Online Darshan

From Courtyards to Street Corners

If individual initiative for Durga Puja was on the decline, collective enterprise came to replace it.

The pujas in the house of the raja or the zamindar provided ample avenues of participation for the common people. As his subjects, they could also claim some relationship with the organiser, and by extension, his puja. Yet hierarchy was strictly maintained and all decisions about the puja were imposed from the top.

What the rich and famous started off in their houses was an imitation of these aristocratic religious occasions that sought to retain the same grandeur in outward show, albeit for the sake of social prestige. But there was hardly a link to the common people in these cases unlike the ties that bound the raja or the zamindar to his tenants. The Asiatic Journal writes in 1816 how during the Devi’s stay “the houses of the wealthier Bengalees are thrown open for the reception of every class of the inhabitants of this great city”1. But there was no guarantee of intimate participation for local residents, nor any certainty of permission for their entry. At Sovabazar, the entertainment was free for all for 12 days, starting from the ninth day of the preceding cycle of the waning moon when bodhon of the Deb family puja took place. But on the three big nights, when the British were invited over, entry was severely restricted. Insults and abuses were not unknown either. Dramatist Amritalal Basu recalls: “For the British, there was some sherry, champagne, brandy, biscuit (at the Deb’s); a few lucky Bengalis were also allowed a share. But at mealtime, Bengalis were a strict no- no and those uninvited were booted out (author’s translation).”2 The common man never had much of a say in the pujas and now his space was shrinking. It is in this context that the concept of community puja germinated.

The start came from the districts. Around 1790, twelve Brahmin friends in Guptipara, about 80 km from Calcutta in the Hooghly district, decided to institute a puja on their own after being denied entry at a household ritual.3 A journal, The Friend of India, writes in May, 1820: “...a new species of Pooja has been introduced into Bengal within the last thirty years, called Barowaree... About thirty years ago, at Goopti-para, near Santipoora... a number of Brahmins formed an association for the celebration of a Pooja independently... They elected twelve men as a Committee from which circumstance it takes its name, and solicited subscriptions in all the surrounding villages.”

This was a bold step, as the pujas so far had been the preserve of the mighty and the moneyed. Subscriptions were raised from neighbours and the Devi was worshipped, if not with pomp and pageantry then with diligence of devotion. The kings in myths or in history might have sought boons of greater splendour or success in war, but for the common people, the greatest catalyst for invoking the goddess was fear of famine. According to Hutom Pnayachar Naksha, “The custom of twelve or more people coming together to worship Kali or any other god was instituted during an epidemic (author’s translation).”

Thus started the baro-yaar-i (of twelve friends) or baroari puja in Bengal. It gained popularity in leaps and bounds. Here at last was a concept that brought the Devi among the masses to be worshipped by them as their means permitted. Thus Durga Puja went democratic years before the country did.

Collections for the first baroari puja reached a figure of almost Rs 7,000. As the community puja travelled from Guptipara to neighbouring towns like Santipur, Kanchrapara and Chinsurah, it became more ambitious. Hutom Pnyachar Naksha mentions that the Santipur puja was well-known for its princely budget and gigantic images. Entertainment was the big draw at Chinsurah, with even babus from Calcutta voyaging down in their personal boats to watch clowns in action, contests among poets and such typical amusements of local folk culture.

Collection overdrive

Since collection of subscriptions from one and all was the defining point and sole source of revenue for the baroari puja, the organisers took the business seriously. By 1840, the practice had become such a menace to local residents that the magistrate of 24-Parganas, Mr. Patton, had to travel incognito in a palanquin to put an end to the subscription drive launched in the area by the boys of Behala. That the collection had reached the extent of extortion is clear from the report on February 27, 1840, in The Calcutta Courier on Mr. Patton’s initiative:

In consequence of the oppressive extortions of money by some young men belonging to the family of the Saborno Chowdries of Bihala of Zilla 24-Parganas, under the pretext of meeting the expense of a Barrowarry Poojah, it was impossible for anybody, especially females, to pass that road in a conveyance without satisfying their unjust and illegal demands. When they happened to see a woman coming in a palanqeen [sic], they immediately stopped it and if a handsome present was not offered, a volley of abuse was heaped on the poor creature. As women, from a sense of decency and decorum, were unable to resist these demands, they were sometimes compelled to give their clothes and ornaments when they had no money about them.

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