Kolkata: When Durga Puja rolls around in Bengal and other parts of the country, people usually express their creativity through the themes of pandals.
After Covid-19 forced festivities into a low gear last year, that expression of creativity is back, featuring many references to politics and current affairs.
In one pandal, Goddess Durga waits inside a detention camp near the India-Bangladesh international border; in another, farmers are being mowed down by an SUV, with their feet riddled with stone chips.
Durga Pujas in Kolkata, many of which are backed by bigwigs of the Trinamool Congress, never seem to suffer a paucity of funds, even though they suffered a dip in 2020, the first pandemic year.
This year, the budgets across some of the major pujas have gone up by over 50 per cent compared to last year.
The political connection is also visible in the pandals’ themes — the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the farmers’ agitation against the Modi government’s laws, and the Lakhimpur Kheri incident.
The average budget for a puja backed by a state minister or MP or MLA used to be Rs 40 lakh to 50 lakh before Covid-19, members of several puja committees told ThePrint.
There are around 2,500 puja committees registered with police and the administration. Saswata Basu, general secretary of the Forum for Durga Puja, an umbrella organisation for the city’s puja committees, said the budgets have picked up this year after a decline in 2020.
“Last year, the budgets saw a dip and the organisers managed to get sponsors worth around Rs 10 to 12 lakh. This year, things are slowly looking up as there are many puja committees, which have a budget over Rs 30 lakh,” said Basu.
The Trinamool stamp
Since the Trinamool Congress came to power in 2011, the party has been known to dominate and influence Durga Puja committees, with a tight control and command structure.
Last year, Kolkata’s Barisha Club, a prominent draw during the puja season, had a Durga idol depicting the goddess as a migrant mother carrying her child, a tribute to the struggles of thousands of migrant workers amid the Covid lockdown.
This year, Behala’s Barisha Club has NRC as the theme. The committee has depicted the plight of the “people waiting to be deported” at detention camps by recreating villages from near the India-Bangladesh international border.
Sudip Polley, president of the club’s puja committee and a local Trinamool councilor, told ThePrint: “Another name for Maa Durga is Dhakeswari. Around 800 years ago, Raja Ballal Sen got her idol from inside a forest and he established her as devi in a temple in a village in undivided Bengal. That village is now in Bangladesh. The capital city of Bangladesh, Dhaka, got its name from Dhakeswari Devi. But during Partition, the family fled from that village and came to Bengal with the idol. She is now in a temple at Kumartuli.
“Our artists have depicted Maa Durga waiting inside a detention camp with her children, because the Modi government’s NRC policy is threatening her again — to leave her home, her country.”
Kolkata’s puja committees have had NRC as a theme in various forms since 2018.
Dum Dum Park’s Bharat Chakra Club, another puja favourite, has crafted a pandal that depicts the farmers’ year-long agitation against the Modi government’s farm laws. The club updated its installation after Sunday’s Lakhimpur Kheri violence, in which eight people were killed, adding a farmer being mowed down by an SUV.
Kunal Ghosh, Trinamool’s state general secretary, says these themes reflect the “political consciousness” of Bengalis. “We are a politically aware and conscious community. We defeated the BJP, and our art also exposes their anti-people policies,” he said.
Former West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh, now a national vice-president of the party, claimed Durga Puja in Kolkata “has been totally politicised”. “The festival has turned into a programme of the Trinamool Congress. The puja committees have to comply with the political orders, else they will not get money,” he added.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)