October 25, 2023

Kolkata's Pandal Extravaganza Unraveled

 Standing in a queue for four hours to see a pandal (pavilion) in the metropolis of Kolkata is a great experience for many. Getting lost in a rush is normal.

Durga Puja is not just a puja. It is an integral part of Bengali culture. UNESCO has also confirmed the same. Creative talent, artistic values, piety, business, corporate world, employment of common people, a small respite from the pressure cooker life for the laboring masses stuck in extreme labor exploitation, globalization.....all these things have come together and become an integral part of the social, cultural and economic way of life. . People wait for 362 days for these three days. Durga Puja is intertwined with family ties. Another festival in another state is similarly affected. Such is the frenzy of worship and rituals.

If we take it as a normal puja then we are mistaken.. According to a survey by the British Council, this Durga Puja has provided an income of 32 thousand crore rupees to the government of West Bengal in 2019. Rs. 860 crores from pandals alone, 280 crores from idols and 205 crores from lighting to the Bengal government. These are the figures for 2019. We can easily understand that these figures will increase further in 2023. There is a huge market for artists with creative talent and sculptors. The income to be earned can be earned by hard work for one or two months during these three or four days of worship. A few thousand workers will be employed. This is why these workers wait for years. In some famous pandals of Kolkata city, the work will start from about three to four months before the festival. 

 Not only workers, It is a big festival for business community and corporates. This is a great opportunity for huge profits. The world of salons and beauty parlors that have come into light recently has an opportunity to do tremendous business. A few years ago there was no entry of big corporates in Pooja. In course of time, the process of making pujas more beautiful and attractive started. But funds are needed for this. This funding is not possible through subscriptions. 

No matter how much people contribute, it is difficult to raise hundreds of crores of rupees in a short period of time. Thus, the entry of corporates began in such an economic and historical context. Even with increased globalization these corporates need a market. This Durga Puja, which has become fashionable, fulfills that need. So Pandals are built at huge cost in Kolkata metropolis. There will be lighting. Eventually, the government also started funding each pandal committee under some name which means that it can be understood how much it affects during the election season.

And talking about the police force, Durga Puja is a good homework for the police force. The police force shows extraordinary talent to control the huge crowd and prevent any illegal trouble. These three to four days are very successful and very efficient in the extreme rush with the skillful police of West Bengal state.

For these three to four days, the heavy traffic can be controlled very successfully and very efficiently by the Bengal Police machinery without any mishap and without any disastrous consequences. For this, even senior officers come out of the office and AC rooms and work day and night on the roads of Kolkata. Thus, the Bengal Police apparatus gets exceptional experience in controlling the traffic and establishing discipline.

We see in some works written by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. The zamindars of that time used to perform Durga Puja in the respective villages. It became necessary for the zamindars to provide a small safety valve to the peasants who were subjected to extreme labor exploitation in the historical circumstances of the time. So piety, exploitation of labor and beliefs of the people all together controlled the feudal social conditions of that time. Now Bhakti is not the only one in worship. Humans have sentiments. There is a mix of people. There are pleasures. There are cultural events. The people of Bengal have a heart and a mind. There is politics. Artists are employed.

 The working class who make idols, play bajas (drums), build pandals and provide lighting have a lot of work. This is a big manufacturing industry. The corporate sector gets a platform to reach out to the masses by giving big advertisements. The combination of feudal culture and bourgeois culture for the purposes of globalization, for huge profits, for the sale of cosmetics, goods and services that are not needed by the people, has a way to reach the masses in online and offline platforms on a massive scale. There is a platform called Great Indian Festival and Big Billion Deal where thousands of items can be sold. This Durga Puja has become an integral part of the people of Bengal. Left-wing people and parties also set up bookstores next to pandals and launch books. This Durga Puja has also become a platform for selling books and bringing left-wing literature to the masses. 

 This pooja, which has changed so much, cannot be taken as an ordinary pooja.

But the people of Bengal, who are so madly immersed in worship, do not care about worship and religion. They keep them there. They do not bring worship and religion into politics and divide people into different categories with barriers and disturb people. If anyone provokes them like that, it will not work successfully. That is why in the last few years religious conflicts have been seen in other North Indian states, even if people have been disturbed because they are taking away cows, we do not see such incidents in Bengal. If it happens somewhere, the government will control it completely within two or three days. 

The criminals will be caught. So if we think through Durga Puja that these people are immersed in such great devotion, it will also be a wrong opinion. They enjoy worship. Use that platform. They perform their cultural programs.  And it is forgotten later. They will wait for another year. Moreover, they don't like to be religious fanatics. Majority of Bengalis do not have wrong ideas to attack people of other religions and conspire against people of minority religions. Religions are taken as a belief. They worship. Religions are not allowed to come into real life and social life. 

The communal conflicts that are seen in North India for months are rarely seen here.. If there is a flare-up here and there, the government can control it in two or three days. Bhakti, however extreme, did not draw a dividing line between men. The Muslims of Murshida Bad district are also participating in Durga Puja artistic works. The consciousness of fighting with the British for several decades is in the nerves of the people here. The vibrancy provided by the extremist movement is in the people. The nature of resistance is not lost in the people here. 

If an auto driver leaves carelessly without paying a rupee of balance, he will be abandoned in the southern states, but not here. Where rupee is not important. Theirs is not the blood that tolerates injustice. They will give him another rupee if he says fairly that he cannot give the change. If you show arrogance, harshness in your behavior and words, they will kill you with an argument. The foundations of society reformed by great writers and philosophers have not yet been eroded here. There are still people who take to the streets with banners and protest when there is injustice. 

In the past, left wing sentiments have influenced the people here for three decades. Earlier extraordinary writers like Rabindranath Tagore and Saratchandra worked to change the society by imparting broad sentiments in the people. Those feelings are still there in the people. Although the narrow sense of 'whatever it is, why should I care' thrown by the recent globalization is bothering the youth, corruption has entered politics, but there is no generation that constantly reviews it. From time to time, the respective parties tried to divide the people in the name of religion with religion and hatred politics, but they could not succeed.

--- M. Kesava Rao ( An Academician, Author and senior journalist based at Titagarh, Kolkata, WB)

(English translation rendered by Murthy Kvvs)