When Asurs came to town: Kolkata pandal invites Mahishasur’s descendants to be part of Durga Puja

They wouldn’t even look at an idol of Durga since it’s painful for them to see their ancestor being slain, but members of Jharkhand’s Asur tribe are attending a Kolkata Durga Puja in a bid to dispel myths around them. The first being — they’re not really demons!

Written by Shreya Das | Kolkata | Updated: October 12, 2016 1:23 pm
sd-asur-from-jharkhand-in-durga-puja_759 No different from any other Indian tribal community, the Asurs not only have to fight for development but also against the social and cultural stigma associated with their lineage. (Express Photo by Subham Dutta)

What is true spirit of celebrations if it is not enjoyable for all, and a process to let the backward people merge into the mainstream culture? At a small community puja in Kolkata’s Salt Lake area, a rural ambiance has been created. This is not an uncommon scene during Durga Puja, when many pandals go rustic with models of farmers and labourers. The angst of the common man amid the blessings of the Devi Durga is a popular theme across Bengal. The scene at this pandal is also similar, but it’s the name of the village of choice is intriguing — Asur Gram.

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Even few months back the debate of Durga and Mahishasur kept the proceedings at Parliament busy. Many realised that though the goddess have origins in mythology, ‘Asurs’ are very much part of reality. In many parts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Bengal, live a tribal community who go by the name of Asur. The community, who forever have argued that Asurs were a part of the non-Aryan race, indigenous to this continent, claiming lineage that date earlier than the Harappa and Mohenjodaro civilisation.

At Salt Lake’s FE Block pandal, the organisers have taken a bold and unconventional route by bringing in people from the Asur community to be part of their puja this year. For them, it is not a theme but a thought to provide this tribal community an opportunity to change perceptions and bust the myths associated with them. Debasish Mondal the curator of the pandal, took the initiative to get in touch with the tribal community and convinced them to be part of festivities this year.

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While we were waiting among the selfie-clicking, smiling youngsters on the first day of puja, a lady in her early 30s in a plain white and red bordered sari entered the premise with an infectious smile. Sushama Asur is part of a seven-member team that has arrived in the city to be part of the ongoing festivities but not directly. With the surname like Asur, almost each member of the tribal community have – at some point or the other – had to clarify, “We are not Rakshasas; we are very much human like all of you.” One would imagine such a disclaimer would be accompanied with a terse tone, but usually it’s either a smile that hints of an insider’s joke, or that of resigned sadness at the sorry state of affairs.

Their surname and association with the demon king Mahishasur have been the reasons behind the social stigma they face and the seclusion that follows. Popular myths and perception view them as “flesh-eating”, “black-magic” practitioners. The truth couldn’t be farther away. The Asurs is a clan deeply rooted in its culture and beliefs, who are striving very hard to preserve their identity and dignity.

One step in dispelling the misconception is this revolutionary trip to Kolkata. This community which observes these festive days in remorse — remembering their ancestor — has gone against many social and historical rules to come here. Back in their village Sakhuapani, which 500m from the Hindalco Group’s Gurdari bauxite mine in the Gumla district of Jharkhand, there have been apprehensions and fears associated with their venture. The pandal’s organisers repeatedly assured them that they will not be discriminated against, but rather an opportunity for the world to know them, their history and ideology.

Asur, Women from Jharkhand performed at Salt Lake FE block during Durga puja festival on Maha Sasthi, on Friday. Express photo by Subham Dutta. 07.10.16 The smiling members of the Asur tribe may now be used to being associated with demons, like their ancestor, but they’re now trying to change the misconception. (Express Photo by Subham Dutta)

Interestingly, it was an Indian Express report that brought it all about. The club’s convener Rana Roy said, “We were planning to do something about the tribal communities in our country, and came across the asur community in an Indian Express report.” One thing led to another, and Sushama and several other members of Jharkhand’s Asur community now find themselves in Kolkata.

Sushama, a class-12 pass-out, has been a pioneer in many pivotal projects that are taken up for the development of the community. Sitting among group of organisers, visitors and members of her tribe, she says, “We agreed to their proposal as we liked their idea. Through this we want to let the rest of India know, hum bhi jeete jagte samaaj hain (we are also an existing community)”. She hopes this initiative will dispel the wrong perceptions associated with tribe, giving them a chance to merge with mainstream society.

The fact that their ancestor is the very demon whose killing is celebrated during the Durga Puja has always made them the ‘bad guys’ in the eyes of society. Their decision to retain not only their tribal surname of Asur (meaning demon) has further sealed the idea. So did their refusal to visit puja pandals and see a Durga idol out of protest — after all, in each of those idols, their ancestor is being slain. That cannot be an easy thing to witness. For centuries they have been discriminated against, insulted and kept on the sidelines. Sushama, daughter of tribe leader Khambila Asur, who passed away few months back, wants to change all that — but without compromising on their history.

Interestingly, even though the Asurs do not worship or even believe in Durga, they do put their faith in ‘Jatadhari’ Shiva, whom they consider a part of their own culture. The women pray to the lord during the holy month of Sawan as part of their festival Deothan Puja, just like in other parts in India. Ritualistically, the Asur community is no exception to any other community and prays to the natural resources and jungle gods. The erstwhile blacksmiths by profession, they have now taken up other forms of trade like farming. Most of the members now work in various factories as labourers. In Bengal, they’re mostly employed in the tea gardens of the north. In fact, they were initially approached by the pandal committee to come, but their employers didn’t relieve them during the pujas.

A part of the contingent from Jharkhand is an 85-year-old man, who is among the last members of the community that were skilled in metal smelting trade. With the fear that the art would die with these living arts men, the people of the tribe are now trying to learn how to identify rocks from which metals can be extracted. While the world is progressing, life is not easy for them, as they still strive hard to get the basic amenities, a world that is far away from the developed digital India.

Sushama along with others have taken a mammoth task to inscript their indigenous Asuri language using Devnagari. Their actual written script was lost long back, the language – which is alive only through oral practice – is on its way to be documented for fear of obliteration. Sushama has successfully written books for class I and II, which are taught to the children in their own colloquial lingo. However, getting their own textbooks has been a long haul. Many meetings and interactions with the social development offices and even the state’s governor haven’t proved fruitful. But nothing decreased their effort or passion to attempt change.

Asur, Man and Women from Jharkhand performed at Salt Lake FE block during Durga puja festival on Maha Sasthi, on Friday. Express photo by Subham Dutta. 07.10.16 The Asur group from Jharkhand perform a traditional folk dance at the Salt Lake Durga Puja pandal, where they have been invited. (Express Photo by Subham Dutta)

Though recognised as a ‘Primitive Tribe’ along with eight other tribes by the Bihar government, the bifurcation of the state led to much of their miseries. As Sushama says, “Though everything exist on papers, hardly anything exist in reality.” Asked about any initiative by the Jharkhand government, the opulent spokesperson says, “Yes, we get 30kg of rice, but with just rice what good does it achieve?” Regretting that there are hardly any real benefits, either from the government or the private company in the area, she says much has to be done.

“We don’t have a health facility in our village, we have to travel at least 45km to receive basic health care facilities. There is just one school in the locality that only has elfin reserved seats for the community children.” The list of their problems is endless and all the basic amenities seem to be a luxurious affair. With no tube-wells, women travel many kilometers deep into the woods to fetch water. But with little complain she says, “Nature has its own way to supplement. Our waters are rich in iron, so our would-be-mothers do not have to consume pills to get additional iron.”

As the day progresses, dressing in their traditional attire — comprising a simple white and red border sari for women and shirt and dhoti for men — come along with a ‘maadol’ to perform tribal songs and dance. The women flaunted handmade-paper flowers atop their buns and accompanied their saris with authentic tribal jewellery. The metal and beads accessories show another facet of their skills.

As the city is witnessing their talent against the backdrop of the Durga Puja, they continue to be part of the festivity while persistently ignoring the very existence of the goddess. Even as they enter the premise, they never look at the idols but interact and perform at an adjacent stage. Mondal has taken great care that they do not feel disrespected or humiliated. However, this again signifies that the festival of Durga Puja is beyond all religious and social barriers and these five days are for all to enjoy, even for detractors of the rituals.