The Banga Maitri Sansad, a local community organisation in Mumbai, has been hosting a Durga puja in Santa Cruz for the past 75 years. While over 100 Durga pujas are performed in the city on Wednesday, the BMS can take pride in hosting the second oldest of its type in Maharashtra.
In a wide-ranging affair, the community packs a month’s worth of festivities into five days. On the fourth day of celebrations, the community typically begins by holding pujas and aartis. Later it hands out food–a practice known as bhog distribution–to local families and other attendees. At night it hosts a cultural event showcasing Bengali culture, but it also features an amalgamation of practices from across the country.
Given that the fifth day is typically reserved for the immersion of idols, the end of the night before was marked by a 45-minute long aarti–the last of the season. Part dance, part religious ceremony, the aarti was enthusiastically embraced by everyone present. Women were seen dancing until their bodies were coated in a veil of sweat from the unforgiving October heat, while more ambitious participants were observed dancing with the aarti in their mouths.
The food, as one might expect, was also in abundance. According to Abhijit Dey, no Bengali celebration would be complete without special delicacies from the region, including fish fry, devilled eggs, Kolkata rolls and chicken cutlets. “It’s essentially the food you would have on a cheat day,” says Soumyakumar Deb, another organiser.
Aishani Singh Rakhra adds, “In other cultures you have to become a vegetarian during Puja time, but in Bengali culture, you have to be strictly non-vegetarian.”
At this year’s celebrations, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari also made a brief appearance. He paid his respects at the pandal and enjoyed some of the cultural events on display. As someone fluent in Bengali, the governor seemed to immerse himself in the evening’s activities.
According to its organisers, the occasion is less religious and more cultural, a way of reconnecting with Bengali heritage.
Gargi Deb, who has grown up attending this puja, says that the idea is to make people feel like they are at home. “Durga Puja might be called a puja,” she says, “but it is more a Met Gala festival for Bengalis.”
However, while people tracing their ancestry to Bengal and Kolkata might make up the majority of attendees, it is clear that all are welcome. People from different backgrounds, faiths and socio-economic classes flock to the large grounds every year; estimates indicate that over 600 people attended this year.
This unique approach extends across different avenues. The BMS organises blood donation camps for thalassaemia major patients and gives contributions to local orphanages. When Mumbai was struck by devastating rains in 2006, the community came together to help the victims.
This dedication to the community is not surprising given the background of many BMS members. Some of their families have been hosting Durga pujas for over 600 years in their ancestral homes, while others have been part of this particular community since its inception 75 years ago. According to Rakhra, the yearly celebrations give the community an opportunity to reconnect, with some of the members travelling from Kolkata and Pune to attend the festivities.
The BMS Durga puja is truly a cross-generational celebration. “We used to help set up the chairs,” says Dey, associated with the event since childhood. “Now we are part of the organising committee, giving the older people a chance to relax.”
As for the next generation, there is no shortage of enthusiasm there either. Vaishali Chakraborty, another member of the organising committee, happily reports that the children fight with one another to hand out specific foods or perform certain songs and dances at the gatherings.
Eventually, it all boils down to creating a sense of community. Dey, who identifies as an atheist, stresses that the celebrations are less about religion and more about participating in the community–a sort of extended, close-knit family in its own right. He does not participate in the pujas or the fasting but does help to organise them.
As for what’s next, the members are unanimous in their response. Following the immersion, they will have a day or two to relax before the preparations for next year’s puja begin.