It is that time of the year again when the Bengali community in the city virtually drops everything at hand and starts preparations for welcoming Goddess Durga to her earthly abode. By now the shopping is done, the local theatre production rehearsals completed and the schedule packed for four days the community celebrates the festival. The only decision left to be made is which pandal should be visited and which one can be ignored.
While Chittaranjan Park may be the undisputed mini Kolkata of Delhi, with its concentration of the Bengalis and the 12-odd pujas, the old favourites have not quite lost their charm. So if it is one of those old probashi (non-resident) Bengalis rather particular about tradition, chances are they will give the more contemporary proceedings at Mela Ground the miss.
The evening arati at Bengali Boys' School or the Kashmiri Gate puja, the city's oldest, offers that quintessential experience to many. This is the 97th year of festivities for the Delhi Durga Puja Samiti. The schism between the new and old cannot perhaps be clearer than in the difference in the cultural agenda of some of the city's older pujas and that of the "upstarts" as purists would like to address them.
"I live in Sahibabad but during every puja I visit Kashmiri Gate. Many of my contemporaries and their children visit this puja from far-flung corners of the city. We have refused to add glamour to our puja. It is a homely affair, and we intend to keep it so," says Pranab Chakravarty, secretary, Delhi Durga Puja Samiti. The puja samiti's Rs 8 lakh budget is meagre compared to that of the more prosperous ones down south.
A stone's throw away, things are pretty similar at the Timarpur & Civil Lines Puja Samiti. "We spend about Rs 6 lakh on our puja. We like to concentrate on the idol and the traditional aspect of the Puja. Our cultural productions aim at involving the next generation," says Pranab Chakravarty of the Timarpur & Civil Lines Puja Samiti.
The story changes as you travel south to the puja pandals of Greater Kailash, Kailash Colony and Chittaranjan Park, where the more prosperous members of the community reside. Inviting artistes from Mumbai and Kolkata is the norm here and expenses are between Rs 22 lakh and Rs 25 lakh.
"We are keeping our cultural list somewhat secret because last time a huge crowd turned up for the Kumar Sanu show. It was unmanageable. This year artistes such as Amit Sana and comedian Ehsan Qureishi may perform," says Shivaji Roychoudhury of the B-Block Durga Puja Samiti of Chittaranjan Park.
Roychoudhury brushes aside allegations of commercialisation of a traditional event. "We arrange a lot of stalls and leading city restaurants open shop in our puja as this is what people want. One has to raise funds for such large-scale arrangements," he explains.
Even those who have been stubbornly holding on to traditional mores are slowly accepting the fact that to keep one’s puja in the reckoning one has to present the best of cultural and gastronomical delights — and one needs to bend to commercial forces to raise funds. "We are traditional as far as the puja is concerned as it is done in a temple, but stalls and merchandise are unavoidable," says Anand Mukherjee of the Shiv Mandir Puja Samiti, Chittaranjan Park.
Shiv Mandir Puja Samiti is clear about the fact that no Bollywood singer or a rock band will ever perform in its puja. "Contemporary pop culture is all around you. Pujas are the time to learn about your heritage. We only invite Indian folk artistes. We will have several artistes from Kolkata performing this year," says Mukherjee.
Old-timers have seen Puja celebrations in the city shift gears from all-night screening of classic films and early morning preparation for pushpanjali to rock shows and empty pandals. Perhaps keeping up with the time is the only way out for the city's vintage pujas.