Gods are supposed to rise above all differences – rich and poor, educated and illiterate, old and young, analog and digital. In the case of the first three, Durga has certainly risen above the divides. It’s evident all around us – both the rich and the poor revel during the festive days, there is not much difference between the levels of enjoyment of a university professor and that of an illiterate daily labourer in a remote village. The old and the young too break into great revelry, though manifestations may differ due to physical abilities, rheumatism, gastronomic abilities and asthmatic tendencies.
But the only area where the goddess is increasingly showing signs of preference is to tilt towards the haves of the digital divide. Let’s not beat around the bush – enjoyment during the pujas is nowhere near the peak if you are digitally unarmed. In the eighties, young women could not imagine going out to the pandals without putting on lipstick. In the following decade, high hill shoes became an equally mandatory accessory. In the first decade of the new century, carbonated drinks took their place – moving around with a pet bottle of chilled aerated soft drink was the in thing.
But this decade has been the era of smartphones, and what the pujas worth if you are not digitally armed throughout the day, every moment of it. Woebegone is the goddess who will stand in a pandal where no youth will click a selfie with her in the background.
This year the goddess has all the more reasons – an infrastructure push actually – to celebrate. Various operators have launched 4G services and have already unleashed a rate war – no less intense than the devi’s own against Mahisashura after he vanquished the gods in a 100-year war – to make super speed data connection more affordable. The result will be lightening fast transmission of images all around captured in and out of puja pandals – helping the goddess in her quest for omnipresence.
Never has the goddess been empowered to such an extent after the gods got together to initially arm her to take on Mahisashura. Propagation is the key to all religions and the millions of cellphones that will go up every minute clicking photos and videos of the idols and pandals for four days will help in propagating the devi around the world much faster and more effectively than all the evangelists of humankind put together down the centuries.
Durga will turn a devi of the digital, by the digitial and for the digital. For the devi has realised that the worshippers of the digital are no fewer, possibly bigger in number, than her own worshippers and that discretion lies in riding the digital crest rather than remaining secluded in puritan righteousness.
In the west, the clergy has often complained about bored churchgoers, especially youngsters constantly fiddling with their cellphones and tabs even during services. In Bengal, the goddess has embraced the digital generation possibly with bigger enthusiasm than the followers of any other creed anywhere in the world. In western societies there have been heated debates about whether digital devices will be banned from churches as many have been found furiously playing games even during services and continuing to do so even after the devotees walked out of the room. In this country, the gods and the priests have seen wisdom in coexistence and alliances.
Selfies are easily the greatest digital addiction all over the world and during the puja days the goddess is almost always seen in the background of the billions of selfies generated by gorgeously dressed men and women. Equipment stores in fact report higher sales of selfie, sticks in the run up to the puja without which the perfect shot (capturing the goddess in the background) is impossible. Sales of power banks have also gone up. No handset manufacturer has been able to make such a battery that will cater to the demands of day-long photo shoots.
“I can’t think of puja celebration, or pandal hopping, without my cellphone,” says Titlee Chowdhury, a chartered accountant in her early thirties who works with an MNC in New Town Rajarhat.
The ebullient professional who loves to sleep and wear red lipstick has planned hangout sessions with her friends and pandal hopping. “I can easily move around without the red lipstick, but just can’t enjoy without my cellphone,” she affirms. Not surprising, since most of our activities now centre around the cellphone.
Take the example of Kumar Biswas, who is a Bihar-born Bengali. In 2013, during the pujas he was feeling sad while travelling through the Nairobi National Park in Kenya. It was October, and back home the dhaaks were alive to the familiar rhythms in Bengal, and he was missing all of it. But soon a lion appeared from behind the bushes very close to him. He didn’t waste the opportunity, captured the majestic animal on his cellphone and transmitted the image back to his friends in Kolkata, erasing the enormous geographical distance that separated him from the biggest celebration of the Bengalis. As a return gift, his friends shot a video of the astami arati and sent it to him on his phone – and Durga appeared on a 5 inch screen thousands of kms away inside the dense jungles of Kenya.
None of that could be possible in the brick-and-mortar world.
The goddess began riding the digitial revolution years ago, and the mobile handheld device is merely a grand culmination of a process that matured for several years.
More than a decade ago the little mouse – namesake of the carrier of Durga’s beloved son Ganesha but in a different avatar – became the carrier of Durga around the world.
Puja went online and distances vanished immediately, as if by divine touch. With the click of a mouse, non-resident Bengalis could hear mantras online and repeat them, blow conch shells, offer pushpanjali and even receive bhog at home – irrespective of how far he/she was from a Durga idol or the physical presence of a priest.
Online Durga puja has turned into a storm in the cyberspace. There are several websites offering virtual tours of major puja pandals, online puja services, live streaming of arati performances and virtual tours of the major pujas across Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Bangladesh and in other major cities in different parts of the world.
There are websites that provide service of offering the goddess garland, flowers and green coconuts from afar. Another website puts forward the opportunity of online pushpanjali and promises, “The prasad will be delivered at your residence – wherever you are located. Now you can watch the purohit performing the puja on your laptop or mobile.” These websites recorded nearly 50,000 hits during the 2015 pujas.
The digital push has also been a great leveler – it has united Bengalis all over the world. Earlier, there was a pronounced disconnect between the Durga puja held in Bengal and those organised overseas, especially in the US and European cities. This not surprising as there are extreme difficulties in organising Durga puja abroad. There are no holidays. The idols, and even priests, often need to be transported from Kolkata. Immersion of the idol is not allowed in many places. The online pujas have changed all that. Non-resident citizens can now witness the pujas as they happen in faraway homeland on their phones and computers as they happen in real time. Even the introverts and depressive maniacs cannot feel left out anymore.
The phenomenon has percolated to such levels that in 2001-2002, Kerstin Anderson, a Swedish researcher devoted her Ph.D thesis on the trend of online Durga puja. She observed that for the Bengali diaspora all over the world digital Durga has become a unifying factor irrespective of wherever they had to settle for professional reasons.
Any religion talks about connecting people, and what achieves the cause of unity – and a more democratic level playing field – more spectacularly than the smartphone? It also achieves the mission of equality, another quest for any religion.
The digital era has created the environment for a common man to walk the same information superhighway as a billionaire and a national leader – almost a recreation of the maxim that all mortals are equal before the gods. Cyberspace worships equality something that so many human creeds – political to religious – seek on earth.
This year the information sharing platform will be more crucial for the festive season as quite a few tour organisers are bringing foreign tourists to Kolkata to market Durga puja worldwide. As tourists from the US to China will converge in the city to have a firsthand experience of the magic, millions will witness the magic simultaneously in their respective countries via the handheld devices they will carry.
“If someday Kolkata attracts as many foreigners as the Rio carnival, or the Oktoberfest in Bavaria, the digital technology will have contributed a lot to it,” quips Joydeep Mookerjee, director of Meghdutam Travels that has offices in Kolkata and Montreal. Mookerjee is an enthusiast in selling the city’s autumn extravaganza that he believes surpasses any festival in the world in display of creative talents.
The photos and texts that these tourists will transmit to their countries will send many messages about the ancient land for which snake charmers and soothsayers have been traditional brand ambassadors. For instance, it will show them that women, unassisted by men, used to slay demons in this land. There are lessons for many with stiff upper lips in modern nations that are yet to elect a woman to head the government. One of the most looked-up-to European nations did not allow their womenfolk to vote till 1971.
And why only the goddess? Durga puja is an event that marshalls the best of creative skills in an array of artists in lighting, painting, creating sets, and the amazing artwork that comes up on many community pandals are nowhere to be seen on the planet. Without the digital media none of it could be recorded and transmitted all around the globe – both for the moment and forever. Just imagine how rich human civilisation would have been if the Harappan masonry, Nalanda university discourses, the construction of the Gizza pyramids, the Paleolithic cave paintings in Altamira could have been recorded and transmitted in real time as they happened. Documenting the pujas in Kolkata will be as much a service for posterity.
“Since I learnt using the internet with help of my daughter, my puja days have changed dramatically. I used to be in great pain during the five days of festivity and TV programmes were my only window for devi darshan. But now, I have a world to explore. I can click and reach any location from Ekdalia Evergreen to New York, Singapore to London,” said Ketaki Chakraborty, a sixty-plus homemaker in Chinsurah of Hooghly district who suffers from acute arthritis.
A few years ago she got a pleasant surprise when she found Birendrakrishna’s voice in the ringtone of a neighbour.
The devi and the digital have truly merged into a single supreme being where it is difficult to say where the devi ends and where the digital begins. The two are complementary – like the devi, the cyberspace remains intangible. The digital space can be felt but not touched – the cellphone, or tablet, or the computers that we hold in our hands are actually the ‘meaningless’ exteriors of the infinite, almost in the same way as the idol of clay that stands in the pandal offers us the illusory experience of touching the goddess, the supreme power.
There is also a legacy, and a family, issue connecting the two. India’s biggest contribution to human civilisation is the invention of the zero. Brahmagupta (598—670 AD) reduced this essentially philosophical construct to a mere convenient symbol on paper, without which Boolean algebra, the bedrock of the science behind the digital age, would not have simply developed. (His Brahmasphuṭasiddhanta is the first book in that mentions zero as a number.)
Another little known is the fact that Brahmagupta was a follower of Shiva, the husband of Parvati.