If it’s autumn in Bengal, it has to be Durga Pujo. And if it’s Durga Pujo, it has to begin with Mahalaya.
Usually held seven days prior to Durga Pujo, Mahalaya is steeped in a myriad of memories – of waking up before the sun and the majestic recitation of shlokas punctuating a collection of Agomoni (welcome) songs in the characteristic nasal timbre and dramatic tone of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. As Bhadra beckons the goddess in the 90-minute musical piece ‘Mahishasura Mardini’ (slayer of the demon), it sets the tone for the grand carnival to follow.
However, even if Bhadra lives on as an iconic legacy of the Bengali narratorial tradition, the televised dance-dramas of ‘Mahishasura Mardini’ have their own dedicated fan following. Popular faces in Bengali daily soaps and big-ticket Bengali and Hindi film actors, including the likes of Hema Malini, have essayed the role of goddess Durga in silver screen renditions in the past. In fact, the question of “who is playing Durga this year” always garners tremendous audience engagement.
This year, Bengali actor and All India Trinamool Congress member of parliament from Kolkata’s Jadavpur constituency, Mimi Chakraborty, was seen as goddess Durga in Kamaleswar Mukherjee’s Durga Durgatinashini (the invincible, the one who eliminates sufferings), which aired on Star Jalsha on September 17.
It isn’t uncommon for ‘star’ elected representatives to continue to appear in reality television shows as hosts, contestants or judges, or in films or daily soaps, which in turn helps them leverage their on-screen popularity in their political careers. Think BJP MP Kirron Kher appearing as a judge on India’s Got Talent or Navjot Singh Sidhu as a guest on The Kapil Sharma Show.
But this year is different. It is important to understand the meta narrative of image and messaging when a popular actor-singer like Chakraborty plays Maa Durga on television, in a state where the polls are just seven short months away. In what is being seen as a bid to woo voters, chief minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee has decided to amp up a battle against the idea engineered by the BJP over the past few years that the party is anti-Hindu. Towards that end, she announced a monthly stipend of Rs 1,000 each for around 8,000 poor Hindu purohits (priests) in the state just this Monday.
The same day, on the occasion of Hindi Divas, Banerjee also breathed fresh life into the party’s defunct Hindi cell with a restructuring. Not stopping there, there is also to be a Hindi academy in a bid to preserve the history of the language in the state, as well as an academy for the preservation of Dalit literature.
About 14% people speak Hindi in Bengal – it’s clear TMC is ready to bring the fight down to the last voter in the upcoming polls.
As an actor, the casting of Chakraborty isn’t extraordinary; it only speaks of the star’s massive popularity and acceptance across the state.
More so, co-opting the majoritarian sentiment – even if in the entertainment space – is also something TMC probably correctly gauges would work well, especially as a counter to the constant criticism that it indulges in minority appeasement politics.
But as an MP, when she plays Maa Durga on the silver screen, Chakraborty unmistakably reinforces her Hindu-woman identity loud and clear. It’s wise acrobatics for the TMC. Durga Pujo is at the heart of Bengal politics; making big, fat donations to Pujo committees and harnessing the space for party branding have been some of TMC’s most potent weapons of mass mobilisation, drawing both city folks and voters from the grassroots.
This was a counter to the Left Front’s ideological distancing from Durga Pujo. However, with the rising saffron wave and the penetration of BJP in the state came its North Indian/Hinduising mission that saw the addition of new festivals to the Bengali calendar. Making modaks at home or installing large-scale Ganesha pandals or fasting through Ram Navami were unheard of even a couple of years ago in the state famous primarily for Durga Pujo and Kali Pujo. Now, from Swami Vivekanand to Belur Math and Babu Ghat, the BJP has made it its business to appropriate signs and symbols of Bengali-ness.
Uma, one of Durga’s maiden names, is a signifier of Bengali femininity, rife with emotional resonances that sees her as an endearing daughter, forever displaced from her family. There is sense and sensuality in the portrayal of Uma onscreen – tinged with nostalgia that resonates with Bengalis as she returns to her homeland to reunite with her land and language, and to pray to the eternal Mother. Maa Durga, in her armour-clad avatar, is symbolic of Bengali feminism as she unleashes her weaponry and might on the other – asura/rakshasa – and conquers darkness/evil. This identification of the goddess as the legitimate daughter of the land goes beyond mere religious fervour or sentiment; it is embedded in a cultural discourse where the goddess is as at once deified as vanquisher of evil and domesticated as one of our own.
After the 16-day mourning period of ‘Pitru Paksha’, Mahalaya officially ushers in ‘Devi Paksha’ or the timeline of the goddess, as it is believed it is then that she sets off on a journey of homecoming from her marital home – of Mount Kailash with Lord Shiva – to her maternal home on Earth. The matriarchal timeline reinforces the pervasive goddess culture that at once attributes gendered identity roles to women within a trope of domestic goddess and the powerful vanquisher. This feminine-feminist discourse is rooted in a patriarchal fantasy/imagination of womanly perfection.
When Chakraborty embodies the goddess, she embodies the body politic and persona of the goddess, complete with all the aesthetic and cultural markers of Hinduism. The golden-red Banarasi sari, vermillion, the alta, the open, curly locks, the nath, the chuda and other jewellery, all manifest the traditional material corpus of a married Hindu woman. Though Durga Pujo is democratic in spirit and open to all to partake in the feasting and pandal hopping, it is impossible to imagine Maa Durga without or outside this corpus.
Also read: Durga Puja – Bengal’s Cultural Magna Carta
Chakraborty, who made her electoral debut in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, won from Jadavpur constituency, a TMC bastion and the former seat of the CM. The political ethos of the party rests on the CM’s pro-subaltern tagline of ‘Maa, Maati, Manush’, translating as ‘Mother, Earth and Humanity’. With zero prior experience and a lot of popularity – notwithstanding the “blessings” of Didi herself – Chakraborty understands image and optics well. She was subject to sexist trolling on the first day of her parliament attendance when she wore a pair of jeans and T-shirt – routine work wear for several women in urban India – instead of the culturally “appropriate” sari.
One may question a public representative’s disservice to a secular office and its code of neutrality and dispassionate engagement. Still, Chakraborty’s goddess looked and fought well, let us now see how shrill political shenanigans continue to play out during Bengal’s biggest cultural and religious festival.
Sanhati Banerjee is a Kolkata-based independent journalist.
Featured image credit: YouTube screenshot