By Ananya Dutta Gupta
Up until this Durga Pujo, I had only once ever been to a village Pujo in Birbhum. That too after spending several years in Santiniketan. Hatsherandi, one of the wealthier villages in the vicinity of Bolpur, is well known for its traditional Pujo. It was Saptami and we were waiting, a little toddler in tow, for the Nabapatrika spectacle to roll out. There was not much to look at while we waited. The countryside is still stunningly scenic in Bengal, but the only truly picturesque villages are those inhabited by Santhals and Adivasis. Finally, after an hour’s wait, the august procession came into sight, bearing eighteen Kalabou-s (loosely translatable as demurely veiled banana leaf brides) in eighteen little palanquins representing eighteen household worships. Bengali literature abounds with instances of girls putting on the event manager’s hat to marry off their dolls. Saratchandra’s Parineeta makes elaborate use of this playful training programme. Kalabou in a palanquin is a magnified, more public edition of that rite of passage, one in which men take the lead role. This gendered substitution in event management is a useful analogy for understanding the difference between pujo at home and the sarbojonin pujo, a festival of worship which is of, by and for the ‘commonweal’.
Nothing else had really made any lasting impression, except the clearly Adivasi name, Hatsherandi; and its then serene Debdaru-lined approach road off the state highway. The trees have since been razed and the road widened and concretised. Nothing else had really impressed. Certainly not the travesty of a water body on the outer fringes of the village where the rites were performed. The most unsettling part was the loud persistence of roll-cap toy pistols and the haze of gunpowder all around. Unlike in the metropolis, where all age groups customarily wear traditional attire on festive days, the festive best in the village generally comprises smart Western formals. To this day, as we drive past, rural apparel shops display brightly coloured frocks. In Kolkata, pre-teens have quit frocks for shorts and minis. But that’s another story.
I had come away feeling sad for the children of Hatsherandi. Was there nothing else to break the listless torpor of everyday life but this jarring, unpleasant intrusion of crackers in broad daylight? A brief halt in Chandidas Nanur on Mahasaptami two days back proved that frocks and roll-cap pistols continue to be the craze, and that the cacophony unleashed by the latter is the preferred children’s edition of the five-day licensed carnival. Sound pollution activism has not reached the provinces. Like the first cry of life in the new-born, noise remains the human way of registering active existence.
So, on Mahashtami yesterday, thirteen years after that Haatsherandi morning, I found myself at a neighbouring club pandal in Bolpur. It is not one of the big crowd pullers around Bolpur and Santiniketan. Unlike the two hosted by the progeny of the Surul Zamindars or the neatly artistic idol at Boner Pukur Danga, Khoai, frequented by visitors from Kolkata, this one is essentially a neighbourhood club pujo. Most members of the congregation, across age and socio-economic groups, seemed to be on familiar terms with one another. It was a Pujo reunion, such as I had known as a child. Except that I was the outsider here, despite my continued geographical proximity.
It was almost time for the ritual sacrifice. Despite experiencing community Durga Pujo up very close in the Kolkata of the eighties, I had not known of any ritual sacrifice on this, the second and climactic day of festivities. Perhaps because urbane Kolkata Pujo-s have long abandoned the Lévi-Straussian primitive in its march towards thematic contemporaneity and, now, UNESCO recognition. The only hint of the orgiastic that I can remember from those memorable days of Pujo at the apartment complex where we lived in South Calcutta was everybody scrambling to get on to the truck bearing the idols to Babughat. Sadly, we would not be allowed to hop in. Occasionally, though, in a gesture comparable to the consolation prize at the cultural competitions that dotted the five-day festive timeline, the elders would let us climb in, only to be condescendingly dropped off after a brief spin around the neighbourhood. Afterwards, we, the pre-teen brood, would linger around the vacated mandap, in dejected daze, till the immersion team returned and the distribution of sandesh marked the beginning of Bijoya Dashami. All my socialisation had probably begun and ended there. Pujo since then has been a steady upward curve in nostalgia. And nostalgia is always hungry for present disappointments.
Yesterday, though, I went like a wary but expectant tourist: open to novelty and to the whiff of exoticism wafting right in, along with early morning shehnai, euphoric beats of dhak, festive announcements and devout chants, to the apartment that I have lived in these ten years. After nineteen years of scrupulously avoiding ‘the provincial’, the category had suddenly acquired a curiosity value for me.
There was a slight drizzle outside and the sky was darkling enough to set off the lights in the covered patio. The foyer in front of the altar or mandap was teeming with people. The cacophony was manna and dew on my benumbed ears. The pundit was chanting into the microphone while the priest was flinging one half-bloomed lotus after another at the Mother’s feet. 108 of them perhaps. A whole pink heap, alongside numerous other offerings, even books, lay at the feet of the deities. The four elements mingle, palpably, tangibly, in the worship of the Mother.
Men, women and children had lined up on both sides of the foyer, leaving a clear corridor in the middle for physical and visual access to the Mother. A giant taro leaf was the first item to be placed with reverence, close to where I was standing. Until then, all gazes had been on the deity. Now that the countdown had begun, people were looking back and forth between the sacrificial mound and the continued plethora of rites at the altar. The fervency of the priests was awe-inspiring. I could see what an enormous effort, stamina and strength it took to conduct the rituals before the towering image of the goddess.
The priest nominated to execute the sacrifice was a man of slight physique. He was solemn, even though he was trying to look poised and in control of things. Incense sticks were the next to be lit on the mound. And the sacrificial dagger or machete with its gleaming, newly whetted blade was placed in waiting on the freshly cut, cleaned and oiled giant taro leaf. Four o’ clock was the hour designated in the almanac. And there we stood, with our mobile phone cameras agog for our digital touchdown. The most bizarre sight was the little children standing right in front, within inches of the weapon of sacrifice.
Never before, not even at my workplace or at Gour Prangan, Santiniketan, where it is customary at the end of events for everyone to stand up and sing the Ashram Sangit, “amader Santiniketan”, had I experienced a community of bodies and faces and voices in closer proximity to myself. For one, my fingers kept getting coiled in the luxuriant curls of the girl in front. There was something strangely reassuring about mingling, especially after the forced isolation of over two years. Yet it was also frightening, such as when I walk alongside or against the surging mass of humanity getting off local trains that pull in alongside Santiniketan Express or some such at Howrah Station. Stampedes are a common casualty of religious fervour across India. Except that here at this particular club nobody was moving. The energy stood reined in, only so that it could have a timely release right after the sacrifice.
With a minute to spare before the anointed hour, another priest carried in a considerable quantity of cooked sprouts. The sacrifice was going to be symbolic, I could see. Substitution of blood with blood red pulses, generously coated with consecrated vermilion. The same vermilion would be expertly apportioned for marking tens of eager foreheads afterwards. Including mine. Soon the hour was upon us. The supervising head-priest behind was chanting and gesturing his instructions at the same time. The sword was raised and the sword came down.
One of the two girls in front of me held an active phone camera at a perfect tilt. To record the event, no doubt. But also, perhaps, to serve as a mini-screen for women behind us. I had a choice of views. For a wider angle, I had my eyes. For a close-up, there was this phone. No doubt those right behind me had a similar choice, thanks to my phone’s camera. I could have been inside Velasquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ or the Vermeer self-portrait, or even Magritte’s ‘Not to be Reproduced’. Here was image within image. Play within a play.
I don’t know what happened immediately after the sword came down on the pile of sacrificial food offering. The dhakis stirred up an ecstatic beat to accompany the cheering, ululating crowd and there was a thunderous burst of crackers followed by a frenzied disco on the adjoining club grounds. A roar ripped through the assembly and within a second, people so long held back in a charmed circle rushed in and began to collect portions. Vestiges of primitive blood-sport.
It was only after their dispersal several minutes later that I found a huge pile of earth placed on the leaf. And a lotus placed on top of it. A strange mix of the savage and the poetic. When had it all been overturned? I could not tell. The mound had instantaneously become a sacred grave. The primitive had been concealed and engraved. Here was civilisation courting what it ordinarily defines itself against. Here was a carefully curated protocol of uncovering, dis-covering, and then re-engraving, at will, what could no longer be assimilated within its paradigm. Just as we consign back to nature what we can no longer consume or utilise with sanctity. The primitive had been let in through the safety valve of ritual, and quickly returned to its dormancy lest it become unmanageably present. In two days’ time, the meticulously created ensemble of idols will be consigned to the waters (in a striking resemblance to what Lévi-Strauss calls the Bororo custom of “aquatic burial, the precondition for reincarnation” (58). Until it is time next year for the first symbolic mound of rich alluvial silt from the banks of the Ganga, another Mother, to be gathered for the making of another idol. Thus goes on the cycle of creation and abnegation, gathering and scattering.
To me it seemed that Durga is the embodiment of this spirit of primitivity, apotheosised into heritage, which is retrieved and revived annually, ritualistically, as a token of reverence and acknowledgement, precisely because it cannot be lived with. And Durga Pujo is this time-bound celebration of that power. The operative word is time-bound.
As participant observer, I could not help pay a silent homage to René Girard. No one had quite read the continued accommodation of sacral violence with comparable acuteness. I finally realised why, within the dynamics of the five-day festival of shakti, Mahashtami remains a prime moment. Not surprisingly, many in the crowd rushing in to pick the cooked and consecrated symbolic “meat” were men. I am reminded of Lévi-Strauss:
We thus begin to understand the truly essential place occupied by cooking in native thought: not only does cooking mark the transition from nature to culture, but through it and by means of it, the human state can be defined with all its attributes, even those that, like mortality, might seem to be the most unquestionably natural. (164)
The scramble for the sacrificial remains had dropped a screen of mystery over the actual object/subject of interest. When the crowd dispersed, all that remained in sight was that mound of dark and moist earth. The platter was gone. I too stepped forward and collected some of the sacred earth and have since placed it in one of the several little pots and bowls at my prayer corner. What would happen to the mound with time? Would it harden into something resembling a little pebble? Or erode and crumble under the blast of the ceiling fan? My neighbour, Kalibala di said it was a talisman. Through the warmth of my palm nestling it, I could feel its silent aura. Not that I had forgotten Ray’s Devi (1960) and Ganashatru (1989), nor more recently, Koushik Ganguly’s Lokkhi Chhele (2022). But we, distant progeny of the Bengal Renaissance, seem to have managed an uneasy reconciliation, a peculiar tightrope walk, between faith and reason, belief and scepticism.
Suddenly I found myself transported back into precolonial Birbhum, the vestiges of which I have experienced at Garhjangal, or at the old temple in Srinidhipur last summer: a hauntingly attractive land of undulating terrain; not too fertile, consequently not at all wealthy; vulnerable to a punishing sun, hence given to sedentary skills and indoor crafts, and certainly to meditation and the contemplative route to faith and theology. No wonder it is sacred to Shaivite meditative practices and the lore of the goddess Kali. No wonder also that my domestic assistants perform practically every sacred day in the Bengali lunar calendar, from Makar Sankranti and Ranna Pujo to Neel Shashthi, Chaitra Sankranti, Joy Mangalbar in the month of Jaishta (something like Christian Lent days like Shrove Tuesday and Maundy Thursday) to Labaan or Nabanya. The seasonal calendar and the festive calendar have been all but submerged under the weight of the Gregorian calendar, but not in provincial proletarian life.
In Bolpur and Birbhum, faiths are active and integral. One needs to register this in order to understand the strange accident of Tagore’s Santiniketan. How could one of the most faith-steeped places in Bengal have been chosen by Tagore for an experiment in secular cosmopolitanism? And yet such are the quirks of history that ‘pastoral’ Santiniketan and ‘provincial’ Bolpur have maintained an uneasy equation, based on continued commerce in both goods and culture. The idea of Santiniketan continues to foster a semblance, if not more, of secular fraternity in daily intercourse, while Bolpur contributes the home-grown traditional faith quotient.
The brief trance I had witnessed was similar to what E.M. Forster describes at once with discernment and rapture in A Passage to India (1924). I cannot resist quoting from that eloquent, if not rhapsodic account in the novel’s denouement. The episode in question pertains to Vaishnavism, but the resemblance cuts across sectarian worship:
But the clock struck midnight, and simultaneously the rending note of the conch broke forth, followed by the trumpeting of elephants; all who had packets of powder threw and shouts, Infinite Love took upon itself the form of SHRI KRISHNA, and saved the world. All sorrow was annihilated, not only for Indians, but for foreigners, birds, caves, railways, and the stars; all became joy, all laughter; there had never been disease nor doubt, misunderstanding, cruelty, fear. … Not an orgy of the body; the tradition forbade it. But the human spirit had tried by desperate contortion to ravish the unknown, flinging down science and history in the struggle, yes, beauty herself. Did it succeed? Books written afterwards say, ‘Yes’. But how, if there is such an event, can it be remembered afterwards? How can it be expressed in anything but itself? Not only from the unbeliever are mysteries hid, but the adept himself cannot retain them. He may think, if he chooses, that he had been with God, but, as soon as he thinks it, it becomes history, and falls under the rules of time. (273)
Another rite followed. The ceremonial arati is one of the prime attractions of Ashtami evening: the rite where the chanting priest wields a hand-held chandelier of lamps, sometimes swaying, all along ringing the brass bell with the other hand. Priesthood, evidently, is also a trial of strength. One of the assistant priests was now carrying the lamp around for us to claim its blessings by touching the sacred heat of the ceremonial lamp to our hearts and heads, of course after dedicating it silently to one’s near and dear ones. I was a willing participant in the swirl of faith. Like Forster. I was amazed at my new-found skill and keenness in negotiating other negotiating elbows. I could feel the faith welling up in me. And the suspension of disbelief.
Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. Ed. Oliver Stallybrass. London: Penguin, 2005.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. Introduction to a Science of Mythology: I. Translated from French by John and Doreen Weightman. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1964.
Note: All photos by author. For video snippets of the experience, the reader may visit the following link: https://youtu.be/ANjIaIIcSPU
Ananya Dutta Gupta has been teaching at Visva-Bharati for two decades. Her academic specialisation is early modern British literature on urban warfare. She writes reflective essays and poetry in her leisure. Her first collection of bird poems, For tomorrow the birds might still sing, came out in September 2021.
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