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Goddess in the City: Durga pujas of contemporary Kolkata*

  • MANAS RAY (a1)
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Durga puja, or the worship of goddess Durga, is the single most important festival in Bengal's rich and diverse religious calendar. It is not just that her temples are strewn all over this part of the world. In fact, goddess Kali, with whom she shares a complementary history, is easily more popular in this regard. But as a one-off festivity, Durga puja outstrips anything that happens in Bengali life in terms of pomp, glamour, and popularity. And with huge diasporic populations spread across the world, she is now also a squarely international phenomenon, with her puja being celebrated wherever there are even a score or so of Hindu Bengali families in one place. This is one Bengali festival that has people participating across religions and languages. In that sense, Durga puja has an unmistakable cosmopolitan hue about it. With more than 10 million people visiting the different pandals (the temporary, covered pavilions or marquees created for the goddess) in Kolkata alone on any one of the four days of festivity (now effectively extended to a whole week), Durga puja could well be the biggest carnival on earth. Kolkata's image has become synonymous with this grand autumnal festival of the goddess.

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Acknowledgements: Apart from the two anonymous reviewers who made meticulous suggestions, I would like to thank the following: Sandhya Devesan Nambiar, Richa Gupta, Piya Srinivasan, Kamalika Mukherjee, Ian Hunter, John Frow, Peter Fitzpatrick, Sumanta Banjerjee, Uday Kumar, Regina Ganter, and Sharmila Ray. Thanks are also due to Friso Maecker, director, and Sharmistha Sarkar, programme officer, of the Goethe Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata, for arranging a conversation on the book between Tapati Guha-Thakurta and myself in September 2015. The photo gallery presented here is taken from Guha-Thakurta's book, In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata. This article is a small gift to Meher Ali for all the editorial and academic support.

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1 In particular, see two powerful recent studies: Nicholas, Ralph W., Night of the Gods: Durga Puja and the Legitimation of Power in Rural Bengal (Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2013) and McDermott, Rachel F., Revelry, Rivalry and the Longing for the Goddess: The Fortunes of Hindu Festivals (Columbia University Press, New York, 2011). The former is a detailed ethnographic study of Durga puja in the countryside, showing how the occasion helped foster the redistribution of assets in the face of pitiless extraction of revenues. McDermott studies the three interlinked autumnal festivities to celebrate Bengal's most important goddesses: Durga, Kali, and Jagatdhatri.

2 The book is organized in eight chapters. These are: ‘The City of the Festival’, ‘The Making of a New Civic Event’, ‘Pre-histories of the Present: on Artists and Award’, ‘Pre-histories of the Present: on Pratima and Pandal Makers’, ‘The Age of the “Theme” Puja’, ‘Demands and Dilemmas of Durga Puja “Art”’, ‘Durga Puja Tours and Travels’, and ‘Destruction, Dispersals, Afterlives’. Added to this is a fairly extensive introduction and an exhaustive glossary.

3 Girard observes that characterizing all primitive divinities who involve themselves in mortal affairs is the blending of beneficent and maleficent: ‘Dionysus is at one and the same time the “most terrible” and the “most gentle” of the gods. There is a Zeus who hurls thunderbolts and a Zeus as sweet as honey. In fact, there is no ancient divinity who does not have a double face.’ Girard, Rene, Violence and the Sacred (Bloomsbury, London and New Delhi, 1977; 2013), p. 286 . This alternating between the fierce and the benevolent is also the source of the influence of Durga. However, post-Swadeshi—that is, after the nationalist movement of the early twentieth century (1905–1917), which focused on the need for Indian-made goods and allowed the Hindu intelligentsia a platform—the emphasis started moving more towards the goddess's maternal rather than her martial self.

4 It is said of big metropolitan cities like Paris, Berlin, and London that they started becoming one permanent exhibition when world trade fairs came into vogue, displaying commodities from the middle of the nineteenth century.

5 Guha-Thakurta, Tapati, In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata (Primus Books, Delhi, 2015), p. 53 .

6 Ibid., p. 55.

7 Bose, Pradip, ‘The Heterotopia of Kolkata's Durga Puja’ in Chaudhuri, Amit (ed.), Memory's Gold: Writings on Kolkata (Translated by Manas Ray) (Penguin Viking, Delhi, 2008), p. 291.

8 Guha-Thakurta, In the Name of the Goddess, p. 309.

9 Ibid., p. 52.

10 Ibid., p. 54.

11 Mitchell, Timothy, ‘The World as Exhibition’, Comparative Study of Society and History, 31 (2) 1989, p. 217 .

12 Guha-Thakurta, In the Name of the Goddess, p. 56.

13 de Certeau, Michel, ‘Walking in the City’ in his The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988), pp. 91–110.

14 Bennett, Tony, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, new formations, 4, Spring 1988, p. 76 .

15 Guha-Thakurta, In the Name of the Goddess, p. 15.

16 Ibid., p. 21.

17 Ibid., p. 91.

18 Ibid., p. 78.

19 Sripantha, Smritir Pujo (Punascha, Calcutta, 2003), p. 93. (Sripantha is the pen-name of Nikhil Sarkar.)

20 Guha-Thakurta, In the Name of the Goddess, p. 106.

21 Theme puja took off in the city at much the same time as the country's most well-known installation artist, Vivan Sundaram's year-long, massive installation on Bengal's modernity at the Durbar Hall of Kolkata's Victoria Memorial (1997–1998). Irrespective of what the art world might think, this allows for speculation regarding the installation's impact on the world of theme and art puja, even if as sheer coincidence.

22 In a personal discussion with the author, Guha-Thakurta maintained that she would go with the idioms of ‘pavilion art’ and ‘festival tableaus’ as defining the genre of Durga puja productions, though artists in this field strategically use and appropriate the terminology of installation art for their own ends.

23 Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du rĕel, Dijon, 1998), pp. 734 and 41–46.

24 Grace Glueck quoted in Reiss, Julie, From Margin to Center: Spaces of Installation Art (MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001), p. 100.

25 Quoted in Guha-Thakurta, In the Name of the Goddess, p. 21.

26 Ibid., p. 20.

27 Foster, Hal, The Return of the Real (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999), p. 3.

28 Guha-Thakurta, In the Name of the Goddess, p. 200.

29 Ibid., p. 201.

30 Ibid., p. 259.

31 Ibid., p. 266.

32 Ibid., p. 366.

33 Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, California, 2003) argues that it is wrong to assume that Western secularism puts religion into the sphere of the private. Instead, through a proper disciplining of the ‘religious’, religion becomes complementary, even necessary, for governmental operations. See, in particular, the ‘Introduction’ and the chapter, ‘Anthropology of the Secular’.

34 For a detailed discussion, see Hunter, Ian, ‘Secularization: The Birth of a Modern Combat Concept’, Modern Intellectual History, 12 (1) 2015 .

35 Therefore, in Bangladesh, Durga pujas in areas outside the Hindu pockets take on a new significance because of the active participation and patronage of the majority Muslim community.

36 Michael Madhusudan Dutt was the maverick genius who, after attempting to write English poetry ‘like Byron’, wrote the first epic of modern India, ‘Meghnadbadh Kavya’, in Bengali.

37 The expression ‘Bijoya Dashami’ indicates the final day of the Durga puja when in the evening the goddess is immersed in water. This day is associated with the victory of Rama over Ravana in the Ramayana.

38 Bhattacharya, Tithi, ‘Tracking the Goddess: Religion, Community, and Identity in the Durga Puja Ceremonies of Nineteenth-Century Kolkata’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 66 (4), November 2007 .

39 Guha-Thakurta, In the Name of the Goddess, p. 94.

40 Ibid., pp. 94–95.

41 de la Durantaye, Leland: ‘Homo Profanus: Giorgio Agamben's Profane Philosophy’, Boundary, 2, 25 (3) 2008 .

42 See Schultz, Anton, ‘Profanation’ in Murray, Alex and Whyte, Jessica (eds), The Agamben Dictionary (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2011), p. 163.

43 Guha-Thakurta, In the Name of the Goddess, p. 7.

44 The resonant sound of this large, indigenous barrel drum, played either hanging from the arm or by placing one end on the ground, forms an integral part of all the rituals of the Durga puja.

45 Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p. 304.

46 Guha-Thakurta, In the Name of the Goddess, pp. 344–345.

47 Ibid., pp. 357–360.

48 What is the genealogy of the asura? How much of this trope is fictive, and how much, real? There seems to have been a shift in the meaning of asura between the early and late Vedic period. The philologist Wash Edward Hale maintains that there are cases when the Asura is regarded as a god, as in the Rig Veda, but in the later Vedas, the asura is mostly portrayed as an enemy of the gods. When the gods collectively fight against the asura, then the asuras are also given the status of gods. But when Lord Indra, the head-god in the divine court, fights singularly on behalf of the gods, then the opponents are called asura (‘indigenous lords’). When gods like Agni or Somdev fight on behalf of the divine kingdom, then the opponent is Rakkash, whom Hale characterizes as ‘non-human demonic beings’. In the last phase of Vedic literature, those the gods fight become darshu or das, literally meaning ‘the rogue’ or the ‘subordinate’. See Hale, W. E., Ásura in Early Vedic Religion (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, New Delhi, 1999). Anantaprasad Banerjee Shastri argues that because asuras had occult power, they were becoming a great challenge to the gods. See A. B. Shastri, Asura in India (1926; distributed by vedicbooks.net since 2014). Indra defeated the asuras by taking recourse to cunning and deceit. Interestingly, the figure of the asura is not entirely an imaginary being. There is actually a segment of the population around Jharkhand in eastern India who are iron-smelters by profession. Anthropologist Verrier Elwin claims that the gods ruled the earth during the Stone Age. In the Iron Age, the asuras became dominant because of their capacity to extract iron. See Elwin, V., The Agaria (Nabu Press, New Delhi, 2013). I acknowledge Partha Chatterjee for providing this reference.

49 Here is Wendy Doniger on the erotic liaison between the goddess and Asura: ‘Mahisha had forced Brahma to promise that if he had to die, it would be at the hands of a woman; he asked this in order to ensure that he would not die, since he regarded it as unthinkable that a mere woman, beneath contempt, should overpower him. The gods created Durga. She enticed Mahisha, who proposed marriage. But she replied that she wanted to kill him, not to sleep with him, that she had become a woman in the first place only in order to kill him . . . Mahisha's boon is a variant of Ravana's, narrowing the field of his killer to someone regarded as impossible, a mere woman. And so once again the gods had to create someone to kill the upstart without violating the fine print of the demonic contract.’ And, finally, on the extended Tantric tradition in which Durga can be located as a proximate of goddess Kali: ‘The image of Durga on top of the helpless Mahisha, placing her feet on shoulders and head as she beheads him or on the back of the cowering buffalo, an image much reproduced in both sculpture and painting, seems to me to be mirrored in the well-known Tantric image of the goddess Kali dancing on the (ithyphallic) corpse of Shiva, with her sword in her hand, often holding in another hand a severed head, an inversion of the myth in which Shiva dances all around India carrying the corpse of Sati.’ See Doniger, Wendy, The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin, New York, 2009), pp. 3839 .

* Acknowledgements: Apart from the two anonymous reviewers who made meticulous suggestions, I would like to thank the following: Sandhya Devesan Nambiar, Richa Gupta, Piya Srinivasan, Kamalika Mukherjee, Ian Hunter, John Frow, Peter Fitzpatrick, Sumanta Banjerjee, Uday Kumar, Regina Ganter, and Sharmila Ray. Thanks are also due to Friso Maecker, director, and Sharmistha Sarkar, programme officer, of the Goethe Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata, for arranging a conversation on the book between Tapati Guha-Thakurta and myself in September 2015. The photo gallery presented here is taken from Guha-Thakurta's book, In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata. This article is a small gift to Meher Ali for all the editorial and academic support.

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
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