In just about a week from now, Bengalis all over the world will celebrate Durga Puja, the biggest of the festivals of Bengal. For nearly two weeks, the city of Kolkata and its inhabitants will be in the midst of a jamboree, the parallel of which is hard to find anywhere else. There is no doubt that the festivities have been rather subdued during the last two years due to the pandemic, but the spirit of festivity was palpable.  

An Artist’s Creation of Durga in Manipuri Dance Attire

Puja of course means worship; but Durga Puja in Bengal is much more than that. It is the annual visit by daughter Durga – Uma being her nick name in Bengal – from her abode in Kailash in the Himalayas to her mother Menoka’s home (read Bengal). The four days that Uma would spend at her mother’s place is, therefore, an occasion for festivity. And since

It was after a gap of almost 30 years that I was in Kolkata during the Puja in 2016. We had heard a lot about how over the years the modest community Pujas evolved into huge, big-budget affairs, with colossal amounts being spent on decoration, etc.

To show us some of the prize-winning pandals minus the mad evening rush, an enthusiastic relative took us out for an early morning guided tour.

It was indeed a wonderful experience. The skill with which the builders of these temporary temples of the goddess replicated well known architectural structures, or used most common materials like kitchen utensils made of wood to produce incredible works of art, can only be seen to be believed. 

Temporary Home for the Goddess

The scale of the festival is awe-inspiring, and millions of people of all ages walk around the city to enjoy the grand spectacle, ignoring occasional rains.  Kolkata truly becomes the “City of Joy” during these few days.

Critics ask if it is it justified to spend so much on a four-day (a week, in some cases) extravaganza when many Indians go to bed hungry every evening, and so many children die due to malnutrition and lack of basic health facilities.   

They condemn the large Pujas as a wastage and a reflection of our “couldn’t care less” attitude to social and economic problems. The money spent on Pujas could have been better utilised by spending it on building social and health infrastructure, they argue.

On the other hand, Puja enthusiasts point out that a large number of artisans, workers and their families are dependent on this and other festivals for their livelihood.  It would be a blow to them if all such festivities were stopped or scaled down. We must also take into account, they say, the thousands of ancillary jobs created by temporary stalls selling street food and so many other items near every pandal. These people would have been the poorer but for the Puja.

A Traditional Image of Durga

The reality is that the big Pujas are no longer organised by collection of donations from the local residents or small advertisements in their souvenirs.  When they were, a part of the donation used to be spent on some charity or the other, although to what extent such one-off charitable work mitigates the misery of the poor is a moot question.

The corporate sponsors spend huge sums simply because they view this as a unique opportunity to advertise their products to the millions who visit the pandals day and night for a full week. These companies won’t give a farthing if this money was to be spent on social welfare instead of on putting a grand show of Puja.

Thus, scrapping the festivities won’t mean that the resultant saving would be available for spending on the poor, because there would hardly be any money coming in. At the same time, hundreds, if not thousands would face loss of jobs and small business opportunities that the festivities offered.

Only large scale economic development can create more permanent jobs, reducing dependence on seasonal employments. The tax revenue generated from such economic activities would then be available for spending on the social sectors.

Festivals would still be celebrated – even on grand scales – but the contrast between the glittering pandals and the condition of the poor artisans would not perhaps appear as stark as at present. Let’s hope that this doesn’t remain just a wishful thought.

Meanwhile, the festive days are round the corner. My best wishes to all for a Happy Durga Puja.