Saturday, October 27, 2012

Durga Puja an occasion for communal harmony

For Bengali Hindus, the annual Durga Puja festival is the equivalent of Eid and Christmas. The appeal, however, transcends religious boundaries.

By Sahana Ghosh for Khabar South Asia in Kolkata
October 27, 2012:
A priest performing the rituals before the Goddess 
Durga at a Kolkata pandal on October 22nd. Durga 
Puja has become an occasion for bringing people 
of different faiths together. [Sahana Ghosh/Khabar]
For five days and nights, residents and visitors forgot Kolkata's drudgeries, political tensions and widespread poverty. The Durga Puja festival, which concluded on Wednesday (October 24th) has evolved over time from a religious holiday to a cultural festival with appeal beyond the Hindu community.
People from all social, economic and religious backgrounds join in the revelry each year during the third week of October. The festival has a unique ability to bring together Hindus, Muslims and Christians in an atmosphere of camaraderie and communal harmony.

"I spent the whole time, moving from one pandal (ceremonial structure) to another and chilling out with my friends," Gulshanara Khatun, a 21-year-old Muslim student at Jadavpur University, told Khabar South Asia. "This is a great occasion for all of us to enjoy and have fun."

Community pujas (ritual) are a great way to unite people of different backgrounds, Hindu priest Samaresh Bhattacharya told Khabar. "You can’t distinguish between communities or religions among the thousands of visitors to the Puja, who come to watch the rituals or just to have a glimpse of the idols," he said.

"Durga symbolizes the victory of the good winning over the evil Asura [deities]. It also signifies family values as Durga – the mother– makes her annual visit to her parents’ house along with her four children. The rituals are something every Bengali can associate with, even when the mantras are chanted in Sanskrit," said Bhattacharya.

During the annual festival, men, women and children dressed in their best attire visit pandals -- makeshift tents that house the idols of the Goddess Durga and her four children, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartik -- eat delicacies and take part in cultural programmes.

From somber affair to economic windfall

Until a decade ago, Durga Puja used to be a somber affair. Then-organised by communities who broke down barriers between the rich and poor, Pujas focused mostly on the rituals.

Now, preparations for the festival begin months ahead. Pandals range from simple bamboo and tarpaulin material to art deco works using innovative medium like compact discs, terracotta sculptures, glass bangles and various other materials.

This year, many pandals were created with themes ranging from rural Bengal greenery to Rajasthan deserts to Kashmir mountain settings. Illuminations were creatively designed to depict social, cultural or political themes. Lights were used to create pictures of favorite personalities and events.

For craftsmen who build pandals, the festival is their main source of income through the year. The north Kolkata locality of Kumartuli, where idols are made with mud and bamboo, begins to bustle at least six months ahead.

The budgets of most Puja organisers have skyrocketed. Corporate sponsorships have become the norm. Rathin Sanyal, an organiser of a moderate-scale Puja in Kolkata's Salt Lake said, "Our budget has almost tripled over the last five years to about $30,000, which includes cultural programmes with invited artistes and community lunches for four days."

Budgets of over $200,000 for four-day community Pujas are common. "All companies operating in the eastern part of India earmark substantial portions of their advertising and sponsorship budgets for spending during the Pujas," public relations professional Ashoke Kumar Mukhopadhyay told Khabar. Telecom, media and consumer goods companies provide the sponsorships, he said.

Because this is the time of year most Bengalis shop for everything from clothes to accessories, consumer durables and books, Puja also brings a bonanza for retailers and a boon for publishers.

"I make one-third of my yearly sales in the months of September-November, the festive season that starts from Durga Puja and ends with Diwali," Gariahat retailer Saradindu Pal said.

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