The great thing this year was it did not rain during the entire four-day Durga puja festival. Usually, at least a day is washed out and in the remaining time negotiating the slush thus created challenges the desire to go out and have a good time. One year, the main area at what was the largest puja was covered and so was dry despite the rain. But as I, decked in my puja specials, trudged through the slush after having parked the car, I wished I had stayed home.
The main attraction of the pujas in Bangalore for my family till now has been that they are manageable. You don’t have to walk a mile to reach one after getting off the transport, and in the puja area itself there is space to stand, look around and breathe. But last year we had a premonition of what was to come. We made the mistake of going to the grandfather of them all, the Bengali Association puja on the Palace Grounds, on the last day of Durga puja and found the crowds overwhelming.
This year many more pujas graduated to the first division, so to speak. Masses of humanity – happy, easy-going, everyone dressed up in their finery – jammed them, most before the long row of food stalls offering outrageously expensive staples of popular Bengali haute cuisine — luchi, alur dam, kasha mangsha, kabiraji cutlet, biriyani and, of course, the stuffed paratha roll in its many variations. From next year, we will have to look for a smaller town where the fun is not challenged by excessive crowds.
Bengalis make up a good five per cent of the city’s seven million population and stride the entire social spectrum, from house maids to corporate bigwigs. But what is important is that a good number from other communities join in this festival, which is flexible in having both a secular and a religious side. About 30 per cent of the footfalls at the 30-plus pujas in the city are pan-Indian and on any day at a major puja between 10,000 and 15,000 people come for darshan — the religious or the secular kind. A big puja now has a budget of Rs 25 lakh, mostly paid for by corporate sponsors. The grand spectacle of the Bengali Association is rumoured to be spending a crore, the figure hotly denied by its organisers.
The new development in the last few years is the third leg of puja celebrations: puja, food and what goes by the name of music. At best, a day is set aside for performances by the local community members (the old tradition in community pujas), but the big draws are the rock bands and pop singers, usually from Kolkata, torchbearers of the new music of the young that has overwhelmed everything else. As the rock bands warm up, the swaying young crowd is no different from that at a rock concert, much to the chagrin of the older members of the community who mourn the demise of not just lower-decibel music but music per se. But in all this there is a good bit of live and let live. Right in front of the images, there is a bit of peace, interrupted only by uplifted hands incessantly capturing the scene in cell phone cameras. There are also the very old people, often chaperoned by family members, soon seated in chairs hastily commandeered, the women being symbols of old-world charm in their beautiful saris. In these few days, the ornate richness of the sari comes alive, in striking contrast to some of the modest ensembles that the young sport side by side.
As there is for the old, there is space for children too. They come in all shapes and sizes: from babies no more than a few months old carefully wrapped up and often expertly carried by a grandparent, to toddlers in parents’ arms, to five- and six-year-olds, who instinctively respond to the music and start dancing wherever they are. Very young children often get cranky in crowds and start crying but I saw little of that; the gregarious instinct in them gives them greater stamina.
The way the pujas have changed over the years in West Bengal is well known, with local leftist leaders temporarily setting aside their non-religious credo to take ownership of the local puja and use its extravagance to display their clout. In Bangalore, traditional music has given way to the modern fare. And increasing prosperity has meant long rows of cars virtually jamming all access roads to the big pujas. Over time, the images have also become larger and more finely done. The software bonanza has touched Ma Durga and her progeny too.
But the overarching leitmotif of the pujas is the pet puja, obeisance to the stomach that virtually carries the entire happening on its shoulders. The crush before the food stalls is unbearable but tempers are seldom lost. The yardstick to measure the efficiency of a puja organising committee is how smoothly the rapidly filling bins in front of the food stalls are cleared.
The wife kept pointing to the stall advertising bhape ilish, reassuring me that she would not pull my leg later if I forgot my age and helped myself to a portion then and there. The stall that won my prize for the best name was “Once Upon A Time” which, naturally, served the most traditional fare. And the greatest surprise – the biggest let-down of the whole tamasha – was the non-availability of a decent cup of tea at any of the pujas.