I grew up in the hills of Shillong, singing Chrismas carols and going for midnight mass. And when it was Durga Puja, religiously offering anjali and aarti (morning and evening prayers) for five days, savouring the khichdi bhog (‘prasad’) and listening to katha at Ram Krishna Mission every evening.
The biggest thrill was wearing a new dress every day that one had hoarded through the year.
Today, Puja is bigger and brighter. Antop Hill’s on a high with a 32-foot Shivling pandal, Vashi’s buzzing over ‘Shah Rukh Khan Live’ and Lokhandwala’s got a brigaded of dhakis. But, for me, the traditional ‘ek chaal protima’ at the Mission still invokes piety. “Baba also liked the idols clustered together like a family and for Joi Baba Felunath (1979) got one made to order,” reminisces Sandipda, Satyajit Ray’s son.
He himself doesn’t much care for theme pandals, preferring the quiet of his home, much like his baba who’d leave town or bury his head in pujo shankhas (magazine annuals), sometimes calling up novelist friends to jokingly ask if their stories were worth a read. Some would laughingly tell him not to bother, ‘golpo ebar khubekta jome ni’ (this time the story isn’t gripping).”
Dancing in the rain
Despite his detachment, Durga puja played a part in three Ray films. In the Feluda thriller the sculptor who is moulding the Durga idol is murdered. In Pather Panchali (1955), a teenage Durga races through the ‘kaash’ fields with brother Apu and dances in the rain, only to go away too soon. Much like Ma Durga herself! “In Nayak (1966), Arindam’s mentor Shankarda suffers a heart attack during the bhashaan (immersion),” says Sandipda. “But for me, the real ‘Goddess’ film was Devi (1960) in which Sharmila (Tagore), egged on by her father-in-law’s implicit faith, begins to blieve she’s the reincarnation of Kali (a form of Durga), resulting in a tragedy.”
There’s a bhashaan in Devi too, the camera panning on the idol’s head slowly going under water, the image returning 62 years later in Kahaani to usher Vidya Bagchi/Balan’s exit. She’s the personification of ‘Shakti’ who’s grew out of the combined powers of the universe’s three most powerful Gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh) to vanquish asur (demon), in this case Milan Damji. “The bhashaan was used to underline ‘dushter daman’ (destruction of evil) and shrishter palon continution of creation),” explains Sujoy, who filmed in a real pandal in Kolkata during Durga Puja.
His words are echoed by Raveena Tandon who bagged the National Award for her portrayal of Durga in Daman (2001). Kalpana Lajmi’s film was also shot in Assam during the festival and forged a connection with Kolkata. “Every year, I go on a pandal tour of the city’s idols during Durgotsav,” says the actor for whom Durga with her arresting eyes is the most beautiful Goddess and symbolises strength sitting astride a tiger. “There’s a Durga in every woman which is why, even though she is physically weak, she’s gifted with the power of procreation because she can handle it.”
Raveena was a less mature actor at the time but reasons that her naiveté worked in the first half of the film when she’s a young, starry-eyed bride. But, slowly, marital abuse takes its toll and eventually, Durga rises to kill her husband.
Recalling that blood-splattered climax, Raveena says, “We bottle up our darkness to wear a happy face till an opportunity like this allows us to expunge all the negativity. Daman was a catharsis and cleansed my soul. Isn’t that why we celebrate Durga puja too? To end evil and mark a new beginning.”
Shubho Durga pojo!