The Essential Pujo

By Anasuya Bhar

     Mor bhabonare ki haway matalo o

Dole mono dole okarono  horoshe

My thoughts sway to a breeze unknown o

My mind swings, o swings, to a joy unspecific

              (Song, Rabindranath Thakur, my translation)

An unknown and unspecific joy – that is the tenor of Durga Pujo for me. A Kolkata bound urban inhabitant most of my life, this nameless ‘happiness’ need not always reside in something spectacular or great, but lies in the fulfilment of small wishes and family togetherness. Nature, usually wears a happy look with abundant sunshine, blue azure skies and fluffy candy-floss white clouds. Drizzles do punctuate, but they come with a naughty wish to play with the gaiety of the human moods, occasionally washing the dirt and the sweat away to offer more freshness, like the morning shewli* flowers do.

Pujo is the time for all things new — new dresses, new saris, new music, new poetry, new novels, festival numbers, and new movies. In fact, it is yet another calendar, in our hearts, to usher in the new and the blessed, with the spirit of Ma Durga – durgatinashini – the slayer of all evil, the bringer of goodness and peace. Pujo* also ushers in a season of giving and gifting, frenzied buying and mindless spending over not only clothes and accessories, but also on home decor and other amenities or even luxuries of life. The air and the times are considered to be auspicious – nothing can put a blemish on whatever one does. And of course, there is an unmistakable note of the ‘carnivalesque’ about it all – do whatever you wish, for these four days, all in the name of fun and revelry, there is no stopping you! These are also times of parental license, adolescents’ delights and the old timer’s reunion. These are times for which one waits for the whole year round, to replenish and refurbish the batteries that have not only exhausted themselves, but which have actually almost deadened themselves! It marks the spirit of life. And, as if to reiterate the mood, the darkest corner and even the narrowest of alleys of our Kolkata are lit, wearing smiles never seen before; the happiness is proclaimed loud in the dhaak* beats and the shonkho* sounds and the ululation during arati* and pujo. Rituals there are, but beyond the rituals, there is the celebration for our Uma’s homecoming with her kids, all dressed up to meet their fellow earthlings. It is this joy and homeliness, which has endeared Durga Pujo to all and the sundry, beyond faith and regional narrowness – it is perhaps the only Indian festival which is celebrated not only beyond Bengal, but in almost all other countries, abroad.   

Pujo now, has perhaps, become a little more commercialised than what it was when we were children. There is a huge roll of money and a huge display of public spectacle now, more in the spirit of the ‘carnivalesque’, than what it was when we were children. Sometimes, there is a lack of that familiar intimacy, which marked community or sarbojonin pujo during my childhood. Perhaps our jet-set lifestyle where we think more about our work and our deadlines rather than ourselves, our homes or even our families, is partly responsible for this. We have, undoubtedly, become more mechanical, when we choose to say that we are too busy to ‘stand and stare’.

There is one particular Durga Pujo event, which I would like to share with you – an event which happened long ago, but which has stayed with me in the corner of my mind. When I was, maybe, twelve or thirteen years old, we had ‘enacted’ Sukumar Ray’s ‘Gandha Bichaar’ – ‘The Perfume Crisis’ – as a part of the Cultural Programme for our community or para’s  puja ‘Lake Sarbojonin Durgotsav’ in Lake Terrace of the Deshapriya Park area in south Kolkata.  The concept of the para, Bengali for community / locality is, sadly enough, gradually disappearing. It usually means a community that feels together, enjoys together and even weeps together.  It is a little short of an extended family. Now, we are a little distanced from our own family members as well!

So, there was a certain Chandana di* at our para who showed a lot of zeal in collecting the children and organizing a ‘show’ for the year’s Pujo cultural programme. The venue would be a not-so-formal stage erected for the purpose near the Puja pandal. The piece, a selection from Sukumar Ray’s Aabol Taabol* is a great favourite among children, and this one had many characters, which could accommodate most of us. As is already known, ‘Gandha Bichaar’ is to do with identifying a certain mysterious smell which troubles the nostrils of a fussy king. He calls upon all his important men, who slight him in some pretext or the other, until the show is stolen by an old nonagenarian, who comes forward, to identify the smell, with the fearless of death.

Ray’s poem did not have any female characters, and most of the children in the group were girls, excepting one solitary boy – Jishu Sengupta, the now celebrated icon of Bangla cinema – who was the natural choice for the King. Hence, the added confusion of dressing us all up as men. I, being the eldest in the group, was given the part of the nonagenarian! The only advantage I had was my short hair: the one aspect which did not need to be redone in the disguise as a man.

We were a bunch of busy kids that season! Chandana di arranged for umpteen number of rehearsals in her flat. Many were absent, giving her a headache as to how the show could be pulled off finally. Anyway, on the final day, we did pull through, even with all our faults! We had selected a garage space near the pandal as our ‘green room’. We jostled for space trying to look our best as the king’s men. For me, it was the worst, as someone had the wonderful idea that I should give a guitar recital on that very evening and before the play! Hence, I had to quickly graduate from being my own self to a nonagenarian. This put so much needless stress on my nerves! Our costumes were home-grown ones, selected and approved by Chandana di, our mentor, director and producer.

The performance went by in a whiz! There was someone prompting from behind the arras and there were mikes hung from the impromptu roof of the erected stage. And mistakes were amplified in proportions that perhaps outwitted Sukumar Ray himself! There were instances of complete pauses when the little ones forgot their lines and could make nothing of the prompter. There were instances of moustaches coming off, and spontaneous sneezes at being tickled by the wheezier ones! There were also instances of dhotis* trailing off or tripping others! And the little King sat and gazed with all the dignity of the state!

Our performance was, however, lauded and applauded by most of the para. I remember my mother taking a lot of photographs on her Canon camera, and then making multiple copies of them so that everyone could have a memory of the enactment. (Sadly, I could not locate those photographs.) We spoke of that performance and shared the fun for many more autumns to come. Now most of the players are all women, and yours truly is greying forwards. I have no news of Chandana di, for a long time now. In yet another autumn, one truer to my own life, and during yet another Pujo, I sit here reminiscing this one spring performance of my life, being closeted indoors by yet another theatre – the grimmer one of Covid! Nevertheless, the spirit lives on, as yet another Pujo slowly veers towards closure, we wait for the next one, and for many more to come.

*Shewli — Jasmine

*dhaak — drum

*shonkho — conch shell

*arati — worship with incense

*Pujo — prayer, in this case refers to the festival of Durga Pujo

*di — short for didi or elder sister

*Abol Tabol — Available as The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray

Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and the Dean of Postgraduate Studies in St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata. Dr. Bhar is the sole Editor of the literary Journal Symposium (ISSN 2320-1452), published by her Department. She has various academic publications to her credit. She is also keen on travel writing and poetry writing. She has her own blog



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