On Tuesday evening at Aniruddha Hom Chowdhury’s residence at CR Park, the Chartered Accountant was in a serious discussion: will there be black or milk tea during the five days of Durga Puja at his place? The answer would have been simple if only the preferences of the family members and a few guests had to be considered. But in the coming days, 200-250 people will drop by his house. They will visit to see the idol and eat bhog. After pondering for some time, the 60-year-old came up with a solution: Both. And, he added, soft drinks.
The decision to have Durga Puja at his place was spontaneous. “Both me and my younger sister’s birthday is on August 1. In 2007 when we were celebrating together, she suddenly asked, ‘Dada, pujo korbi? (Do you want to do puja at home?). “Without any second thoughts, manpower or finance I agreed.”
A similar story unfolded at another house at a stone’s throw from Chowdhury’s. Nipa Nag Chowdhury recounts how in 2002 “one fine day” her husband decided to have Durga Puja at their place. With only 15 days in hand left for all the preparation, everything had to be arranged in haste. However, they could not find an artisan who would make the idol at such short notice. “It was very difficult to find someone,” the homemaker recounts. But the puja, which is in its 17th year now, had to take place and so it did. A local artisan showed up and since then he has been doing it.
‘Hosting Durga Puja at home was an impulsive decision’
Durga Puja, a cultural event more than a festival, is a spectacle in Kolkata. But even there, local groups and clubs mostly take it upon themselves to arrange for the festivities and share the responsibilities. The daughter’s arrival is anticipated but its daunting nature does not escape them. And in houses which host the goddess and her children, it is generally a traditional practice passed down through generations. These legacy households belonging to erstwhile zamindars are known as Bonedi Bari. The celebrations are marked by people standing in queue for hours to catch a glimpse of the way festivities take place, their fading royalty still attracting a crowd.
These household-hosted Durga pujas at CR Park lack the manpower, traditional compulsion and the fanfare. They do it because they want to. Hom Chowdhury was associated with the B Block Pujo Samiti since 1978. He was also the general secretary. Although he left in 2004, he continued to look over from outside. He considers this as one of the reasons he was latently interested in undertaking the mammoth task. But there is another reason too, and more compelling: it runs in the family. At his maternal uncle’s house in Kolkata, Basanti Pujo is celebrated for more than 150 years now. Seeing it while growing up invariably exposed him to what a “barir pujo” looks like and somewhere enticed him to do something similar. “That is why when my sister suggested and my mother agreed, I went ahead without thinking much,” he confesses. For Shantanu Guha Ray, a journalist by profession and CR Park resident, who has been bringing the idol home for 15 years now, the reason was more intimate. “My mother passed away in 2002 and my wife and I felt a constant vacuum. Bringing the idol home is like bringing a mother home,” he says.
‘I do not believe in the festival’s commercialisation.’
The Bonedi Barir puja might be stripped off familiar and apparent commercial embellishments, but these houses, now a pale shadow of their glorious past, have found means to monetise the festival in their ways. According to a report in The Hindu Business Line, a glimpse into the way the former zamindars spend their pujas and a visit to their houses are offered as a part of a tour run by various operators, including the state government-run West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation Ltd. The package includes a visit to the households during the first three days and witnessing the way various ceremonies are carried out. Sometimes, they are accompanied by a guide as well.
These houses at CR Park, far-removed from the opulence, not only not have a past glory that they can benefit from but also seem reluctant to commodify the festival. They fund it on their own. “I along with my sister fund the whole thing. I do not believe in the commercialisation of the festival. What will you do with so much money?” Hom Chowdhury asks. “My father was a clerk. We grew up in abject poverty. I host the festival because I want to. It has become a routine in my life,” Guha Ray states.
If there is anything constant in Durga Puja apart from the serpentine lines outside the pandals is the food stalls outside. Food forms an intrinsic part of the festival as the menu is adapted with the progression of the days. At Bonedi Barir Pujas, bhog is served on all five days, while in the Baroari Puja pandals the practice is reserved only for Ashtami.
These houses at CR Park might depart from the assiduous details of the Bonedi Barir Puja in Kolkata but they have continued this practice. “Why give khichudi to Ma every day? We start serving food from late Shoshti. On Saptami we have rice and some fry. On Ashtami there is Vegetable pulao and on Nabami there is khichudi,” Hom Chowdhury complains and shares in the same breath. At Nag Chowdhury’s puja, a similar elaborate meal is prepared. “On Saptami we have khichudi and mixed vegetable. On Ashtami there is pulao and cholar dal and on the final day after immersion, we have a huge gathering attended by 80-90 people. There we serve pakodas, pulao, dal, kofta, paneer.”
Not re-creating Kolkata but reclaiming the festival
CR Park is indisputably the Bengali hub in South Delhi. It is constituted not only of the Bengalis who leave Kolkata and go to Delhi for work but also of those who had come to the Capital and did not go back. In this regard, the relentless effort of these households to host a festival might seem like an act triggered by nostalgia or an attempt by the high-browed Bengalis, staying in a city that is not theirs, to preserve the sanctity of a festival they know too well. But none of these three people, who count days for the goddess to arrive and have let go of work and vacation alike during these days, are from Kolkata. Both Hom Chowdhury and Nag Chowdhury are born and brought up in Delhi while Guha Ray is from Jaipur. They go to Kolkata to buy ingredients but there is neither envy for what they see nor do they feel a sense of belonging.
Guha Ray unabashedly admits that hosting the puja enables a social gathering and he thrives on it. “I meet people and I feel happy. I also get a lot of satisfaction from the fact that through this many get employment,” he admits, adding that he gets the drummers to come from Kolkata every year. For Nag Chowdhury it is a time when three of her daughters, all staying abroad, visit home. But this year it is not the case. “Neither of them can make it this time,” she says. That, however, has not stopped her from looking over every little detail and carefully planning for the days ahead. Her daughters might not make it but another daughter has kept her word and the house is decking up for her arrival.
“I remember we used to watch films on a projector at CR Park. It all stopped later. Things have changed so much since then,” Hom Chowdhury remembers. He intended to replicate the same when he started his own puja. Using the projector from his office, he would show films. The festival then is his own way of re-creating something he had witnessed and lost. “I re-live my childhood during the puja,” he adds bashfully. They might be firm in their refusal to emulate the way Durga Puja is conducted in Kolkata but the festival means something similar to them. It offers them hope.