Nirad C Chowdhuri (1897-1999), a famous Bengali intellectual, made a cryptic comment on the Bengalis when he described them as ‘atmaghati’ (suicidal’ people). Recently, Subarna Goswami, a medical practitioner, has repeated the adjective after seeing tens of thousands of people crowding the puja pandals of Kolkata, He, like many other doctors, fears a surge in COVID-19 cases in Kolkata and Bengal as lakhs of people have ignored the social distancing norm.
This was expected though. Unlike last year, neither the state government, nor the Calcutta High Court (which restricted the crowd last year), took any major initiative to stop this madding crowd this year. Confronting this situation, Dr. Sukumar Mukherjee, a veteran and renowned medical practitioner who was a member of the COVID-related committees set up by the chief minister last year, has commented that the effect of what is happening would become clear by last week of October.
The major attraction of the pandal hoppers, who have ignore the threats of a third wave, is the theme of the pandals and the lighting. Except for a few traditional pujas like Bagbazar Sarbajanin, hundreds of famous pujas of Kolkata compete with each other for innovating a new theme for the pandals, which ranges from replicating Burj Khalifa, refugee distress, effect of cyclone on fishermen to a library, an old zamindar badi or an old English caste. There are many famous pujas like, to name a few, Tridhara Sammilani, Ekdalia Evergreen, Jodhpur Park, Shuruchi Sangha, Chalta Bagan, Shribhumi, Deshapriya Park, Maddox Square, Singhi Park, Badamtala, Badisha Sarbajanin, College Square and so on, who try to present such surprises each year.
This year what attracted the viewers the most was the pandal of Shreebhumi, a replica of Burj Khalifa. The number of visitors was swelling every day, and on Wednesday (Ashtami), the crowd was so huge that the police administration panicked. From late evening, the puja was made out of bound for the spectators. Its laser show was stopped too as the Airport Authority of India objected to it. The puja will not remain open for the outsiders any more.
While in the din and grandeur the pujas of Kolkata excel, they often embrace controversies. This year Dumdum Park Bharat Chakra decorated the pandal with shoes, and have been heavily criticised for this ugly stunt.
However, away from the ‘show business’ the barwari pujas of the clubs of Kolkata and other towns are involved in, thousands of pujas continue to abide by the traditional mode. Of course, the Belur Math is the epitome of such sacredness. However the Math’s puja is not open for the public this year.
One example of how the traditional pujas are still being organised with full sacredness all over Bengal is the Banerjee Badir pujo at Kondaipur (near Siuri) in Birbhum district. As it can be seen in the picture, there the palanquin is used to take nabapatrika (leaves of nine plants, popularly called Kala bou as the leaves of the banana plant is most prominent) for bathing in the morning of Saptami and then bringing her back to the puja area, which in this case is Sarbamangala Mandir (photo courtesy Shampa Mitra). This nabapatrika snan is one of the main nine rituals associated traditionally with Durga puja.
From Navami, rain was forecast for South Bengal including Kolkata. With the fear of another COVID-19 wave, many are now praying the rains to be heavy enough to shut the people indoor. At present, Kolkata is having around 200 new cases while Bengal is having around 700 new cases. It is still low enough, but now it is to be seen whether the callous administration and public sentiment again help it to jump beyond the bounds.
(The author Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a senior journalist based in Kolkata. He has a wide range of experience in covering West Bengal politics and has authored several books)