Every July, the Goswami household in Serampore Rajbari (Serampore royal-family home) comes alive in preparation for the most important festival of the year. Located about 30 km north of Kolkata across the Hooghly, Serampore is well known as the erstwhile Danish town of Bengal. Hyderabad-based businessman Debojyoti Goswami, 36, the ninth generation of the family, says that no matter where he is, Durga Puja means homecoming. Along with his cousins, Goswami is in charge of putting together the 328-year old Puja that was started by Lakshman Goswami, a staunch follower of the Vaishnav saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and that differs, in subtle ways, from the pujas in Kolkata. After all, it carries with it the whiff of a suburban character missing from the urban landscape of Kolkata.
There are many unique rituals in the Goswami family Durga puja. Chief among them is the worship of Nabapatrika (nine crops tied together) along with Kolabou (banana tree that symbolises the wife of Lord Ganesha). “The Naba patrika and Kola bou are given a bath in the thakur dalan (place of worship) of our house and then worshipped there, as opposed to most other households where they are taken to the Ganges for the bath,” Goswami says. The root of this lies in the bygone purdah traditions. Goswami says their family believes that as the wife of Ganesha, Kola bou is the daughter-in-law of the house and should not have to leave the premises to take a bath.
Kolkata’s Durga Puja, which recently received the Unesco World Heritage tag, is known for its larger-than-life idols, artistic pandals and ostentatious celebrations. Art historian Tabati Guha Thakurta, who created the dossier for the Unesco recognition of Durga Puja, says that she consciously chose to focus on Kolkata alone as “it has the longest history of changing forms from bonedi bari (pujas in the households of aristocratic zamindar or mercantile families) to barowari (community pujas) to sharbajanin (pujas open to all irrespective of religion, caste, creed) to becoming this kind of large, spectacular extravaganza. It is also in the city that the scale, budget and commercial economy of the Puja are at its peak. The public art dimension of the Puja is entirely a Kolkata-drawn phenomenon,” she says.
However, in the surrounding suburbs and villages of West Bengal, the festival undergoes a change. “There is a harvest element in the pujas of rural and suburban Bengal,” explains Bengal heritage expert Tathagatha Neogi, founder of Immersive Trails. “For instance, in the Hatserandi area of Birbhum district, the Nabapatrika puja is the main element, which is a way to welcome the nine types of crops harvested at that time of the year,” he says.
The agrarian roots of Durga Puja is evident from the fact that there still exists, especially in rural Bengal, the tradition of worshipping Durga during the spring season, in what is known as ‘Basanti Puja’. It is only with the popularisation of the Ramayana and the spread of Vaishnava traditions in Bengal sometime in the 15th century, that the autumnal Durga worship took off. In the Bengali version of the Ramayana, Lord Rama had invoked Goddess Durga out of season — akal bodhon — for killing Ravana. “For instance, on the last day of the Serampore Rajbari Puja, it is customary to worship Ram on the same platform where Goddess Durga was worshiped after she is immersed,” says Anirban Dutta, founder of ‘Bengal by the Hooghly’ that is curating a number of walks showcasing Durga Puja in rural Bengal.
Over time, the grand celebrations became a means for the affluent to cement their social status by flaunting their wealth. The agrarian aspect of the Puja was retained more in the rural areas, given that the zamindar households in these regions had a stronger connection with the land, than in Kolkata, the state capital, where wealth was concentrated among the mercantile class.
The iconography of the Goddess, too, has its own local character in the suburban pujas. “In the Baksha Choudhury Barir Puja, for instance, the Goddess appears with four arms,” says Dutta. “In the Serampore Rajbari on the other hand, the Goddess appears in a kulo (winnowing fan made of bamboo). The Chakraborty barir puja of Antpur is also interesting because the Goddess is worshipped in the khamar bari (farm house) ”
Dutta believes that in the predominant narrative that highlights Kolkata’s cosmopolitan extravagant celebrations, the identity of these rural and suburban pujas get subsumed. “This has an impact on the way people from the suburbs identify themselves. The moment they move out of Bengal, regardless of whether they are from Krishnanagar or Murshidabad, they all say they are from Kolkata. It’s as if there is no other place in Bengal,” he says.
For Goswami, it is the simplicity and the community spirit of the suburban pujas that draws him home every autumn. “Unlike Kolkata, here you will not find a large pandal or very expensive decorations on the Goddess. But in each of these celebrations, the entire neighbourhood comes together to enjoy the spirit of the festival and to bond with each other,” he says.
With inputs by Premankur Biswas