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Durga Puja today is a socio-cultural event that has long transcended religious contours.

For the individual, it is an annual break from the workaday routine, a time to regroup and recharge, a chance to be part of the collective euphoria, to soak in the feel-good in the air, to splurge as though there were no tomorrow. For the city village or even the house, it is a season to put on a fresh coat of paint, to welcome familiar faces and curious feet, to play itself out on a temporary platform of pleasurable self-gratification that also involves abundant sharing and caring. For the community, it is its best calling card, a stage on which to gather the clan, an occasion to show its kindest all-inviting face. And for the corporate player (the newest entrant on the scene), it is an opportune moment to promote his product through any association with the festival, to come out a winner in the war of the eyeballs, to profit from the consumer’s loosened purse strings. It is, in fact, a state of mind on the one hand and on the other a living, breathing physical reality, to which the city wakes up every autumn.

Durga Puja today is big. Bigger than it ever was. And it has spread its geographical wings too, with the festival flagpole being posted in every land where the Bengali Hindu has reached. And in every land thus has begun yet another chapter of this socio-cultural pageantry, rooted in religion but secular in its reach. Technology has aided this journey in ways far beyond those which television (still taking audiences on pandal-hopping trips across the city, to the districts and beyond) could achieve even a decade and a half ago.

Bridge between old and new

In the midst of this onslaught of time-wrought changes, what has lingered on is the family puja. The zamindari system has been abolished in independent India and the title-holders of the Raj are common citizens today. The high-ceilinged colonnaded corridors have left their best days behind and the mansions are generally crumbling. Yet in some of them the pujas carry on, fuelled by the urge to continue with the tradition. “it is not possible to retain the grandeur of our predecessors. But we do our best and beseech the goddess to forgive us our lapses,” says Kanu Roy Chowdhury, the 13th descendant of Laxmikanta Majumdar, the founder of the Saborno Roy Chowdhury family. The budget for the puja is about Rs 50,000, with another Rs 25,000 going in the horn, the sacred fire that is kept alight through all the days of the puja since the bodhon. The family of the founding fathers of the festival in Calcutta spends less on its puja than the neighbouring community puja does on its pandal.

If these pujas are shadows of the past, what makes them special is the fact that they provide a glimpse of history Every time the dhak drums up a beat for the bodhon at the Saborno Roy Chowdhury’s or at the Sovabazar Deb’s, it is Calcutta’s heritage that is receiving a thundering recognition. “We follow every custom that is typical of our puja,” says Alok Krishna Deb, eighth in the line from Raja Nabakrishna. Thus, even if a lorry is the favoured mode of transport for the community puja at the adjacent street corner, the idol of the Deb family still travels all the way to the Ganga for immersion on the shoulders of the male members. Mahishasura is always a deep green and Ganesha a blood- red at the Saborno Roy Chowdhury atchala, ever since the puja was instituted almost four centuries ago. Work on the Dawn family image starts every year on the holy day of Rathayatra1 in June-July with the worship of the katharno (wooden structure behind the goddess) and the idol’s head is placed on the clay shoulders on Janmashtamni, another auspicious occasion in August-September. “We cannot afford to do anything differently,” says Ashim Chandra Dawn.

On the one hand, these pujas carry the burden of history “We receive hundreds of visitors—lots of them tourists from abroad—who ask questions about our traditional rituals. Media persons and chroniclers of the city’s history come to us to take notes. We are bound to preserve the past,” Deb states.

The other reason seems to stem from faith and superstition. At the Roy Chowdhury puja, animal sacrifice is still practised. The routine reads like this—on Saptami (Day Vii): one goat; on Ashtami (Day VIII): two goats; after Sandhi Puja: one goat; on Nabami: nine goats, one buffalo and one pumpkin. “Tile original stipulation included another buffalo to be sacrificed on Nabami. But once, in the early 1950s, when two buffaloes were being brought from the market in a hackney carriage, one died of suffocation. The bad omen made our forefathers bring the number down to one. We tried to revive the tradition in the early 1970s. That year, a son-in-law of the family died. We have stuck to one buffalo ever since,” the 60-year-old Roy Chowdhury recalls.

The winds of change have forced alterations in some traditions. Take the Sovabazar puja. The Scotch Highlander band, sent by the British, which used to precede the Nabapatrika during its bathing procession has given way to a local band party. There is no canon to fire at the start of Sandhi Puja. A gunshot is all there is. The government has put an end to the custom of setting a couple of neelkantha birds free on Dashami. The winged creatures, blue-throated like Lord Shiva, were supposed to have acted as messengers to inform the god about his wife’s impending return. But the exotic birds, collected from the districts, would die after being set free in an unfamiliar environment, forcing a ban on the 245-year-old practice at the Debs in 2002. clay neelkantha birds are now brought to “life” by the priest and immersed with the goddess.

A major incentive for continuation of the puja is the gala family reunion. “Our puja is organised by 51 families, all residing in the seven buildings that Nabakrishna Deb’s son Rajkrishna built for his seven sons adjacent to his mansion. Add to that the married daughters settled elsewhere, some as far as the United States and the Middle’ East, who come over for the. Pujas. There is hardly space to move in the thakurdalan on the four days,” laughs Deb. To bring a semblance of order to the flow of visitors, the descendants of Shib Krishna Dawn invite neighbours on Saptami (Day VII), Brahmins on Ashtami (Day VIII) and relatives (numbering around 350) on Nabami (Day IX). “Still, some people decide on their own when to drop in. Surely, they cannot be turned out,” explains Dawn.

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