Durga Puja in Kolkata

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This pagoda in south Kolkata was the goddess’s temporary home

Durga Puja, the biggest of the festivals of Bengal, is now behind us. For nearly two weeks the city of Kolkata and its inhabitants were in the midst of a jamboree, the parallel of which is hard to find anywhere else. Puja of course means worship; but Durga Puja in Bengal is much more than that. It is the annual visit by daughter Durga from her abode in Kailash to her mother Menoka’s home (read Bengal). The four-day sojourn is, therefore, an occasion for a grand festivity.
It is after a gap of almost 30 years that I was in Kolkata during the Puja. We had heard so much about how 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 marvels or used most common materials like wooden kitchen utensils to produce incredible works of art can only be seen to be believed. The scale of the festival is awe-inspiring and millions walk around the city to enjoy the grand spectacle, ignoring occasional rains.  Kolkata truly becomes the “City of Joy” during these few days.

However, is it justified to spend such high amounts on a four-day (a week, in some cases) extravaganza  when millions of our countrymen go to bed hungry every evening, and thousands of our children die due to malnutrition and lack of basic health facilities? Many condemn this as a wastage and a reflection of our “couldn’t care less” attitude to social and economic problems. Others point out that a large number of artisans, workers and their families are dependent on this and other festivals for their livelihood and, therefore, it will be a blow to them if all such festivities were stopped or scaled down. It appears that both arguments are valid from their respective points of view.

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 it used to be spent on some charity or the other. The corporate houses who sponsor the Pujas now, spend huge sums simply because they view this as a great 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 spent for any social welfare purpose. Thus, while scrapping the festivities won’t mean that the resultant saving would be available for spending on the poor, it is certain that hundreds, if not thousands will suffer due to loss of jobs and small business opportunities.

Only large scale economic development can create more permanent jobs, reducing dependence on seasonal employments like decoration of pandals during the puja. The tax revenue earned by the government from these economic activities would then be available for spending on the social sectors. Festivals will still be celebrated – even on grand scales – but the contrast between the glittering pandals and the condition of the poor will not perhaps appear as stark as at present.

Let’s hope that this won’t remain just a distant dream.
Meanwhile, we are approaching Kali Puja and Deepavali, for which my best wishes to all.

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