Kolkata: Nowadays the Calcutta edition of the Durga Pujas is certified by UNESCO and thus an acclaimed celebrity. Back then, this festival was simply a dear member of the family, making an annual appearance much to everybody’s glee.
At the end of the 1970’s, my earliest reservoir of memory, it all began with a visit to the tailors. In our case, the candidate was Deva Tailors, at the heart of Lansdowne Road, blessed with a talkative proprietor. The collected pieces of the season, shirt or pants, were handed over with breezy excitement, and indeed a dash of fear lest the booty be lost in transit. In the slip of paper that recorded the transfer, we searched earnestly for the date of trial, examining its proximity to the big days. When quizzed further, the master nodded with a knowing smile, his appointment with the midnight oil sharply imminent.
The very next trailer of the festivities was the publication of the annual Puja editions, of both newspapers and magazines. As children, we doted on the multi-faceted Anandamela, the curiously quirky Sandesh and the sporty candidates, Khelar Ashor et all. While adults literally and figuratively revelled in ‘adult’ fare, a decaying genre of promiscuous writings, and of course the more kosher Desh and Anandalok. In many ways, the great leveller was Desh, the preferred medium for Satyajit Ray to unleash his latest Feluda novel before it surfaced as a hardbound indulgence. In later years, even The Statesman attempted a festival edition, amongst a few last-ditch attempts to embrace new age relevance.
By this time, though, the streets were sufficiently staffed with bamboo poles and enigmatic structures, testing many a throbbing imagination. The diversions in traffic were already in play, amply testing the moody carburettors of the Ambassadors, seeking yet another alibi to stall. The tenacity of doorbells was also suitably stretched as the donation seekers across neighbourhoods planned their annual sorties. Depending on the nature of the relationship, the tonality of the inquisition could vary from Al Capone to Marilyn Monroe, the outcome, a hastily scribbled money receipt sloppily cyclostyled or screen printed. Closer to time, the desperation often increased, as the shortfalls in budgeting erupted suddenly, like the Shyam Thapa bicycle kick in the 1978 Derby.
By now, it was time for the Puja numbers to be released, bespoke vinyl records of leading performers, customised for the season. Under the auspices of the rather broad ‘ Adhunik’ genre, it attracted every local exponent and this invitation was robustly accepted by the Bollywood deities. Kishore Kumar, RD Burman, Lata-Asha and even Mohammed Rafi came up with point-in-time creations, destined to dominate the microphones during the three and half days of peak performance. The studios of HMV, Jessore Road, were indeed booming with sublimity, under the watchful eyes of the Jack Russell Terrier, Nipper.
When all of the above was sincerely underway, the good fellows at Dunlop were busy charting their version of the Michelin rankings. Except that it had nothing to do with restaurants but focused delightfully on Puja Pandals. A rating cum access newspaper advertisement that clearly identified the finest Pujas in the territory, along with motorable route maps. Truly a brilliant customer engagement idea, that was way before its time, in the able pioneering spirit of vulcanisation. Folks like us were deeply diligent in commissioning sensitive scissors to extricate the advertisement from its foundation, The Statesman once again. In the pre-photocopy era, this had to be preserved gainfully, or else a substitute would be elusive. Dunlop, to complete the cycle of virtue, also assigned badges to minors with the phone numbers of parents lest they be seduced by untoward humans or provocative Ferris Wheels.
The inauguration usually occurred on Panchami or Shashti, thus offering a minor interlude to the magical Day One, when all else worldly faded without repute. I remember deeply the foreplay of the Dhak, bursting with joy at the earliest whiff of sunlight. I also remember the un-rational magic in the air, blessed with a blueness in the skies that only poets could envisage. This was clearly no ordinary season, as every stimulus came directly from the heart, sans the intervention of logic or reason, in spite of their substantive presence. All matters earthly seemed to be in willing abeyance, as if a decree from the Gods.
For many like us, the days of the festival were filled with planned abandon, every region of the city covered with diligent precision. The North was the target of Day One, from Bagbazar to Simla Byayam Samiti to the picturesque College Square - each bearing the happy burden of history and craft in dutiful tandem. Lunch was invariably procured from the Royal Indian Hotel, Chitpur Road, established in 1905 and responsible for the finest rendition of Biryani and Champ, East of the Suez, established by cooks from Wajid Ali Shah’s exiled entourage. Truth be greedily told, the Durga Pujas were obsessive about good taste, not petty prejudice. Therefore the Mughlai Paratha broke bread with as much aplomb as the ritualistic Bhog, the heart being the only adjudicator.
In the South, the classics were acquiring their own unique acumen, whether Congressman Subrata Mukherjee led Ekdalia Evergreen or the genteel Ballygunge Cultural and Samaj Sebi, renditions of a newer demography. On the Harish Mukherjee Road stretch, the candidates were many, and nobody with half a penchant for life could afford to miss any. This was clearly Egg Roll territory when it came to digestive aesthetics until the time Domino's Pizza decided to disrupt Maddox Square with portable ovens and the repertoire would never be the same again. Much like its organic evolution, South Calcutta spawned a culture of inclusion, not just in ‘Theme’ designs but also in the appetite for change.
Quite like many other cultural expositions, the Durga Pujas were never designed to be competitive, till Asian Paints Sharad Samman came to the party. Pioneering an awards culture that has today reached a threshold of clutter, so much so that the venerated original is busy refurbishing tramcars to stay uniquely relevant. Every organisation, whether corporate or voluntary, is desperate to be both judge and jury and in due linear adherence, the Puja Committees are paying obeisance, surely as a sponsorship accumulation strategy. To perhaps woo folks like the Times of India, who can bankroll humongous efforts quite effortlessly, unleashing their self-same marketing muscle.
So much time and words on Durga Pujas of then and perhaps it is respectful to recognise the profitability now. From being a tight and lovable three and half day gig it is now a ten-day exhibition, in Calcutta most certainly. Where every pandal is an aspirant for accolades and not just a destination for affectionate devotion. Truly a carnival in every good sense, avowedly secular, but alarmingly behaving like a fashion show ramp seeking the effervescence of a Saba Azad, as per current evidence. Where the raging hordes who visit are neither devotees nor fans, but instead adjudicators with self-inflicted licences, like much of social media. Perhaps a good thing at large, as more can come to the party, barriers gobsmacked by demographic momentum. Accelerated ably by social media and the digital evolution, abettors of civilisation when used sensibly.
On this avoidably serious note, I wish Happy Pujas to every citizen of the land and those who reside beyond. Pardon the recollections of the past, as they are simply expressions of cherished fondness. The present is indeed a gift and may happiness reign supreme, whatever be the successful conduits. That must be the wish of every benevolent deity, not just Maa Durga. Lest I forget, thanks a lot to UNESCO for making our family part of yours.