“First class wines and viands, such as Geisler’s champagne, Heatly’s port and sherry, Exshaw’s brandy No. I, Crabbie’s ginger-wine, Bass’s best bottled beer, soda water, lemonade, ice, Huntley and Palmer’s mixed biscuits, Manila cigars, cakes and fruits in heaps, puláo, kurmá, kuptá, kálláya, roast fowl, cutlets, mutton-chops, and fowl-curry are plentiful kept; and an English visitor is not an unwelcome guest”.
This is how author Babu Shib Chunder Bose describes the many lavish dinner lineups during Durga Puja in a typical Hindu Babu household of 19th century colonial Calcutta (now Kolkata) in his book The Hindoos as They Are- A Description of Manners, Customs and Inner Life of Hindoo Society in Bengal (1881).
While signing off the segment, Bose tags in a reminder for Great Eastern Hotel “to be thankful for the volume of orders”. One wonders how the city’s one of the most luxuriant European hotels features in a chapter that describes the minutest details of essentially an upper caste Hindu festivity – Durga Puja. The answer lies in the very spectacular nature of the celebrations. Interestingly, Bose also mentions English visitors as ‘not unwelcome’. He wasn’t exaggerating though, for Europeans were equally thrilled to find themselves taking part in what appeared as a revered and happy annual event of the ‘Gentoos’ or the Hindoos.
Author Pran Nevile in his book Nautch Girls of the Raj (2009) highlights this European enthusiasm quoting Charles D’Oyly, an East India Company official, painter and author. D’Oyly, in his epic poem Tom Raw – The Griffin (1828), offers a description of a night-long vivacity during Puja holidays. He mentions “going to Nob Kishen. That very night, who was to give a nautch, In the honour of the goddess”.
Though D’Oyly held key positions in East India Company administration, it was his engaging, critical observations as a satirist and his lithographs that he is mostly remembered for. Around 1810, D’Oyly painted a scene with a young British cadet attending a nautch in a Durga Puja celebration. It would not be too much of a disconnect to say that the artwork was simultaneously conceived around the same time when he writes his plans in Tom Raw of celebrating the grand Durga Puja at Raja Nabo Krishna Deb’s aka Nob Kishen’s residence at Kolkata’s Sovabazaar.
However, D’Oyly was not the only person impressed by the grandeur of the annual festivity. The list of European adulators included people from different walks of life, while some were merchants and officials, others were artists by training. William Prinsep, Bathazer Solvyns, George Palmer, E.B. Havell, Thomas Daniel, Sophie C Belnos were among those who recorded Durga Puja in their art and writings. Their engagement revealed more than just the festivity and were imprints of a colonised society and its entitled Babu culture.
Historian Kumkum Chatterjee in her essay ‘Goddess encounters: Mughals, Monsters and the Goddess in Bengal’ (2013) states the veneration of the Goddess in “Vedic -Brahminical tradition”. She notes how this “tradition was particularly long lived and strongly rooted within the particular regions within the subcontinent” including Bengal and Assam.
A more present day understanding of the goddess as a comprehensive female divinity springs from Puranic literature, emerging from various mythological narratives that act as the melting pot, leading to conceptualisation of Mahadevi (the great goddess) sometime in fifth and sixth century CE. A further composite understanding of the goddess happened through Durga’s performative act of saving the universe described in the corpus of Brahmanical texts, most significant of them being the Markendaya Purana in sixth century CE.
In Bengal, the goddess is revered in her different attributes — as a protector of vegetation (Shakambhari), as a nourisher of the world (Jagatdhatri or Annapurna), and mostly evidently as Kali, the fiercest of all, whom David Kinsley addresses as “Durga’s embodied fury”.
Although Bengalis venerate the goddess in her various forms, the consistent and prevalent form evoked each autumn for the past few centuries is a complex blend of a benign mother with her four children, an emblem of a nurturing, protective female form, who also happens to be a feisty warrior — a version of Mahishasuramardini.
However, celebrating the goddess post-monsoon became widespread over centuries due to the combined influences of Mangalkavyas, a genre of regional eulogy literature emerging from 15th century onward and with the spread of Vaishnavism. Together they became instrumental in ‘sweetening’ a warrior queen into a homebound daughter known as Uma. In contrast, the Bengali Ramayana written by the poet Krittibas Ojha retained the goddess’s persona of a supreme fighter. Krittibas’ epic narrative describe protagonist king Rama seeking favours from this avatar of the goddess as he rages the final battle against the demon king Ravana.
For the teeming million, Durga in her form of Uma was a relatable sentiment but for the kings and zamindars, the docile image did not have much appeal for it did not boost their social standing. The latter thus took to the visibly powerful form of Durga — the puranic version of a buffalo demon slayer, a symbol of authority and power. This was the form of goddess worshipped in the precincts of zamindar households.
Maharaja Krishnachandra Ray (1710–1783) was at the forefront of venerating the warrior form of the goddess. He also turned Durga Puja into a public affair for the first time. Ray was a powerful provincial ruler, a staunch Śākta devotee from the royal clan of Nadia, who had a firm alliance with the coterie of Jagat Seth, Omichand, Mir Jafar and last but not the least Robert Clive, the rising East India Company star and the first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency.
The zamindar-raja is also credited to have introduced clay idols of the ten-armed goddess, emblematic of her annual presence. With its composite mix of political alignment and authority, the festivity in Bengal of the mid 18th century was not just an annual social religious affair.
Ray chose Durga or Rājarājeśvarī (the supreme goddess of the kings) as his tutelary deity, “linking the worship of Durga to the raja’s political power (and the ideal Hindu king Rama),” writes Joel Bordeaux of IIAS (International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden), in his thesis on Krishnachandra.
Establishing Nadia Rajbari’s puja was perhaps the earliest manifestation of present day sharad utsav (autumn festival) that allowed all its adherents across social strata to engage in the said celebrations. In a rapid succession, Nabakrishno Deb, Clive’s lifelong aide and his Farsi tutor, pompously hosted Durga Puja, celebrating Company’s victory over Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula at the Battle of Plassey in the autumn of 1757. Clive not only participated in the thanksgiving but had also sent sacrificial goats to be offered to the goddess. While this puja has gone down in history as ‘Company Pujo’, it also cemented the idea of public worship of Durga in a more institutionalised way. The ostentatious celebrations helped the Bengali landlords to seal their social influence at a time when Bengal was going through drastic political changes.
By the early 19th century, this competitiveness amongst the compradors or zamindars was enough to scale up Durga Puja to a spectacle quickly adopted by the nouveau riche or the Babus. And it is this splendorous, awe-evoking nature of the festivity that attracted Europeans, including East India Company officials, artists and travellers alike. Consequently, Durga Puja became a grand annual event for socialising with the sahibs.
Smitten by the grandeur of the ‘unknown’, European artists recorded the festival. Amongst many who took to drawing the sights and sounds of Bengal, Assam and Bihar were D’Oyly, S C Belnos, Prinsep, Thomas Daniell, Palmer, and Solvyns.
While Daniell and Balthazar were trained artists, the former being a water colourist and the latter a marine painter, others like D’Oyly and Prinsep were involved in arts or writing memoirs as more of a hobby. The celebration of the goddess appealed to the foreigners at various levels via performative arts, the high value aesthetics of the deity and her adornments, the unfamiliar customs including the magnum opus act of the immersion of the idol on the tenth day. All in all, it seemed to them a carnival full of energy.
Whether they sensed the religiosity involved or the display of social clout is another matter but their passion and observance of the event was fairly in depth. Meticulously drawn, the art represented Durga Puja as a whole including scenes of invitees watching the rituals or the immersion in Hugli. Beyond creating stunning artworks, some of them penned down their experiences as well.
By 1847, Sophie Belnos, a British female lithographer, had set up a lithographic press of her own in Calcutta. Belnos was a keen observer of the ‘desi’ world, drawing and writing her experiences that culminated in a book, titled The Sundhya or the Daily Prayers of the Brahmins. The book reflects Belnos’s curious and fine observations of the ceremonies held daily during the Pujas.
Beyond the artworks, Belnos noted the annual gaiety held to celebrate Durga Puja, “[t]he hum of the human voices, the glittering dresses of the dancing girls, their slow graceful movements; the rich dresses of the Rajah and his equally opulent Indian guests; the gay circles of European ladies and gentleman, and the delicious scent of roses and sandal which perfumes the saloon, strikes the stranger with amazement.” For the British elite the stature of such Bengali cosmopolitanism was notably striking and Belnos didn’t mince her words in expressing what she witnessed.
For others like Prinsep (1794–1874), hobnobbing with aristocratic upper caste Hindu Bengalis wasn’t a big deal. As a merchant with Palmer & Co, one of the largest export houses of England with an office in Kolkata, Prinsep was well-known in the influential circle of the city and would go on to extend his mercantile activities by being part of Carr, Tagore and Company, a leading shipping enterprise of the times founded by Prince Dwarakanath Tagore and William Carr.
Between 1830 and 1840, Prinsep drew one of his best watercolours — a huge scene of ‘Europeans being entertained by dancers and musicians in a splendid Indian house in Calcutta during Durga puja’. Regal and detailed, the scene is almost a template of the annual event. The elaborate artwork depicts a courtesan performing in an open courtyard while the audience watches her with rapt attention. The sahibs and memsahibs are shown seated in the front row. The locals are scattered on both sides of the frame and at the far end sits the deity with her divine family. The local women folk are watching the nautch from the partial enclosure of the first floor of a seemingly gigantic household.
Prinsep uses a muted colour palette with contrasting details of bright colours to indicate the characters — one of the European attendees can be seen in a red waistcoat while the dancer has a pale green ghagra or long skirt. Prinsep’s perception of the event is more cultural than Daniell’s (1749-1840) and George Gidley Palmer’s (1830-1905) whose artworks are examples of their artistic understanding of the religiosity involved. To that, the act of immersion appealed to them.
In a watercolour painted in 1810, Daniell draws a scene of immersion on the river Bhagirathi somewhere between Kolkata and Murshidabad. The painting focuses on pre-immersion moments with men on the boats offshore, while a deity is placed on the flight of stairs or ghats in front of a palatial fort. Viewers could notice another half immersed deity. The hour of the event is no later than early evening as the pale light adorns the frame.
Palmer’s immersion scene is by far more dramatic. The remarkable artwork created in 1875 takes the viewer right at the heart of a night scene, taking place on the river Hugli. We get to see an array of boats and silhouette of men, multiple immersions about to take place, the highlight being a boat at the centre with an idol of luminous goddess Durga minutes before it is plunged into the water.
While many of the European observers had spent just a phase of their lives in Kolkata, others were born in Bengal and had been familiar with the customs. Whether their engagement with Durga Puja bore the marks of an insider’s understanding is debatable but what’s more apparent is their orientalist perspective of witnessing a spectacle from a distance, aloof as an artist. Interestingly when the artist is a guest the participation is rather noticeable (as D’Oyly’s), reaffirming the symbiotic relationship between colonists and their ally, the nouveau riche. Though colonialism was the biggest and most ruthless project at work, impacting all aspects of Bengal’s life, the presence of the ‘not so unwelcome’ guest strangely incited a regional cosmopolitanism.
Nilosree is a filmmaker, columnist and author most recently of Banaras Of Gods, Humans And Stories
The Hindoos as They Are- A Description of Manners, Customs and Inner Life of Hindoo Society in Bengal by Shib Chunder Bose, Thacker & Spink, Calcutta, 1883
Nautch Girls of the Raj – Pran Nevile, Penguin Books India, 2009
Goddess encounters: Mughals, Monsters and the Goddess in Bengal by Kumkum Chatterjee, Modern Asian Studies Vol. 47, No. 5 (SEPTEMBER 2013), pp. 1435-1487 (53 pages), Cambridge University Press
Hindu Goddesses Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition by David Kinsley, Motilal Banarasidass, India Edition, 1987
Revelry, Rivalry and Longing for the goddesses of Bengal: The Fortunes of Hindu Festivals by Rachel Fell Mcdermott, Columbia University Press,2011