It is less than a week left for the quintessential festival of the Bengali people to kick start even in the midst of a pandemic! Durga Puja has always been a special festival to Bengalis. Bengali people, by nature, remain one that do not celebrate a culture of competitiveness. They are mostly a lackadaisical people, laid back, nonchalant; a quality that has been the stuff of both mockery and admiration. A large part of the culture of Bengalis’ celebrations borrow from this quality of the people: to wave off work and the impending and revel in carefreeness. Bengal’s festivities are mired in a spirit of inclusiveness and integration. But more than that, it reflects a people vested more in living life attuned to it’s finer rhythms of making merry and cherishing joy than gearing life to be a mechanical routine of survival. And even more, it reflects on the ironies of a culture that is revolted by the dominant ideology of a world running on capitalism while at the same time depending on it to afford its revulsion.
Festivities all across the country are held in the spirit of exaggerating the mundane. We Indians truly can’t live a life that is culturally dull, gives us no reason to celebrate or to keep ourselves busy through merrymaking. It is strange how the Indian people like to keep themselves busy by inventing the oddest possible ways of revelling. Festivities are big testifies to this irony in our culture. On one hand, you have people single-handedly cooking meals for gatherings of hundreds and on the other hand, you have all of the business meant for cheering time taken off from business. It is like creating a counterculture of business, a business of celebrating. Open any popular Indian soap and irrespective of culture and language, you will find one thing common: people celebrating to social, cultural or religious causes. And the breadth and width of these celebrations might simply seem uncalled for exaggerations to a foreign eye. But that is a significant part of this culture and these people: carnivalism.
With Bengalis, the relation takes a special turn. There is a popular saying called ‘Bangalir baro mashe tero porbon’ referring to how a year consisting of twelve months shall be especially utilised by the Bengali to churn out a minimum of thirteen festivals. And truly, when it comes to celebrations Bengalis don’t need a specific cause or reason to do it. Neither do they need the moorings of religion or socio-cultural grounds for plunging into a spirit of festivity.
Bengali culture is popular for how laid back people can get. How they can drop their essential office hours in search for a few extra minutes of lingering in leisure at the common tea-stall hideout, engaging in their beloved sport after football, perhaps at par with it: ‘adda’. Community and the spirit of community matter greatly to the Bengali. Which is why perhaps after more than seventy years of Independence, Bengalis revel in divisions of ‘ghoti’ and ‘bangal’ even though most of the people who witnessed migration across the border first hand have died out. Festivities greatly reinstate this spirit of community for the Bengali. And something they further excel at is appropriating festivities to serve their deep-seated need of converting the mundane to extraordinary. Extraordinary distraction. Distraction for the Bengali ranges from intellectual to the truly garish and inordinate. Perhaps therein lies the diversity of the people for whom distraction entails such a wise spectrum of connotations. Also perhaps why one would see the mad crowd celebrating a more eventful and louder Christmas at Park Street than in London’s Trafalgar Square. The Bengali can’t do without entertainment and merry-making. They can’t do without a prolonged holiday
Durga Puja in Kolkata is perhaps one of the largest street festivals in the world with very few to match it’s splendour and sheer glamour. A lot of non-Bengalis stay stunned at how for four (with the years the length and duration of the festival have increased) continuous days the entire state can plunge itself into a complete disregard of all things business, all worldly concerns and immerse in sheer celebration. Right from schools to colleges to offices, holidays are doled out exclusively at this time of the year. One can witness people working at various corners of the country take leaves to be back home in the state or it’s the capital city, the epicentre of festival madness, during this time of the year. In fact, such as the influence of the festival, you see Bengali communities abroad celebrating the festival with equal dedication.
Durga Puja is the much-needed validation for an entire people to indulge their carefree spirit with the support of a socially legitimized cause. It is a time when one can be happy about not being ‘productive’ as we recognise the term in an increasingly capitalistic world. The very irony of the festival lies in how it shuns the ideology of consistent productivity of capitalism while coming to epitomize capitalistic commercialization at its peak. For one class of people, it is all joy and enjoyment, all excuse to be ‘free’ from work and not feel guilty about it. For another class, it the time of the year which provides them with all the stock of grains for the other eleven months. For another class, it is the means of creating this end, this arrangement of extremities that balances profit. Extremities with a set of people granted and legitimized holidaying on one end and another set promised the livelihood of an entire year.
The relationship between Bengali and festivals, especially Durga Puja goes a long way in setting one of the best examples of social irony. It is the best time of industry in the whole year for some of the most talented of artisans worthy of accolades from perhaps the entire world. It is the most lucrative period for the owners of clubs and Puja committees in terms of their profits and legitimacy to stay work-free for the rest of the year. It is also a time when people on the streets with no homes who make a life by begging look forward to, for their bowls to be the most full. It is also a time when the heavily pressured 10th grader can put her books up on the shelf and be allowed a minimum of one whole day worth of ‘freedom’.
Durga Puja, much like Bengalis’ other festivals shows what freedom means to different sets and classes of Bengali people. It also shows how one’s freedom costs the other and how without one wanting it’s luxurious and privileged freedoms, the other could not have it’s less privileged and more essential freedoms.