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Kolkata pandals have messages, Maa their messenger—sex worker to a mother awaiting justice

A loudspeaker from Kolkata’s Kankurgachi pandal narrates tales of horror of mothers who lost their children in post-poll violence last year.

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Kolkata: With lit up streets and sound of the dhaks, festivities have kicked in, Durga Puja celebrations have begun in West Bengal. But if you aren’t here, you must be wondering what the big deal is. It’s just another festival like the dozens we celebrate in in India. West Bengal’s Durga Puja has become the first in Asia to be honoured with the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage tag. The largest festival in Eastern India, engulfed in traditions and rituals goes beyond religion through myriad pandal themes upholding social, economic or even political messages.

After two years of low-key celebrations due to the pandemic, the puja in Kolkata this year is back in full glory, without any restrictions. As people stand in queues to get a closer look at the art, ThePrint brings you a glimpse into some of the unique pandals in and around Kolkata.

Tucked away in the outskirts of Kolkata, Nawpara Dadabhai Sangha (the puja organiser) has taken an incredibly bold step to depict Maa Durga as a sex worker. It is also the first puja in the country to use silicon to create the deity. Anjan Pal, the chief puja organiser while speaking to ThePrint said, “The theme this year is parichay or identity. We wanted to bring about a change in the mindset of people when it comes to sex workers. They too have an identity of their own. While the legal battle has been partially won, the stigma continues.”

A silicon Durga portrayed as a sex worker on the outskirts of Kolkata. | Photo by Sreyashi Dey | ThePrint

While the organisers have kept a different statue of the Goddess for the rituals and worship, the pandal resembles a zamindar’s drawing room propped with a chandelier, gramophone and Maa Durga dressed in a traditional red-border white saree, seen playing with her children. Nandini Dutta, who had travelled from North Kolkata along with her friends said, “It is wonderful to see such a strong message considering the times we live in. This is the best part about Durga Puja, the power of inclusivity and diverse themes.”

About 10km away from Nawpara Dadabhai Sangha in Kolkata’s Kankurgachi, the celebrations aren’t as cheerful as in the past. A mother still awaits justice, for the alleged murder of her son in the aftermath of West Bengal Legislative Assembly polls. BJP worker Abhijit Sarkar was reportedly lynched on 3 May 2021, in the post-poll violence that shook the state last year.

Abhijit, who began organising the puja in 2020 is no more but his memory adorns the bylane along the railway track where he lived. BJP leaders Sukanta Majumdar and Suvendu Adhikari inaugurated the puja earlier this week. “We won’t let your death go in vain” reads one of the posters. The loudspeaker narrates tales of horror of mothers who have lost their children in alleged post-poll violence, cases of which are under CBI investigation currently.

A Durga Puja in Kolkata depicting the 2021 post-poll violence in the state. | Photo by Sreyashi Dey | ThePrint

Maa Durga in this pandal is seen carrying a child covered in blood, with his parents lying dead with a BJP flag. Mahisasur, who was killed by Devi Durga, as per the mythology, is seen standing tall here. Abhijit’s brother Biswajit, who now heads the Puja, told ThePrint, this isn’t a theme but depiction of real events that took place in Bengal in the aftermath of Trinamool Congress’ victory in state elections. “The place where Maa Durga stands with dead people around her feet is the exact place where my brother was mercilessly murdered. Many mothers have lost their sons, many women have been raped and that’s why, as we await justice, we wanted to let people know, how opposition party in Bengal was muzzled.”

The annual festival of Durga Puja witnesses lakhs of devotees from far and near. Elderly, children, rich, poor, all come together to worship the divine power. The city becomes an amalgamation of devotion, culture, and happiness. An electrifying ambience as one jostles the crowd to capture that perfect selfie. Children holding on to their parents with their eyes glued on the vendors lined up on either side of the streets selling balloons, ice cream and toys. The Police sweat profusely to manage the vehicular traffic and the sea of people. There is a method to the chaos, there’s a smile on every face, the vibe is infectious almost.

But for some, the social taboo is yet to be overcome. Just off Eastern Metropolitan Bypass is Garima Greh, a government-run shelter for transgenders. Here, Maa Durga is worshipped in the form of ‘Ardhanariswar’- half man, half woman. An unique form of shakti (power) perhaps seen nowhere else. Ranjita Sinha, founder of Gokhale Road Bandhan NGO and a transgeder herself, narrated the trauma she would face during pujo. “I was born a man but the woman inside me was stronger. If we can worship women, then why can’t we worship a transwoman? We began this Puja to echo a message of inclusivity. We are also humans, and we celebrate all the festivals.”

Members of Ghokale Road Bandhan celebrating the ‘Ardhanareswar’ deity. Theme: transgender inclusivity. | Photo by Sreyashi Dey | ThePrint

The Australian Consul General, Rowan Ainsworth inaugurated this puja and wrote on Twitter, “Our association having grown stronger over the last year, I was very happy to be back again at the inauguration of the Durga Puja organised by Gokhale Road Bandhan.”

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