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Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata are a celebration of good’s victory over evil in its truest sense. This Navratri, an attempt to defeat the evil of social discrimination.
The festival fever has gripped the nation. The ongoing Navratri celebrations with the colorful rass, garbas and Durga puja has decked up the nation with lights, decorations, pandals, gatherings, food, and revelry. The message of good’s victory over evil is handed down from one generation to the other with these traditional celebrations and rituals.
Today morning while I was going to drop my son to the school, he asked me a question about celebrating Dussehra. I tried to explain the philosophy of victory of good over evil to the curious seven years old – how Shri Ram killed Ravana and brought back Sita. Then he asked me why Durga Devi was worshipped during these nine days? I narrated to him the story of Maa Durga and Mahishasur. How the fight between them went on for nine days and on the tenth day, she finally killed the evil demon. Hence, it is celebrated as Vijaya Dashmi too.
His questions took me back to my childhood years that were spent in Calcutta which is now Kolkata.
Durga Puja was a celebration that I looked forward to every year. Although we were Maharashtrians, my parents also indulged in buying new clothes for us during Puja celebrations, and enjoyed the festivities with Bengali friends. The huge pandals and the majestic idols of Maa Durga along with that of Lokkhi, Saraswati, Ganesha, and Kartik were the main attractions.
The streets were alight with decorations and unique themes. The stalls and aroma of sumptuous Bengali food with cultural programs couldn’t be missed at any cost. I still miss being at Kolkata during the Puja fever. However, my Bengali childhood friends take me on a Durga Puja tour every year through the various pictures posted by them on their social media handles.
The celebration of puja has changed manifold since I was a child; now it mirrors the current socially relevant issues, making it much more than just a traditional celebration.
While scrolling through a social media page, my attention was caught by two unique stories. For past few years ‘Themed Puja’ is gaining popularity. Here the festival is portrayed through the lens of different themes be it folk-art, or philosophical to socio-environmental issues. In an attempt to bring forward the plight of sex workers in the society, an innovative Durga puja has been organized by the ‘Ahiritola Jubak Brinda Puja Committee.’
The list of a hundred and eight items needed for the rituals of Durga Puja features an unusual one – a clump of soil from the doorstep of sex workers is essential. Yet sex workers are never treated well or welcomed at celebrations. To make a break in this hypocrisy, this Puja committee has beautifully conceptualized the entire set up.
The 300-feet long street leading to the entrance of the Ahiritola Jubak Brinda Puja Mandap depicts the scene from lives of sex workers in strikingly bright colors. This lively and vibrant artwork has been created by Kolkata-based graffiti artist Debanjan and his team, with twenty-five sex workers.
The main Mandap has been designed like a ‘Kotha’ – the usual living quarters of the sex workers. The Durga idol is placed in the center of the Mandap, with figures of sexual harassers and rapists lying dead and defeated at her feet. This unique set up was conceptualized by artist Manas Roy, and the idol was sculpted by Parimal Pal.
While every day we are hearing stories of #metoo, the plight of sex workers and their #metoo stories are suppressed, ignored, hated and unheard because they are doing this as a profession. Their pain and exploitation are considered as their own wilful choice and not the circumstances under which they are forced to opt for this profession. The evil of sexual harassment being destroyed by the Shakti is a brilliant way to spread the social message through festivities.
The second concept is an attempt to include transgenders and other marginalized communities in the festivities without stigma, shame or harassment.
Though the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court, decriminalizing a part of IPC section 377 has given relief and freedom to this marginalized community, social acceptance is still a distant dream. Ranjita Sinha, a member of the West Bengal Transgender Board and a transgender activist has organized a Durga Puja in her residence at Gokhale Road which is unique in every sense.
The community members have chosen an idol of Durga which symbolizes the whole concept of Ardhanarishwar (half male and half female). This has been created by the members under the guidance of Kumartuli idol makers.
Pujas and other socio-cultural events have often excluded people belonging to the marginalised community. For years they have not been allowed to participating in the events. However, in this new ‘themed’ Durga puja, everything from food, decorations, cultural activities and many other aspects of the puja are looked after by trans men or trans women.
It is an attempt by Ranjitha and her team members to break the shackles of age-old tradition based on hierarchy and patriarchy to establish a ‘sarbojonin’ (everyone) Durga Puja in its truest sense. While this year the Puja only constitutes 70 odd people, from next year Ranjita wishes to make the affair even bigger. May these concepts grow and generate the positive message of acceptance and inclusion in our society.
Though I miss being in Kolkata during Durga Puja, such news always makes me feel as if the shakti of Maa Durga is bringing about change by defeating the evils of our society.
Image Source – Flickr, Ramakrishna Math.
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