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Culture Guide India

Durga Puja – The holy amalgamation of Art and Aradhana

“দেবী চণ্ডিকা সচেতন চিন্ময়ী, তিনি নিত্যা, তাঁর আদি নেই, তাঁর প্রাকৃত মূর্তি নেই, এই বিশ্বের প্রকাশ তাঁর মূর্তি।
নিত্যা হয়েও অসুর পীড়িত দেবতা রক্ষণে তাঁর আবির্ভাব হয়।
দেবীর শাশ্বত অভয়বাণী—
“ইত্থং যদা যদা বাধা দানবোত্থা ভবিষ্যতি ।।
তদা তদাবতীর্যাহং করিষ্যাম্যরিসংক্ষয়ম্‌ ।।””

– An excerpt from the famous program “Mahishashur Mardini” – a ballad dedicated to Goddess Durga on the occasion of Mahalaya

If you have no idea of what I am talking about, head to my previous articles about Durga Puja. The Durga Puja guide is a beginners guide to the festival and how it is celebrated in Kolkata. The other post is an emotional dedication to the cultural extravaganza of this religious festival. My current blog post on the other hand is a rant. I didn’t plan to write it , this is certainly not my area of expertise. But this is the only constructive outlet to the anger and frustration at the flamboyant display of ignorance going on in the social media these days.

First, let me begin with a rough translation of the verse written in Bengali script.

“Devi Chandika – She’s Conscious,

She’ Eternal, She has no origins

She has no real form

She appears in the form the mortals see Her

She’s Eternal but She takes her form only to save the Gods from the pain inflicted by the Devil

In her own Divine words –

“Whenever in future such perils face humanity

I will re-incarnate to save the universe”

Big Fat Disclaimer: The translation of the last two lines may not be accurate, but won’t be far from the true meaning for sure. The entire ballad goes on to describe the story of Ma Durga. How the almost unbeatable  Mahishasur , the devil wreaked havoc on the earth and the heaven. How Parvati took the form of Ma Durga to slay the devil and save the Heaven and the Earth.

Why am I writing this?

I’m writing this in response to the ill-informed and quite ridiculous outrage against the idea of Durga Puja in its current form. Over the years this religious festival has become the world’s biggest celebration of artistic expression. For like the Goddess, Art is divine and eternal. Every year Puja committees would compete in creating artistic masterpieces on themes ranging from religion, mythology, history to contemporary social and political issues. You can check out my review of Durga Puja 2018, to get a glimpse of the themes I’m talking about. Now it’s neither a novelty nor something unique with Kolkata. Such artistic expressions can be found in the pandals and idols across India during Durga Puja. Of course the sheer number of pandals, the gorgeous street lighting, and the whole ambience makes Kolkata’s Durga Puja so special even today.

Now suddenly I see some people outraging over what a sacrilege this is. Most of these people consider themselves the gatekeepers of this 2000-year old religion.  They appear on our timelines with names like “Eternal Hindu”, “Sanatan Dharmist”, “ex-secular”, “ex-liberal”, (maybe some day I’ll find names like ex-humanity too). My article is a response to some of the questions and accusations posed by them.

The Idol that sparked controversy

I slowly started as someone put this photograph of this work-in-progress idol of the Goddess. The Goddess here is seen as a migrant laborer with her children. The pictures soon became viral as people were awestruck at the beauty and followed closely into the making of the idol.

Ma Durga as a migrant worker with her children. We still don’t know how this will be presented in the final form in the pandal. But the sheer beauty and relevance of this picture hit us. We saw the ugly face of tone-deaf politicians playing with public emotions, indulging in shameless horse trading and pretending to be completely oblivious of the plight of poor migrant workers in the face of pandemic. In an aftermath of an emergency lockdown thousands of migrant workers packed their tools of labor and undertook an arduous journey to their hometown on foot. I am not a religious person, but I remember something my parents and my teachers at Vivekananda Mission School taught me. “God is in every truthful being”. In our daily school prayers we chimed Swami Vivekananda’s words :

“I Search for Thee ,

O Almighty

In my poor and illiterate brothers”..

These migrants walking barefoot, with their children on their shoulders and yearning in their eyes have God in them. Imagine one of them whom you ignored, or laughed at for having three kids turned back at you and you saw the face of Ma Durga. Maybe , that’s the inspiration behind this clay sculpture. I can only imagine.

I am not a religious person and I won’t pretend to be for the sake of this blog. I don’t pray to God daily, I don’t visit temples regularly for worship, and I do not conform to many usual norms. But I feel deeply connected with the ethos of Hinduism which I have grown up with. And whatever little I learnt in my childhood about religion, I think at the end of the day they all seek the same Truth. If you see me talking so much about Hinduism it’s because that’s the only religion I grew up with. And every time I hear the “Chandipath” in the baritone voice of Birendra Kishore Bhadra, the cynic in me disappears into thin air, leaving me with goosebumps. My mother would say it’s the power of Ma Durga, I’d say it’s the power of the words, and the person reciting them. But on one thing both me and ma agree – “this statue is beautiful”. And we both see Ma Durga in her face.

 

But not everyone I guess. “This is not how Durga looks” some yelled. “Why do these things with only Hindu Goddesses” some scream. Then some Facebook pages started collecting some pictures of new idols and asked “where’s the weapons in Her hands”. “She is not Shakti, this is no puja, this is no culture”. Which of course follows with the obvious conclusion – “Bengal’s culture has been eroded by Muslim usurpers”. This is followed by some derogatory comments about Bengali Hindus because – why be so “kanjus” while spreading hatred?

 

“Why answer them”, one may ask. Well, one is I need to rant it out. Two, because if a lie is told louder in today’s world of social media frenzy, it often trumps the truth, although temporarily. The Truth too needs to be said with an equal force.

And here’s the truth

Let me answer some of the common questions and keep them as short as I can. By now you may have understood that brevity is not my strength.

1. This is not how Durga looks. This is not what she wears. Why this attire?

Well who told you? For time immemorial people have carved their own imaginations into stones and made the sculptures of Gods and Goddesses. I have travelled extensively enough in India to understand this. But for even those who haven’t had the fortune to do so, a simple Google search would be enough.

Ancient Durga Idols

A snippet from Google Image Search results for “Ancient Durga Idols”

Quoting from the excellent article by Sidhewswar Misra on evolution of Durga Puja from DailyO“ Whether we collect the sculptures available in different museums of India, or the depiction available in Ellora caves, Ajanta caves or Mahabalipuram, the characterization of goddess Durga has always been unique. In some images, we find Durga standing over a buffalo only, in some we find Durga riding a lion and killing a buffalo, in some cases we find Durga chasing a buffalo demon with human body. Those pictures also show Goddess Durga with four to 16 hands.”..

Fast forward to many years from then, in Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings the Goddess has a different face than the stone idols. The face looks like that of a real woman in flesh and blood. And I’m not surprised that Her facial features resemble the Maharashtrians. Back home in Bengal Jamini Ray’s paintings of the Goddess are completely different. They are based on perfect symmetry. No wonder her attire is typical to the region and period in which the artist lived.

 

In fact the face of Goddess Durga in the traditional Bengali idols are also vastly different from the idols in the North or West. “She appears in the form the Mortals see Her”.

So tell me again, what do you know about how my Durga looks?

2. Why do it only with Hindu Gods and Goddesses?

May I ask “Why worship idols”? Or “why worship so many Gods and Goddesses”? The answer to these is also the answer to the above question. Because that’s a part of Hinduism. Various social themes of the day have been carved in stones in the ancient temples of India. I highly recommend a visit to HampiMahabalipuram , Ajanta Ellora caves and other places to witness that. Finding God in ones own artistic expression is the essence of our worship. Instead of finding flaws in Her attire, or appearance , open your mind to the joy of creativity.

Ma Durga Idol in Rani ki vav, Gujarat

Ma Durga Idol in Rani ki vav, Gujarat (Wikimedia Commons)

3. Where’s the puja in this “fashion parade”?

While the cultural extravaganza is in the heart of Durga Puja, so are the religious rituals. In every pandal which has a thematic, non-traditional form of the Goddess as an idol that visitors see, there’s a miniature idol that is worshipped. That is a traditional idol formed with the exact composition of clay-mould as prescribed in the scriptures. Each and every religious ritual is performed on this idol too. Every small pandal in the city perform the elaborate religious rituals earnestly. While people like me, may not be a part of most of these rituals, there are many who are. Durga Puja is for all – the religious Hindu, the not-so-religious Hindu, the non- Hindus, the atheists. For some, the Puja is in the sound of dhaaki, for some it is in the adda sessions at Maddox square, for some it’s in the “pet-puja” and some in the detailed intricate rituals that’s performed with utmost sincerity.

4. The last but not the least – Where are the weapons?

Picture in Reference from a Facebook Page

The weapons are given to the idol as a part of the religious ritual called “Astradaan”. It happens on Shashti , the sixth day. A page called “Eternal Hindu” should know that.. but alas.

And yes, there are idols (not the aboce) which are made exactly in traditional form and attire but without weapon. The message behind such idols is that of peace. But then, as I said, there is always a miniature idol which has weapons, and traditional form for the rituals.

5. Bonus question! Why did you rename Durga Puja as Durgotsav or Sharodotsav?

The answer is no one renamed it. Durgotshob (The Festival of Durga) and Sharodosthob (the great Autumn Festival) are alternate names often used in the TV ads, banners , and announcements for live shows. These are poetic words referring to the multi-dimensional celebration that goes beyond the religious rituals – that of art,  literature in the form of Puja Magazines, music releases on the theme of Durga Puja and autumn etc.  These words have been in place for ages. But all of a sudden, some politician found an opportunity to act surprised at a banner and the accuse authorities of changing the name of Durga Puja. Sooner than later the troll army got into work, and by this year the misinformation has spread far and wide. Just like I read another piece of (mis)information of Quora last year – ” Durga Puja is banned in Kolkata “!!!

Concluding notes

Hasn’t rabid consumerism creeped into Durga Puja celebrations just like every other aspect of our life? It has. Don’t I get bored of pandal hopping and just want to sit and watch the aarti sometimes? Of course I do.  Don’t the Durga Puja committees go overboard with their tone-deaf extravagance sometimes? O they do. This year in the dire times of pandemic someone used 25 kg gold jewelry on the glittering idol of the Goddess! But this is true everywhere. However, art and creativity is in the heart of the age-old Indian culture. Art in its truest form is a reflection of the current age and society. Attacking these ideas in an attempt to target and malign a specific community within India is vile. It’s detrimental to the country.

Well, that’s my rant of the day. Do share your views in the comments section as I’d love to engage in a constructive conversation. Have a great festive season ahead! Jai Ma Durga!

 

Demystifying Durga Puja of Bengal. Answer to why Durga Puja is celebrated the way it is.
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13 Comments

  1. Sonia Chatterjee October 21, 2020

    Brilliant post! I sincerely hope more people read and understand the true significance of Durga Pujo. Kudos to you for the in-depth research needed to write it.

    Reply
    1. Sinjana Ghosh October 21, 2020

      Thanks a lot Sonia. Honestly I didn’t need to research much except getting the exact shlokas. These are things we have grown up learning about.

  2. Seema Bardeskar October 21, 2020

    Perfect post in this festive season. Didn’t know much of it because do not follow it. But I like to know it.

    Reply
    1. Sinjana Ghosh October 21, 2020

      Thanks Seema. Always glad to talk about Durga Puja

  3. Ujjwal Mishra October 21, 2020

    Pujo is unique. Its different for different people.

    Reply
  4. Arundhati October 21, 2020

    A great article indeed. In the current times, everything is politicised/commercialized / just made a part of the divide; somewhere in the journey we leave pure hearty art!

    Reply
    1. Sinjana Ghosh October 21, 2020

      Thanks a lot Arundhati ji

  5. Suchita Agarwal October 24, 2020

    It always saddens me how we are no longer allowed to be devout in the way that makes sense to us. It’s so stupid to say you have offended god – well hello? My god does not get offended with how I choose to celebrate. I remember I had written a poem on this – it was called Fragile.

    Reply
    1. Sinjana Ghosh October 24, 2020

      Well said! I grew up hearing the story of Sri Ramakrishna who use to share food with Goddess Kali in Dakshineshwar temple , talk with Her and even scold Her. Who knows what people would call him today.

  6. Ramya DRozario October 25, 2020

    Fantastic post. It takes courage to speak one’s mind and to stand by it so firmly. Am in awe.

    Reply
  7. writenlive October 25, 2020

    The recent uproar on social media wasn’t very surprising considering we love to put forth our opinions without any backing of truth.

    That Durga idol symbolising a migrant woman is beautiful though!

    Reply
  8. Amritha Srinath October 29, 2020

    The Durga Idol depicting a migrant woman is such a thought provoking and beautiful way to showcase the power of Women(GOd). And let me tell you, God never gets offended. Its just other people who want us to work according to their way. As far as I believe, a sincere heart is what it takes to get your prayers heard.

    Reply
    1. Sinjana Ghosh October 29, 2020

      True. And the idol couldn’t have been so beautiful if the artist’s heart was not in the right place.

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