Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How Calcutta Durga puja has changed

This time I saw Durga puja in Calutta for the first time since I left Calcutta eight years back. Durga puja has remained the same in spirit but a lot else has changed. Earlier pandals (make shift structures hosting the idol) resembled hastily put together relief camps; now they look like grand arty affairs. In fact, most attention of puja organizers now seems to center around aesthetics of pandals and idols, which, unlike in the past, are built based on various themes. Some of the puja pandals I visited were built based on lotus, universe and so on.

Except a very few pujas, organizing pujas has become an extremely costly affair. Earlier, puja organizers used to visit families residing within the sphere of a puja (almost all areas have their own pujas) and collect donation, anything from Rs. 10, 100 to 1000 and above. Your donation amount depended on your social standing and affordability and if you were too stingy the collectors would put soft pressure on you to part with a decent amount but nothing abnormally high.

Collecting donations from households has become a thing of yore. Pujas have become so big that minor household dole outs can’t accommodate their costs. Now pujas subsist on advertisement revenues collected from corporations. It’s not that corporations weren’t part of Durga puja earlier. But now their presence has become much bigger and they are the biggest funders of most pujas. So you have big banners and buntings surrounding all puja pandals (much more than before).

All these have increased the number of people going pandal hopping, unlike in the past when people coming from main Calcutta mostly used to stick to their area pujas with very minimal venture outs.

Street food is a significant part of puja and it has got substantially corporatized. For every five vendors who come from the unorganized sector, there are at least two to three who represent brands.

I think corporatization has happened for good reasons – because, if anything, it has injected a longer life and vigor into Durga puja by ensuring a stable stream of fund for it, without essentially changing the character of how Durga puja is celebrated or displacing anyone from the economic ecosystem of the puja (organized brands and individual vendors exist side by side). And as for emphasis on aesthetics and grandeur, any person familiar with Durga puja will tell you that it was always more about revelry and celebration of a culture and less about religiosity.

I arrived in Calcutta on Sashti and read the Telegraph, but a little towards the afternoon on Saptami, the next day, I realized I hadn’t read any paper at all. I asked my mother and came to know of another change – that there would be no paper during the four days of the puja.

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