Kolkata: Covid-19 lockdown, migrant crisis, Ram temple — the Durga Puja pandals of Kolkata are teeming with inspiration from the year gone by. However, revellers out for pandal-hopping will have to make do with a distant glimpse at the decorations and idols.
The Pujo season this year dawns with strict directives from the Calcutta High Court that forbid visitors from entering pandals, in order to maintain social distancing, and restrict entry to organisers, priests, and dhakis, traditional drummers whose rhythmic beats are seen as integral to Pujo festivities.
Looking to strike a balance between ritual and religion, some organisers are planning to install big screens outside the pandals to help visitors get a clear view inside, while others are taking the anjali — the daily puja performed in honour of the goddess — online.
The Durga Puja at Belur Math, run by the Ramakrishna Mission and a big draw during the season, will live-stream the puja and other rituals on YouTube and Doordarshan.
[YouTube Link Modified]
Durga Puja at Belur Math : Programme Details, 2020
Devotees can watch the Durga Puja live on YouTube
(21-26 Oct 2020) :https://t.co/IMplLmtZtq#belurmathdurgapuja pic.twitter.com/dm6O6GlhrF
— Ramakrishna Math & Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math (@rkmbelurmath) October 13, 2020
Durga Puja 2020 : Live telecast schedule by Doordarshan Kendra, Kolkata.
Durga Puja will also be livestreamed on Youtube from Belur Math, from 21 Oct 2020. https://t.co/3uQ15iCCKZ
#belurmathdurgapuja #belurmath pic.twitter.com/grcPuwCp1z
— Ramakrishna Math & Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math (@rkmbelurmath) October 15, 2020
Among other changes, the West Bengal government will not hold the annual Puja Carnival, which is a procession taken out by puja committees on the day of idol immersion.
The Calcutta High Court Monday directed the state government to declare all pandals “no-entry zones”, calling for the erection of barricades around them — along a radius of 10 metres from the entry point for big pandals, and five metres for smaller ones.
The court said big pandals can have 25-30 people — organisers and priests — inside at all times, while smaller pandals were allowed 15. However, after the Forum for Durgatsav, an umbrella organisation of 400 puja committees or clubs in Kolkata, filed a review plea, the court eased some of the rules Wednesday.
In view of the fresh order, pandals remain “no entry zones”, but 45 people can now enter big pandals (the limit of 15 people stays for smaller ones).
Sindur Khela, the immersion-day tradition where women of the community play with vermillion, has been barred too.
According to Sashwata Basu, secretary of the forum, pandals are doing their best to ensure social distancing. Some pandals, he said, are installing “big screens outside” to ensure visitors get a look inside.
“We have arranged for live-streaming of Durga Puja. Some pandals are offering online anjali. We are doing everything possible to maintain social distancing norms,” he said.
Durga Puja in Bengal is not so much a religious affair as a socio-cultural celebration. The pandals erected during the festival are known for employing different themes across a wide spectrum to draw visitors, from the works of Satyajit Ray to water conservation.
This year, many organisers told ThePrint, intricate artistry at the pandals was ruled out because they couldn’t raise the money. Instead, the pandals seek to recreate many themes from the happenings of 2020, with the Covid pandemic unsurprisingly emerging as the dominant muse.
At Salt Lake’s AK block Puja, the organising committee has chosen ‘humanity’ as its theme, and involved dozens of migrant workers from Burdwan and other districts to decorate the pandal.
The statues installed on the premises seek to depict the suffering of the lakhs of migrants forced to leave cities after the Covid lockdown left them without a job earlier this year. The statues are of migrant labourers, on foot, returning to their villages with families. The Goddess Durga is fashioned as a village woman welcoming them with open arms.
“The idea was not to spend lavishly on the pandal. We wanted to provide a little support and offer a little sustenance to the rural artists and the migrant workers. We have used installations made by the village artists and these are all part of our cottage industry,” said Raja Banik, a member of the committee.
The Durga idol installed at the city’s Barisha Club has already become the talk of the internet. Made by artist Pallab Bhaumik, and inspired by the paintings of celebrated artist Bikash Bhattacharya, the statue depicts Durga as a migrant worker looking out for her children — one child in her arms, the others around her.
At Salt Lake’s AE block, the theme is the way the lockdown brought people together. It shows people chatting with each other, standing near locked doors and windows. The pandal also has a chandelier made of locks and keys.
Another theme employed by organisers is the Ayodhya Ram Temple, whose construction began this August with a foundation-laying ceremony attended by PM Modi.
New Town’s Balaka Abasan Puja committee has built a replica of the Ram Mandir. “Primarily, this is our tribute to Shri Ram, and we made it with three sides open, keeping the pandemic rules in mind,” said Rakesh Gupta, joint secretary of the committee.
North Kolkata’s Hatibagan Sarbojanin has as its theme “Asamapta”, which translates as “incomplete”. The pandal and the idol have been made with paper, and left incomplete, to portray the impact of the lockdown.
“The lockdown forced migrants to return to their villages. Many people lost their jobs and livelihood. So, any work or project planned in the pre-Covid or pre-lockdown time remained incomplete or asamapta,” said Sashwata Basu, secretary of Hatibagan Sarbojanin who is also a member of the Forum for Durgatsav. “Our theme is that. We have left our pandal and idol asamapta.”
For South Kolkata’s Naktala Udayan Samity, the idea is to depict the pain of losing one’s job. For this, artists have made clouds and named them ‘Bekar Megh (cloud that has no value/no work)’.
A different Durga Puja
The usual hustle and bustle of Durga Puja usually kicks in on Panchami. While some of the festival activity is visible on the city’s roads this year, it is unlikely to be anywhere near the levels usually seen during the Pujo season.
“This is not even 5 per cent of the total footfall we receive generally. Every year, lakhs of people come on the streets for pandals, but this year, there would be no entry beyond 10 metres of the big pujas,” said a Kolkata Police officer.
Spaces known as puja ‘hot spots’ — parks or grounds near pandals where crowds swell during evenings and nights, for food, music and adda (chit-chat) — will remain closed for visitors, the official added. These include Maddox Square, College Square, and FD Block ground.
There will be no queues near the pandals, and people will not be seen pushing through crowds, the officer said.
According to the officer, all puja committees will have to inform local police stations about the measures they have taken for crowd control. These would have to be submitted to the high court by the end of the puja, the officer added.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.