The most common, recognisable and accessible form of Durga Puja—held in public spaces and open to all—is not very old; it started a little over a century ago.
The community Durga Puja, or the sarbojanin puja, has its origins in the barowari puja, which started in Guptipara village in Hooghly district in 1759. Like its predecessor, the sarbojanin puja started as essentially a communal affair and has largely remained that way over the years. The Bengali word sarbojanin means “for everyone”.
It was this inclusiveness and the public nature of marking the festival that set apart the sarbojanin puja from the worship and celebrations that were held in aristocratic households with access restricted to family members.
One of the stories surrounding the origins of this format of the puja says that in 1759 in Guptipara, a group of women who went to a zamindar bari to pray were made to leave, perhaps because the family was unwilling to permit non-members to pray inside their home. Angry at the perceived insult, 12 men of the village decided to hold a puja where the community could pray, creating the first community Durga Puja, from where the format also gets its name- “baro” for twelve, and “yari” for friends.
It would take several years for the concept of barowari Durga pujas to reach Calcutta. That happened only at the turn of the century, when in the 19th century, the first barowari puja started in the city, in the locality where the neighbourhood of Kalighat and Bhawanipore meet, near the Adi Ganga, off Balaram Bose Ghat in 1910. After the concept of barowari puja arrived in Calcutta, over the years, the people of the city evolved it even further to form what is known today as sarbojanin puja.
Starting the first barowari puja in Calcutta came with its own challenges, but in the case of the puja at Balaram Bose Ghat, it was exacerbated because of socio-cultural challenges.
“The location of this puja- Balaram Bose Ghat – is two kilometres away from the Kali temple in Kalighat, and this area used to be called Kali kshetra, or the grounds of Kali,” says Subhadeep Chatterjee, the secretary of the Bhowanipur Santan Dharmatsahni Sabha, the local organisation that organises this puja.
Chaterjee says the belief back then was that the entire neighbourhood came under what was considered the garden of the deity in Kalighat. “The temple committee members back then said that idol worship was not permitted in this area called Kali kshetra. People were allowed to worship images of idols painted on pata called patachitra or on pottery, but not idols themselves,” he explains.
That posed a conundrum for the founding members of the Bhowanipur Santan Dharmatsahni Sabha, who faced opposition from the Kalighat temple committee members due to the beliefs associated with the neighbourhood.
There may be some truth to the story that Chatterjee grew up hearing. Sometime in the 18th century, patuas or scroll painters from Midnapur settled in the vicinity of the Kalighat temple in Calcutta, creating quick patachitra paintings for devotees who would visit the temple, establishing what came to be known as the Kalighat school of painting. The trade flourished in the neighbourhood till the 19th century, during which the patuas were compelled to leave and shift to the Chitpur neighbourhood to escape from an increasing number of robbers in that area, writes Jyotindra Jain in his book ‘Kalighat Painting Images from a Changing World’ (1999). But there are no records for any idol-makers ever residing in the proximity of the Kali temple.
Archives of the the Bhowanipur Santan Dharmatsahni Sabha say that in 1910, large religious organisations in the city decided that they would start a sarbojanin Durga puja where everyone could pray and a community meeting was held where it was decided that the puja would be conducted following vedic principles.
“Durga puja is one that includes complex rituals and requires several priests. The decision was made to conduct this puja by the Adi Ganga, strictly following vedic principles, adjacent to the Jora Shib mandir, with the deity facing the Shiv temple,” Chatterjee says of the location of the puja. Over the centuries, the Adi Ganga, also called Tolly’s Canal, one of the most significant streams of the Ganges river in its lower course, was once an important water source for Calcutta. But post Independence, the Adi Ganga slowly turned into a sewer due to civic mismanagement and other socio-political factors.
At the time that this barowari puja was first held in Calcutta, the city was preparing to host another large gathering scheduled for a year later. It coincided with the 26th session of the Indian National Congress held in 1911, and this form of the puja was used as a nationalist forum in religious guise, write authors Subhayu Chattopadhyay and Bipasha Raha in their book ‘Mapping the Path to Maturity A Connected History of Bengal and the North-East’ (2017). Hence, because of its communal form, the puja also became an important platform for anti-colonial nationalist gatherings.
In many ways, from its inception, the business of Durga puja has sustained several communities across Bengal. But what the community Durga pujas did was that it increased demand for the work of the kumor or the artisan who made idols of the deities. Now, with community Durga pujas happening in almost every para or neighbourhood in Calcutta, they also “provided competitive possibilities between neighbourhoods over the creation of more exquisite and intrinsic clay art within the tableau of the Durga idol.”
By the early twentieth century, the barowari puja had transformed into a more communal space because of its inclusiveness where it gave access to people regardless of social factors like age, gender, caste, class and religion. This new form of inclusive celebrations came to be called the sarbojanin puja.
From the inception of community Durga pujas, donations have formed an integral part of the celebrations and rituals: it was how the first barowari puja was organised in Guptipara way back in 1759. A newspaper report from May 1820 in the The Friend of India, says, the villagers of Guptipara “elected twelve men as a committee, from which circumstances it takes its name and solicited subscriptions in all surrounding villages. Finding their collections inadequate, they sent men into various parts of the country to obtain further supplies of money, of whom many according to current report have never returned.”
While the history of the donations associated with community Durga pujas had modest origins, over the decades, that has changed and increased to very large sums of money. Although the history of these donations started off as voluntary, it quickly ceased to be so even in the early years of these community pujas. The Great Depression of the late 1930s and early 1940s further necessitated public funding, according to Das and Basak.
In their book ‘The Making of Goddess Durga in Bengal: Art, Heritage and the Public’, authors Samir Kumar Das and Bishnupriya Basak write that in the 19th century, fundraisers for these community Durga pujas would exhibit bullying behaviour: “fund-raisers of community pujas behaved like enforcers of the ‘eighth regulation’. Like unscrupulous tax collectors extorting taxes from the tenants living on rent-free land, they forced people into paying subscriptions. Some, with the gift of the gab, sweet-talked rich people into coughing up money.”
The Great Economic Depression of the late 1930s and early 1940s, further necessitated and made these community pujas reliant on public funding, write Das and Basak.
“Durga puja was celebrated very differently back then, without the pomp seen today. Donations weren’t as big back then and neither were pujas advertised. Today, the budget for this puja is Rs 9 lakhs and that amount of money has to be donated by well-wishers and others,” says Chatterjee. Even though the community has retained much of the simplicity associated with the origins of this barowari puja, there are still costs involved.
Pomp and splendour, competition to outdo other neighbourhoods and draw in the largest crowds have become synonymous with the barowari puja and the sarbojanin puja of the city and elsewhere in West Bengal where the festival is marked. But in the small neighbourhood by the Adi Ganga, off Balaram Bose Ghat, where the barowari puja started with humble beginnings in Calcutta, things surrounding the worship of the goddess have largely remained as they were 112 years ago.