What is special about Durga Puja is that it’s a community celebration. In Calcutta, specially, almost every neighbourhood has a Puja Committee to organise the Puja in their locality, every year.
Come September and the Committee members begin to meet at each other’s houses and chalk out plans for grand celebrations over endless rounds of cha(tea) and adda (discussion).
Anyone can qualify – all one needs is boundless enthusiasm. These people set up the pandal or the tents that house the festivities. They also organise the idol-making, decide on the cultural programmes — and the feast. It’s all for the cause of Ma Durga. Above all, it’s fun!
What is interesting is that these Puja celebrations have become big business for their organisers. In Calcutta and every other city with a sizeable Bengali population, the Pujas are often sponsored by big business groups. Even the devi stands under the protection of their bold, fluttering banners.
In Delhi’s largely-Bengali colony, Chittaranjan Park, there are several big Pujas organised by the local Bengali community with the generous sponsorship of sponsors.
The area outside the biggest Puja resembles a fair during this time, which is why it is known as the Mela Ground. Food stalls, saree stalls and book stalls jostle for space with merry-go-rounds here. Thousands throng the pandals for a taste of the festive spirit.
They do come to see the Durga idol, but they also come for the cultural programmes organised in the evenings. The local performers from the neighbourhood make way for the various artists who are invited to perform, mostly with the lure of handsome fees, in the evenings. From jatra troupes and Calcutta pop sensations, to semi-classical vocalists, the Mela ground has seen and heard them all.
The Pujas have always been occasions for lavish spending. In the 19th century, in Calcutta, the Daws, Mitras and Debs were wealthy families of North Calcutta who organised splendid Pujas in their own houses. The Pujas were a family tradition.
More than 150 years later, the tradition still continues for these families (except the Mitras ) and several other old families of Calcutta. Organising them year after year reaffirms the status of these families as the most prominent ones in the city. Moreover, it’s a way of reliving past glories through grand celebrations.
Many of the oldest Pujas have historic associations. Take the Ghosh family Puja of Pathuriaghata Street, for example. The Puja, which is 230 years old, used to be visited by Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of Bengal. Pujas such as these still make an effort to maintain the dignity of the past. But there are several others who seem to have lost it.