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Kolkata's Changing Puja Ethos

The traditional puja celebrations appear to have adapted to the demands of modernity. With sponsorships and the reach of the media, the social cohesion and the community organisation that marked the festivities of old have been lost. There are now moves to repackage the festival to serve as a popular tourism draw. But the changing modes of organising and celebrating the festival also serve as a motif to understand the shifting equations with modernity on the part of the individual and the community.

Kolkata’s ChangingPuja Ethos

The traditional puja celebrations appear to have adapted to the demands of modernity. With sponsorships and the reach of the media, the social cohesion and the community organisation that marked the festivities of old have been lost. There are now moves to repackage the festival to serve as a popular tourism draw. But the changing modes of organising and celebrating the festival also serve as a motif to understand the shifting equations with modernity on the part of the individual and the community.


odernity is now everywhere. Cultural producers, with their propensity to update the idea of consumption, seek to explore different areas of modernity. In the process, new modes of expenditure are making a foray into the consumer world. Print and broadcast media, films, tourism, games and other consumables all appear to conform to the cultural paradigm of universal modernity. Religious occasions too, not to be left behind, have the blessings of “sponsors” in their keenness to join the culture industry. The middle class – both actual and potential – is the social basis of public culture formations. In addition to the middle classes, another key interest group in the shaping of public culture is the variety of entrepreneurs and commercial institutions that constitute the culture industries, as Appadurai and Breckenridge (1996) put it. In quest of newer pastures, commercial houses have swooped down on an apparently alien area. Thus, the consumer-hunt has propelled big businesses to invade religious culture. They have now set their eyes on popular religious festivals with lucrative awards for images, decoration, pandals and lights. And since annual occasions do not seem to serve their purpose, more deities are being brought into their folds.

In Kolkata, the Durga puja, the most popular festival of Bengal, has thus found its way into the arena. Puja organisers, in their turn, have come enthusiastically forward to oblige the sponsors. The prospect of media hype and coveted awards have proved too irresistible. The Durga puja has shrugged off its religious scruples long ago. Even with its present status as a broadly social festival, the occasion continues to have a special niche in the Bengali psyche. Ever since corporate houses have started luring puja organisers, whatever traditional fervour the puja had, now appears missing. The lure is no longer confined to the Durga puja alone. Goddesses Saraswati and Kali too have earned corporate favour.

Her mythological prowess as killer of the demon, Mahishasura, apart, Durga’s image of a daughter visiting her parents annually with four children is inseparable from Bengali cultural ethos. Thus, her worship is a time for get-together, renewal of relationship and goodwill. The puja serves a significant societal purpose of cleansing and bonding. The social gathering at the local puja pandal with active participation from every household had been a popular tradition close to one’s heart.

Once a grandiloquent private affair of the compradors, the new urban merchant class of Kolkata, the Durga puja also served business interests. Nabakrishna Deb, patriarch of the Shovabazar raj, used his family puja in many ways to further in his own commercial pursuits, thus setting a trend for parvenu merchants.

The puja assumed its community form in the late 18th century. The middle class took control of the goddess through community puja. The public worship lent itself more to amusement than religious obligation. With the end of colonial rule, the festival earned more public acceptance and space. Advertisement campaigns in the form of bills, hoardings, and insertions in autumn issues of periodicals by businesses have always been part of this festival, contributing largely to the puja tempo. The rush for new voices and songs in Bengali music, periodicals and musical soirees on the occasion indicated the domination of the middle class.

Changing Modes of Participation

During the 1980s, corporate sponsors first arrived on the scene. In order to endorse a certain cosmopolitan fervour, the puja soon came to be known as the “Autumn Festival”, earning a consumer-friendly connotation. However, the community festival for long occupying a special niche in the heart of millions soon appeared to be making an abject surrender to capitalistic manoeuvres and as a result, organising and arranging the puja too became another form of cultural consumption. Since the 1980s, no less than a dozen corporate sponsors have come forward to add glitz

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006 to the phenomenon. If Nabakrishna Deb and his peers had sought to prosper in business by entertaining the sahibs, the puja organisers today have given into capitalistic onslaughts. The pre-eminently homely aspect of the worship that enabled “women to emerge from the seclusion of their domestic sphere to inhabit public spaces during the period of the festival” [Ghosh 2000] till the mid-20th century is palpably on its way out.

The elderly ladies, the mothers of thesehouseholds used to visit the communitypuja pandal indiscriminately to getactively involved in the arrangement ofthe worship. The children would get newclothes and shoes. The puja ‘tatva’ usedto be sent to relatives’ places. If the daughters from their in-laws homes were not allowed to come home on the occasion, the mothers used to listen intently to the‘agomani’ (homecoming) songs with tearful eyes. Even the ‘shakta’ (worshippersof ‘Shakti’ or goddess Kali) devotees usedto have a vegetarian meal. Meat and eggwere a taboo during the four days of thepuja [Dutta 1997].

The description of the early 20th century puja, though sketchy, epitomises the traditional role of women. The housewives were in charge of ritualistic chores. They played a key role in instilling a homely spirit in the social get-together that had been part of the occasion. The focus now has strategically shifted to the image, the pandal, decoration, illumination and other showy consumables to overwhelm the public. The decorative items are the sole indicators of excellence now. The organisers aspire for the stature of accomplished showmen to please their promoters. Thanks to sponsors, the prominent puja pandals have adopted to theme-based decoration. The craving for coveted awards fuels artificially stimulated fantasies that are alienated from the concrete, real selves.

The change in the festival of Durga pujahas largely influenced Kali puja too. Interestingly, whatever item assumes prominence in Durga puja pandals, finds its wayinto the Kali puja also. Many organisersof the barwari Durga puja are aware thattheir pandals or illuminations will easilysell during the Kali puja, and their expenditure will be offset…The change in the ethos of Durga puja directly or indirectlyaffect other pujas. Consequently, the Kalipujas in Kolkata have showed up the trendof artistic creations, (and while) not altogether modelled on the Durga puja, it hasits originality too. This year corporatesponsors are out with awards for Kali pujaalso (Bhraman 2002, Vol X, No 10).

Whatever the plight of learning in the state, the goddess Saraswati remains overwhelmingly popular with the younger generation. Her worship on the campus traditionally depends on meagre funds raised internally. But overzealous student organisers of today, in their mad rush for gold, consider the available funds too inadequate to join the fray. In their view, the institution’s prestige is at stake and thus, professional decorators are hired to spruce up pandals. The indulgent institution authority, mostly cash-strapped, is hard put to meet the popular demand. Earlier, the Saraswati puja always saw the spontaneous, spirited involvement of students that breathed life into the campus festival. Organising it gave a scope to children to sharpen their organising skill, teamwork, encouraged even their flair for artistry. Pupils good at things other than academics could also feel that they were not altogether worthless. But the cultural desperation originating in market forces, under the aegis of sponsors, leaves no such room for them. As a corollary, the attachment of the students in general to the festival and the school for that matter is dying away.

As Appadurai and Breckenridge (1996) put it again, succinctly, “Consumption is an activity that works at the same time to capture the distinctive disciplines of modernity and draw attention to new forms of expenditure and social identity”. Consumption, thus, has become a compulsive, irrational aim as it is an end in itself with little relation to the use of or pleasure in the things bought and consumed. To buy and consume the latest is the dream. The attachment to possession prevalent in the older middle class has undergone a sea change. Today, one loves the newness of the thing procured, not the thing itself. The gratifying sense of togetherness, part of the puja sentiment, eludes them in the growing air of modern alienation. The focus having shifted to appearance and impression, the traditional idea of a social gathering at the puja pandals is missing. Television, the most powerful agent of the commercial culture, has also helped initiate the damage.

The modern man buys and consumes in an abstracted and alienated way. A detached customer, he visits the puja pandals without any genuine relatedness to the occasion. He consumes movies, newspapers, the competitive sports, the social gatherings and the religious festival with an equally abstract, detached mode.

Without taking an active part, he takes in as much as possible of pleasure, culture and all. From what had been a social ritual involving households, local groups or clubs have wrested control of puja organising committees with a politically-powered dada at its helm, who controls the area by luring local boys. With these organisers running the show, the inspired involvement of the local households is obviously missing. Neither is their participation looked forward to. The sole target is ensuring the inflow of visitors in thousands from far and wide. The neighbours join the faceless crowd unnoticed, uncared for while the media religiously keeps counting the number of visitors in prominent pandals. The status hinges on the number of visitors and awards won so far. The mammoth crowd notwithstanding, the organisers woo television channels to focus on their show. The ultimate determinant of public and sponsors’ attraction is TV coverage that ensures record crowds. Surreptitious bribing of the TV crew for favour of publicity is part of the game. It enables the armchair holidaymakers to join the crowd of pandalhoppers by proxy. They have a feel of the festivity by courtesy of TV channels.

Carnival Spirit

The spirit of carnival, akin to that in medieval Europe, has traditionally been associated with religious festivals like ‘Charak’ and the Durga puja. In the 18th century, ‘sawngs’ and other road shows organised by the non-elite sections of society were part of these festivals in Kolkata. The acceptance of public entertainment as part of the community worship heralded the flourish of the puja. From the early 19th century, the community puja began to take the shape of an autumn festival.

Such scatological liberties used to be asafety valve for the conflicts within theexisting socio-economic system, symbolicexpressions of the underlying and normally suppressed discontent of the lowerorders against the upper. The latter permitted them as a mechanism by which thepressures engendered by social conflictscould be vented without allowing theconflict to become fully overt and threatenthe upper orders [Banerjee 1989].

The carnival atmosphere allowed a sort of permissiveness most evident in the Holi or Durga puja. The carnival of medieval Europe put on a show of small, scattered islands of time, strictly limited by the dates of feasts, when the world was permitted

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

to emerge from the official routine but exclusively under the camouflage of laughter” [Bakhtin 1968]. Bhabani Charan Bandyopadhyay, in his book Kolikata Kamalalaya (1823), bitterly criticised the social changes brought about by the new urban gentry in Kolkata with the inflow of new money. The Durga puja, said Bandyopadhyay, was mockingly called “chandelier puja”, “festival of baijis”, “occasion for the worship of one’s wife’s jewellery and sarees”, etc. Thus, the impact of the inflow of “new” money on religious affairs in Bengal was first observed nearly two centuries ago.

After the second world war, a new crop of puja patrons began to emerge in Kolkata to renew the carnival spirit in accordance with their taste and instincts. Rapid politicisation of society initiated a change in the communities who held centre stage during the pujas. The process of urbanisation had led to the growth of townships and housing estates that bade farewell to the age-old idea that the neighbour lives next door. Bitter relations among neighbours, holiday trips to village home and elsewhere threw spanners into puja initiatives in most townships. The erosion of ‘para’ consciousness or neighbourliness eased the arrival of powerful locals on the scene. In their overzealous enterprise, these self-styled protectors of the area extorted money from the public leaving the middle class an abject victim of their terror. With the commercial sponsors arriving on the scene, the competitive urge soared. Thus, the common man has lost his attachment with the puja of his locality and is reduced to a detached onlooker hopping from one pandal to another. The detachment has led to looking for alternative ways of enjoying the puja. The mass exodus from the city during autumn holidays is steadily on the rise, if the rush for air, rail and bus tickets is any indication. With the middle class gradually drifting away from the scene, multitudes of urban poor surge into pandals though it had never been the real participants. The urban poor have always remained a marginal community content to be part of the moving crowd.

With the local ‘dadas’ taking over, the competitive spirit showed up in the form of a carnivalesque degradation. The cold war between neighbouring pujas sometimes boils down to tension and clashes. Taking advantage of the atmosphere of permissiveness, the organisers, most of them having strong political clout, flout government rules imposed on them. At places, puja pandals encroach upon thoroughfares. The festive frenzy insists that the roadblock persists even after the pujas. From a few days ahead of the puja to a few days following it, the blockade persists. Even a public outcry, aided by the media, proves futile as do norms set by the fire department to avert disasters which are simply ignored. Directives from the administration not to erect pandals made of inflammables are unheeded. The process of immersion is sought to be deferred indefinitely until police intervention. The joyous abandon that has become part of this community festival has imbibed “the aspect of the carnival, in which rules are inverted, authority mocked and criminals transformed into heroes” [Foucault 1991]. The carnival even takes on an ugly form on the way to immersion.

Growth of Community Durga Pujasin Kolkata

Year Number
1954 1962 1968 1969 1994 1995 2002 300 650 759 901 1104 1120 2000

Sources: (i) Ghosh (2000).

(ii) Festivals of Kolkata

In a society where a large section of the youth has nothing consequential to live with, political leaders are looked up to. These leaders, fully aware of their own limitations and interests, seek to provide them with the panacea of entertainment and recreation in the form of pujas in lieu of loyalty. Indulged by the all-powerful protector, the joyous abandon acquires a flourish right under the nose of the local administration. The growth in the number of pujas and worshippers thus serves as a “safety valve” to suppress the discontent among the helpless youth. It offers them a sense of involvement and a semblance of charm in an otherwise drab existence. The mechanism had a positive contribution to the carnival atmosphere in the 18th century pujas.

Lure of Tourism

Competitions are an accepted strategy of survival, but mere survival does not suffice unless it entails prominence. Rewards from corporate houses add fizz as well as a touch of refinement. At the same time, it drags the pujas towards a commercially contested terrain. The gaudy displays wear the look of a folk art gallery spread across the city. The marvellous structures speak volumes for the creative potentials of the folk artists. The carnival crowds saunter amid the artistic wonders, oblivious of the traditional spirit of the occasion.

At the same time, the corporate world allows the fullest exploration of the tourism potential of the puja carnival. The transnational supply of images and information has facilitated generating universal interest in the festival. An overtly commercial venture is in the offing to sell the show. The Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry has planned to showcase this grand carnival to the world. A number of corporate houses would be roped in to make pandalvisit part of a package. To liken the festival to Brazilian carnival is a reflection of the changing world view in this part of the globe.

The puja frenzy has a matrix altogether different from the other areas of culture industry. The traditional spirit has deserted the pujas yielding place to an occasion that provides a sheer feast for the eye. The goddess,however, is on a global journey begun from the pillared cortiles of the merchant aristocracy of the 18th century in her bid to live up to the concept of modernity. And modernity is eating into a tradition built on the strength of social attachment. This sense of attachment has been the driving force of our modernity. With the initiation of modernity, the spirit of domesticity that used to shine on the festive scene has gradually shaded into the commercial arena. The traditional ethos has succumbed to the paradigm of global modernity.




Appadurai, Arjun and Carol A Breckenridge (1996):

‘Public Modernity in India’ in Appadurai and

Breckenridge (eds), Consuming Modernity,

Oxford University Press, New Delhi, p 7. Bakhtin, Mikhail (1968): Rebelais and His World,

MIT Press, Cambridge, USA, p 90. Banerjee, Sumanta (1989): The Parlour and the

Streets, Seagull Books, Kolkata, p 143. Dutta, Kalyani (1997): Thod Bodi Khada (An

Account of Women’s Life and Culture in the

Late 19th and Early 20th Century Bengal),

Thema, Calcutta, pp 37-38. Foucault, Michel (1991): Discipline and Punish,

Penguin Books, London, p 61. Ghosh, Anjan (2000): ‘Spaces of Recognition:

Puja and Power in Contemporary Calcutta’,

Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol 26,

No 2, p 294.

Economic and Political Weekly November 18, 2006

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