It is around 8 pm and the ground on Kashi Bose Lane in Kolkata is bustling. A bulldozer has just left after digging huge pits, while carpenters are at work building a wooden floor for a bamboo structure, that stands over 30-ft high and is covered in tarpaulin.
They have two months to transform this space into one of Kolkata’s oldest community Durga Pujas, going back to 1937, in time for the festival season.
At 73, Kali Prasanna Bhattacharjee holds the key to it. The working president of the Kashi Bose Lane Durga Puja Samity, Bhattacharjee says that while for the rest of West Bengal, Puja lasts a brief five days, their work is never done. “Once the Durga idol is immersed in the Hooghly river at the end of the Puja, our plan for next year’s Puja starts. We begin meetings with committee members to finalise the theme for the next year.
The pandal construction starts three months before Puja,” he says. This year, Durga Puja is expected to begin on October 4. In a city that comes to a standstill during Puja, every big-ticket pandal has a similar committee working round the year to put up a spectacle more eye-popping than the next. This year, the contest is even more fierce, with the BJP eyeing the Puja committees to make further inroads into Bengal. The Trinamool Congress, whose leaders have enjoyed virtual monopoly so far, has accused it of trying to “usurp” the Puja panels. It has also attacked the BJP government at the Centre for taxing the committees, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee seeking an exemption saying the Pujas perform a social and religious function.
The Kashi Bose Lane Durga Puja Samity received an income tax notice in January. Saying they gave “an apt reply”, advocate Somen Dutta, the general secretary of the Samity, adds, “We have never been asked to file income tax returns. The I-T department is asking us to deduct TDS from pandal employees and show it in our balance sheet. How can we deduct TDS from drummers, artistes and electricians? The department must first make it mandatory for unorganised sector workers to have PAN cards. If there is a rule, we will follow it… Why are Ganesh Puja committees in Maharashtra not taxed?”
The BJP asks what is the problem with the I-T action. “If there is no discrepency, there is no harm in divulging finances,” says state BJP president Dilip Ghosh.
The Samity has 347 members and a 49-member executive body, which meets at least once every month. Ruling Trinamool Congress MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay is its patron-in-chief while minister Shashi Panja is the president.
Bhattacharjee says he was just 14 when he first took part in Puja activities. “It was then like a social gathering of residents, not like what we see now. The senior-most person of the area would supervise the Puja and our parents would shoulder responsibilities.”
Akashdip Sen, 21, and an MSc student at Kalyani University, spends five-six hours a day on Puja work. “I look after the graphics, printing and branding part of the Puja. We prepare the brochure, invitations and other material,” says Sen.
Fellow student Madhura Gayen, 26, who is doing MBA, says that this year, their Pandal will be themed on water conservation. “The theme was selected much before the recent water crisis in Chennai,” says Gayen.
Puja committee members say their association with social activities helps them prepare for the event. The committee organises sports activities, blood donation camps, health camps and drawing competitions. Money is raised through donations and advertisements, with a big Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata costing upwards of Rs 30 lakh.
Saying the CM was right in seeking tax exemption, Gayen says, “Livelihoods are dependent on Durga Puja, of artistes, craftsmen, electricians.”
Asserts Bhattacharjee, “Only the dimension of the Puja has changed over the years but the spirit is the same. At the end of the day, it is a social gathering where everyone has fun. We have maintained our tradition and taken everyone along. This will remain unchanged.”