From St Peter’s Basilica to Altamira: Durga Puja amid politics, Unesco tag

Updated on Oct 03, 2022 11:52 AM IST

Welcome to Kolkata during the Durga Puja, where the pandals compete to outdo each other, the only thing that matters almost as much as the festivities is politics, and often, both coalesce.

St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Rome, is the Durga Puja pandal theme of Shree Bhumi Sporting Club’s puja in Kolkata. (Samir Jana/HT Photo) PREMIUM
St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Rome, is the Durga Puja pandal theme of Shree Bhumi Sporting Club’s puja in Kolkata. (Samir Jana/HT Photo)
ByTanmay Chatterjee and Joydeep Thakur, Kolkata

Drive into the city from the airport this week, and the structure is impossible to miss. It catches the eye not only because of its size, or the depth in its detail, but also because this is not Vatican City, but Kolkata.

On VIP road, looming out into the skyline, 65 feet tall and more than 50 feet wide, is the St Peters Basilica.

Welcome to Kolkata during the Durga Puja, where the pandals compete to outdo each other, the only thing that matters almost as much as the festivities is politics, and often, both coalesce.

Across West Bengal, the five days of the Durga Puja give rise to more than 40,000 community pandals organised across the state, with 2,700 alone in Kolkata. The economic value of the creative industries that emerge around the biggest festival in West Bengal stands at around 32,377 crore, according to a study commissioned by the state government in 2018.

For most across the state, 2022 is the return of unencumbered celebrations after two years of a hiatus, for while there were pandals last year as well, the shadow of the pandemic and restrictions such as social distancing persisted. This year, there is no such handbrake.

Unique pandals

Take the Sree Bhoomi Sporting Club in Lake Town, patronised by state fire minister Sujit Bose. Last year, the pandal was a replica of the Burj Khalifa. This year, it is the St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

“We have all heard and seen pictures of the Vatican City in Rome. But only a handful of people have seen it. This is our 50th year and we have replicated it in our city,” Bose said.

On Thursday, chief minister Mamata Banerjee inaugurated the pandal, laden with replicas that mimic those inside the chapel in the Vatican, including the dome sculpted by Michelangelo.

Banerjee asked Bose and the police to ensure smooth movement of traffic. In 2021, the Sree Bhoomi Sporting Club puja had to be shut down after the place got blocked with pandal hoppers.

“I have only one request to Sujit babu. Please ensure that the roads aren’t blocked and people don’t miss their flights,” she said while directing the police commissioner to inform her if roads gets blocked.

Around 20km southwest is the Buro Shibtala Janakalyan Sangha in Alipore and 4km away is the Ultadanga Pallisree. The former is designed with the 36,000 year old cave art of Altamira in Spain in mind, and the latter is plastered with folk and tribal paintings typical to the Gond tribe in Madhya Pradesh.

“This year, the zeal among all the puja committees is very high. While on one hand the festivity was rather muted because of the Covid-19 restrictions over the last two years, and secondly this year the Durga Puja in Kolkata has got a heritage tag from Uncesco,” said Saswata Basu, general secretary of the Forum for Durgotsab, which represents around 500 pujas in Kolkata and Howrah.

“All the pujas are geared up as chief minister Mamata Banerjee has taken a personal interest,” Basu said. “She led the thanksgiving rally on September 1, which culminated in a grand show on the Red Road.”

The 61-year-old Babubagan Sarbojanin Durgotsav Puja pandal at Dhakuria in South Kolkata has decorated the pandal with thousands of commemorative coins issued since India achieved Independence. “It looks like a coin museum. The idol of Ma Durga is placed on the huge replica of a coin. There are also coins of our freedom fighters such as Subhas Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on coins,” said Sujata Gupta, the club’s treasurer.

Then there is the Bidhan Sarani Atlas Club Durga in north Kolkata, which claims to be the city’s first pet friendly Durga Puja. On September 25, four dogs of the Kolkata Police’s K9 squad – Molly, Camphor, Liza and Dinky – made a special appearance at the pandal as chief guests. They bowed down before the goddess.

“On Sunday, the two Labradors and two German Shepherds were invited as chief guests of the puja, and since then they have almost become social media stars,” said an official of the Kolkata Police’s dog squad.

A member of the puja committee said that till Wednesday, the pandal was open to only those persons coming with pets. Even though it was thrown open to the general public from Thursday, the organisers decided that only those with pets would be allowed to go near the idol. Others would have to watch the idol from a distance. Pet owners are also being allowed to enter through the VIP gate.

“It is disheartening to see how people treat street dogs. When it comes to pets, pandal hoppers have to keep their pets alone at home when they go out. That is why we thought of this. Ever since the pandal was inaugurated, dozens of pet owners have visited us,” said Sourish Bhattacharya, cultural secretary of the Bidhan Sarani Atlas Club Durga club.

The politics of pujas

Then there are pujas that are significantly more political, even dark in their imagery. The Saraswati Kalimata Mandir Parishad club in east Kolkata’s Narkeldanga has been designed to depict the post poll violence that allegedly broke out in the aftermath of the Trinamool Congress’ return to power in the state.

The pandal is in the same locality that 35-year-old Abhijit Sarkar, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker, was allegedly murdered on May 2, 2021, a case now being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the orders of the Calcutta high court.

“This is probably the only pandal which has been covered with black cloth. There will be the abundant use of the colour red to depict blood. The theme is Mayeder Kanna, Roktatto Bangla (cries of mothers, Bengal is bleeding). Instead of puja songs and tunes, we would be play the recordings of screams of mothers,” said Biswajit Sarkar, the victim’s brother, who is part of the organising committee.

The three-year-old puja was started by Abhijit Sarkar and his friends in 2020. This year, the pandal was inaugurated by Sukanta Majumdar, state BJP president, and Suvendu Adhikary, leader of the opposition in the state assembly.

“The theme was chosen because celebration bears no meaning for people like us, who have lost their loved ones in the post poll violence. The family members of the victims are still crying for justice. The panchayat polls are coming and nobody wants any violence,” he added.

The influence of the state’s politics in puja festivities is not new historically, with political leaders associating themselves with community pandals, offering prayers and partaking in cultural events year on year.

Even members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who ruled the state from 1977 to 2011, draw a balance between atheism and their outreach initiatives by setting up book stalls near puja pandals. “Marxists do not practice religion, but there is no bar on exchanging greetings with people during their festivities,” said CPI(M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty.

Post 2011, however, this political oneupmanship around the Durga Puja has only risen. In successive election campaigns such as the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, as well as the assembly elections in 2016 and 2021, a salient feature of the BJP campaign was to accuse chief minister Banerjee of neglecting the religious festival.

“In Bengal, there are restrictions on holding Durga Puja and festive processions are stopped because of Muharram,” Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath had said a poll rally in March last year in Malda. “Swami Vivekananda asked us to say proudly that we are Hindus.”

Further, October 22, 2020 was a significant marker in Bengal, a day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually joined the start of the first Durga puja the BJP state unit organised at the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre (EZCC) in Salt Lake. No other Prime Minister had inaugurated a Durga Puja in West Bengal before that day.

Modi invoked the goddess in Bengali and talked of central schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao in a speech streamed to BJP supporters in all 294 assembly constituencies.

A year and another TMC assembly election win later, the same puja wore a forlorn look in October 2021, with leaders distancing themselves from the puja. “It is not the BJP’s puja. BJP does not organise pujas,” Dilip Ghosh, national vice president of the BJP, had said.

The puja at EZCC is being held this year as well, minus the hype though, and BJP state president Sukanta Majumdar inaugurated it on Saturday.

“Volunteers of the Mahila Morcha (BJP womens’ front) took the main responsibilities in the last two years. The Morcha will not be at the forefront this year. Everybody will contribute time,” said BJP leader Keya Ghosh.

Unesco recognition

This year, with the 2023 panchayat and 2024 Lok Sabha polls fast approaching, much of the political diatribe has revolved around the Uncesco adding Kolkata’s Durga Puja to its 2021 list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in December 2021.

As many as 36,946 community pujas are organised in West Bengal. Of these, around 2,500 are held in Kolkata. Several organisations had urged UNESCO to recognise the festival.

India’s traditional yoga and the Kumbh Mela got the recognition in 2016 and 2017, respectively. In 2021, the Durga Puja was the only Indian festival to make it to the list of 20 events and traditional activities.

“Durga Puja is an annual festival celebrated in September or October, most notably in Kolkata, in West Bengal of India, but also in other parts of India and amongst the Bengali diaspora,” the Unesco wrote on its website, mentioning the cultural activities, involvement of artisans and participation of the masses.

Almost immediately, Banerjee lashed out at the BJP, attacking it for campaigning on the grounds that she “appeases” Muslims by not allowing Durga Pujas.

“Some people had spread lies against me. They said I do not allow Durga Puja in Bengal. The Unesco’s recognition has exposed their lies. Their faces have been blackened. I thank the Unesco. We will elevate Bengal’s image before the world in the coming years,” Banerjee said at a campaign rally before the Kolkata civic body polls in December last year.

A year on, the verbal jousting has only escalated this Puja season, with the BJP claiming credit for the Unesco tag.

“Mamata Banerjee has no reason to beat her drum. It was the Union government that proposed to the UNESCO that Bengal’s Durga Puja should be given a heritage tag,” Suvendu Adhikari said on September 15.

The BJP planned to celebrate the puja by taking part in the festivities in every district, he said. Around a hundred community pujas were inaugurated by BJP legislators and office bears across Bengal till Friday.

The state unit also wanted to invite Union home minister Amit Shah to a puja that a party leader from central Kolkata is closely associated with. However, the green signal did not come from Shah’s office, BJP leaders said.

Banerjee outdid everyone, even her own leaders, by inaugurating all the famous pujas of Kolkata since September 23. On the auspicious day of Mahalaya on September 25, she made her debut as a singer when an album, Utsaver Gaan, in which she composed all the lyrics and sang a number alongside two accomplished artists, was released.

“They (BJP) raised questions about my source of income. I do not take salary from the government, but earn a lot towards royalty from my 160-odd books, and also as a songwriter,” she said after the album was released.

Get Latest India Newsalong with Latest Newsand Top Headlinesfrom India and around the world.

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading
freemium
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
SHARE
Story Saved
×
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Saturday, December 03, 2022
Start 15 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals