and medium that is artistic, relevant and relatable to people of all religions and caste.
The Durga Puja celebrations that are an integral part of festivities in eastern India, especially in West Bengal and surrounding states is a frenzy of heightened activity and palpable festive earnestness that floods the towns and cities and brings routine daily life to a complete standstill.
From someone who has grown up in Kolkata, take it from me that Durga Puja is probably the best carnival of sorts that is much more than just a religious celebration of good over evil. It is in fact, a perfect way to highlight, create awareness and make statements about myriad cultural and social elements. Besides, of course, like any other festival, it is the time to shop, catch up, to gorge on food, to socialize with friends and family and to go ‘pandal’ hopping, a term that is used with a dash of excitement and enthusiasm by the locals.
What is Durga Puja?
Popular in the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Assam and Tripura, Durga Puja is celebrated in the Hindu calendar month of Ashvin that usually falls in September or October. It celebrates the defeat of the deceptive buffalo demon Mahishasura on the hands of Goddess Durga. Durga Puja is a ten day festival beginning with Mahalaya which is the first day of the Puja celebrations. The sixth day (Shashthi) onwards the real celebrations and prayers commence when the eyes of the deity are painted symbolizing the infusion of life into the clay idol and continue through Saptami (seventh day), Ashtami (eight day) and Navami (ninth day). During these days, along with Durga, Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Saraswati, Lord Ganesha and Karthikeya are also worshipped. On the tenth day or Dashami amidst the beating of drums and chants the idols are immersed in the ocean or rivers and bid adieu as they are believed to return to their divine abode. Dashami is also the day when women smear each other with vermillion called Sindur Khela.
The last day of the Puja coincides with Dussehra.
How is it celebrated?
Durga Puja is celebrated by organizing pujas in homes and prayers and religious rituals are a part of the ten day festival. However, besides the religious rituals and prayers, Durga Puja appeals to non-Hindus as well, because of the beautiful idols that are created by local artists, using various ideas and materials that are centered in pandals or temporary stages that dot the entire city. Each of these pandals are unique in their art and the message that they wish to convey. The magnificently carved and beautifully dressed idols of Durga and other deities on stage are the work of art, created by artists who pour their skills and reverence into the idols over months. Pujas and rituals are also carried out within the pandals yet they are open for all visitors who come in hundreds to adore the splendid idols, the surrounding decorations and the themed pandal renditions.
Social and cultural relevance
Durga Puja involves communities, local ‘paras’, societies coming together, to pool in resources and create something wonderful. The larger than life depiction of the deities, of Ma Durga riding over the astonished and defeated Mahishasura, the petite dignified figures of the other gods and goddesses are poised in the midst of light Rabindra Sangeet, mingled with the chatter of the crowds and lighted with the chants of prayers from the priest. However, the pandals also reverberate with social causes and are exceptional ways to inform and educate the masses that throng to visit them. In many parts the pandals are themed and there are also competitions to vote for the best pandal. Themes range from replicating iconic structures, such as the Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Jagannath Temple as well as, pandals are also built on various concepts, such as, the shape of a Kerala houseboat, a musical concert or the fictional Mahishmati Palace.
However, many pandal themes and decorations also highlight some of the most pressing social issues, such as, the plight of sex workers, women empowerment, global warming, saving the Ganga and more.
The creativity of the artists and the pandal committees are on full display, when they use environment friendly materials or build the pandal using only chairs, or theme the pandal based on the various watches and time aged clock techniques. The list is endless, as every year; the absolute genius of the creators manifests itself in colorful, beautiful and meaningful work that resonates with the social, cultural and current state of affairs.
Preserving the heritage
Durga Puja is also the time when traditional and cultural arts, including dance forms, music etc. are performed by artists. Many pandals organize cultural performances and shows showcasing the traditional talents and heritage of the state and region.
The most wonderful thing about the Durga Puja celebrations is that though there is usage of technology and modern methods whether it comes to pandal building, thematic representations, using 3D technologies and so on, the traditional essence of the celebration is not lost on anyone. In spite of the grandeur and sometimes, the glitz, the music and the fun, the spiritual divinity is not ignored neither usurped. At the end of the day, the puja is still about the victory of good over evil, the understanding of standing up for right and the conviction to emerge victorious against all odds.