Cautious or Cavalier? A Durga Puja Report Card From Bengal

The exhilarating sound of the dhak blends with the intoxicating smoke of the dhunuchi. Art joins hands with commerce to produce sprawling pandals with majestic idols, blurring the boundaries between faith and fortune. Millions flock, gather, and queue, waiting to witness divinity as Bengal’s daughter comes home.

Every autumn, with the arrival of Durga Puja, the essence of festivity goes viral and the idiosyncrasies of indulgence ensnare West Bengal. But not in 2020.

“This time, the entire Durga Puja ambience was rather muted. Call it a streak of pathetic fallacy, but the gloomy weather empathised perfectly with the restricted celebrations, dampening plans and reminding us time and again that this pujo is an anomaly,” said Sohinee Basu, a postgraduate student of English literature and, in a normal year, a passionate pandal-hopper from Kolkata.

For Basu, as for countless others, a Durga Puja amid the pandemic of COVID-19 did not feel anything like its usual ostentatious self. “I think most of my pandal-hopping this year was done by surfing through Instagram. With loitering around the streets till the wee hours of the night scrapped off the list, this year was more about getting in touch with old friends (rarely in person) and dealing with the gnawing sense of the pujo vibe, omnipresent every year, being missing this time around,” said Sohinee.

What was also missing, until a timely intervention by the Calcutta high court, were official instructions to the people of West Bengal warning against overzealous celebrations that would have guaranteed a rampant rise in cases in the immediate aftermath of the festival. On October 19, a court order declared all pandals as containment zones, allowing only puja organisers, and no visitors, inside the premises of the pandals.

According to Dr Kunal Sarkar, an eminent cardiac surgeon and one of Bengal’s most prolific public speakers, the high court ruling was a “godsend”.

“As battle-weary doctors, we expected a clear and timely message from the All India Trinamool Congress state government… they should have come out with a statement months in advance, stating that this year all celebrations should be personal, and with a sensible set of directives to prevent crowds from gathering. But no such announcements ever came. Instead, we, as doctors and medical professionals, had to organise public awareness campaigns through social media,” he said.

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With the West Bengal legislative assembly elections due in 2021, Dr Sarkar had no doubts that there were “political compulsions” behind the “terrible indecision” of the Mamata Banerjee government and the reluctance of the state administration to explicitly discourage “triumphalism about Durga Puja this year”.

Notwithstanding the absence of a definitive list of guidelines from the government, the people of Bengal seemed to have heeded the concerns around the pandemic. After initial videos of crowds mingling and jostling at puja inaugurations went viral, most pandal-hoppers began to tone things down.

Low footfall

Puja hotspots like Maddox Square in Kolkata’s bustling locality of Ballygunge – a favourite adda destination for people of all ages – fell eerily quiet, with its habitually dazzling lighting reduced to a shadow of its former self. The serpentine lanes littered across Bengal, accustomed to pandals emerging cheek by jowl, lay empty, while no surge of devotees overwhelmed the security arrangements at the so-called blockbuster pujas. From an occasion of merrymaking where anything goes, this year’s Durga Puja transpired more like an obligation that had to be met – a series of rituals without revelry.

Pujo was very low-key this year,” said Sundeep Bhutoria, in charge of Chaltabagan, one of the most popular pandals in North Kolkata. For more than a decade, Chaltabagan has distinguished itself for its intricacy of craftsmanship as one of the most creative pujas in the city. There was no shortage of dexterity this time either, but the throngs of onlookers marvelling in awe were nowhere to be seen.

“We had to cancel the dhak utsav and the sindoor khela events this time, which always tend to be crowd-pullers as we get celebrities to participate… The entire pujo premises were barricaded in conformity with social distancing norms. We had also installed sanitisation stations and kept first aid kits handy,” said Sundeep.

The emptiness that swept through elaborate pandals like Chaltabagan also pervaded iconic bari’r pujo celebrations, none more so than at the Shobhabazar Rajbari, where Durga Puja is an unmissable tradition, tracing all the way back to the first puja organised at the Rajbari by Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb in 1757.

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“Every year, there is an approximate footfall of 5,000-6,000 people at our place on each day of pujo, within the first few hours of the morning itself. The evenings are packed too, and there is hardly any space to stand. But this time, we did not have more than 30 people. The ones who were present were mostly from the family, each of whom had been issued a special card for entry,” noted Debayan Mitra, a member of the Shobhabazar Rajbari.

Regular sanitisation exercises and the lack of outside admirers aside, Mitra identified visarjan – the practice of submerging the idol in water on the last day of Durga Puja – as the most prominent departure from normal proceedings. “On Dashami, as we make our way to the ghats, we always carry the Goddess on our shoulders. But for the first time in our history, we made a change this year, arranging for a trolley to wheel the Goddess to her submergence,” said Mitra.

While admitting that there had been a “significant drop in terms of scale”, Mitra highlighted how this had been, in many ways, “a more personal pujo” for him and his family. Whereas puja evenings would generally see members of the Rajbari scampering around trying to manage the crowd and distributing bhog, this year they had no such duties and could spend hours connecting with each other.

Economic hardship

When it comes to a personal connection with Durga Puja, few enjoy a more intimate relationship with the festival than those who kickstart the entire process by spending long painstaking hours to create the idols that eventually become ubiquitous across newspapers, television screens, and increasingly, social media.

At Kumartuli – a traditional potters’ quarter in Kolkata – thousands of idols are prepared annually, with many artisans starting work seven to eight months before Durga Puja arrives. The lockdown enforced by the pandemic meant getting idols ready this year had become a race against time.

“Work was completely stagnant for a good four to five months, a time we put to great use in other years. Sales of idols were slashed by half. We only managed to sell 40-50% of what we normally do, and that too without any profit margin. Sizeable idols measuring up to ten feet were sold at a fraction of their standard rate. Most of the orders we received were for small to medium sized idols, as budgets were low everywhere,” said Mintu Pal, a veteran at Kumartuli.

A large chunk of Kumartuli’s labour force is made up of migrant workers not native to Bengal. The existential crisis of the pandemic meant that many did not return in time to be able to join in on bringing Durga and her coterie to life.

“The fact that Durga Puja ended up happening at least allowed us to earn the bare minimum we needed to sustain ourselves. But things have been really bad this year. We received no help from the government and no compensation despite the several requests we had made. We want journalists to mention so that people are made aware of our plight. After a prolonged period of unemployment, we really do not know how to revive our financial situation,” said Minakhi Pal, another Kumartuli artisan.

In the annals of Bengal’s greatest festival, 2020 may end up as an inconvenient footnote – the year Durga Puja staggered, but did not quite stop. Next year, as the Puja promise goes, will be grander. It was a promise that had never failed, until this time.

Ultimately, COVID-19 did not completely derail the Durga Puja experience in West Bengal, even though it tempered the exuberance considerably. As the countdown for next year’s Puja begins, with all hopes pinned on a resumption of normal services, both the government and the governed must realise that Durga’s trishul will not slay the virus in 12 months’ time. Instead, if Durga Puja 2021 is to be its magnificent self once more, West Bengal will need a different trident, one whose prongs comprise care, compassion, and commitment – values as indispensable during a festival as they are during a pandemic.

Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom and Samriddha Dutta is a graduate in English, Sociology and Film Studies from St Xavier’s College, Kolkata. She likes writing short pieces of fiction, essays, and poems. 

Featured image credit: Boudhayan Bardhan/Unsplash