Merry in Masks: Inside Kolkata’s Pandemic Puja

As the City of Joy welcomes Ma Durga amid shifting pandal guidelines, an insider weighs in on the changed circumstances.  
Merry in Masks: Inside Kolkata's Pandemic Puja 2
The mellifluous sounds of the ‘dhaak’ make the playlist for the Durga Puja festivities. Photo By: CRS PHOTO/Shutterstock

Puja eshe gechhe. Puja is here.

Even in a year marked by the ravages of pandemic, some tell-tale signs of the Bengalis’ annual autumnal revelry have survived. The fleeting whiff of urban shiuli (night-flowering jasmine) had long cheated its way into Kolkata’s ashen air, soft white blooms leaving a trail across the sidewalk for early joggers. Residents have made peace with truncated shopping lists, and neighbourhoods across the cultural North and the swanky South are people-ready in their jazzy make-up of rum, romance, and Rabindra Sangeet. But will there be people?    

As of now, the answer is yes, in limited numbers. Celebrations in West Bengal, already muted by the soaring numbers of active COVID-19 cases, was reined in legally earlier this week by a last-minute decision of the Calcutta High Court that declared pandals all across the state to be “no-entry zones” for visitors. Relaxing the diktat soon after, it has currently set the limit at 45 people (to enter) at a time. Little wonder then that organisers are racing to keep pace with the latest regulations, most insisting that their safety and sanitisation protocols have been beefed up to the max. Barriers, five metres from the smaller pandals, and 10 metres from the larger ones, have been set up to avoid overcrowding and in turn, risk of exposure to the virus. As it stands, a handful of volunteers and the priest will be the only constant inside pandals this time—for everyone else, the rule is to space out, and keep moving. Although a scramble for those at the helm, the decision has been welcomed by many in Kolkata, which as Bengal’s corona epicentre has seen 72,341 cases and 2,038 deaths so far in the month of October.     

So how different is puja in the times of pandemic? Hear from the stakeholders in this dance of caution and celebration.

 

Merry in Masks: Inside Kolkata's Pandemic Puja 1

A peek at Durga in a Kumartuli workshop. Photo By: Sangita Pal/Shutterstock

 

Enter, Digital Devotion

Pandal-hopping is synonymous with Durga Puja. Kolkatans, especially, are known for descending on the streets for all five days of the festival, walking—nay, gliding—in a collective, pulsating stream, from one pandal to the next. Maddox Square, Hatibagan, Northern Park, Bosepukur, College Square are just some of the grand old pandals across the city whose routes are inevitably chock-a-block at the oddest of hours during peak festivity. 

However, under High Court’s stern gaze, many have resorted to a reassuring mix of virtual meets real-time celebration. For South Kolkata’s Mudiali Club Pujo, the very theme this year is dayitva, or “responsibility”. The signs of their attempt at the same show on the road leading up to the pandal. Ring-sized circles are drawn at two-metre distances from each other. Barriers, heavily guarded with volunteers and security, stand firmly outside the makeshift enclosure housing the goddess who stands on a red-velveted stage. 

“Several metres away from the barricade, the volunteer and police encounters have booths which have been dusted with a chemical which prevents the spread of the virus, the same one that they are using in the IPL,” Sumit Shaw, a committee member of Mudiali Club Pujo, tells me on my secluded afternoon assignment days ahead of the big day. Gesturing towards the cameras hidden within the flounce of the decorations facing the stage, he says: “We were already focusing on virtual viewership this year. All ceremonies, prayers and festivities will be streamed live on our official Facebook page.”

Some pandals this year have been designed with all sides open, so that even people passing by it from a distance can have a glimpse of the goddess. Samir Ghosh, a committee member of  Chetla Agrani Club, which in the past years has won hearts with themes like ‘Ulto Kolkata’ (presenting the city from an upside down perspective) and ‘Antaheen’ (where Ma Durga was  carved out of antaheen, or timeless, mahogany wood), tells me that along with the design, they are making the “inside accessible to the outside”. Enter, technology. Much like in large-scale concerts, supersize screens will be set up outside the pandal to live-stream the minutiae of special ceremonies such as anjali and shandhi puja, so that people can be a part of the process, all the way—but from a safe distance.

The unofficial theme for Chetla this year? Hope. “It’s been strange, diving into preparations for puja knowing just how challenging it’s going to be this year. But the prayer is that the arrival of Ma Durga will take away some of the pain, loss and grief that’s been plaguing the world for the past many months. That she will bring with her health and prosperity and… hope,” Ghosh tells me. 

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Merry in Masks: Inside Kolkata's Pandemic Puja 4

The world famous potters’ quarters of Kumartuli in Kolkata house artisans credited with creating the most diverse and detailed idols of Maa Durga and her children. Photo By: Abir Roy Barman/Shutterstock

 

All Quiet in Kumartuli

Kumartuli, Kolkata’s iconic potter’s quarter, is a flurry of activities this time of the year. Durga idols in all shape, size and colour are brought alive, the final touches of her big, soulful eyes mirroring the magic force that will course through the city in a few day’s time. In all the stunning variations of the pratima, one can bet on a few certainties. The wig on Mahashashur’s head may range from well-groomed to unruly, but it’s almost always a tumble of black curls. Just like Ganesh, one of Durga’s children (Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Kartik being the others), can be easily identified by his rotund belly, always a healthy shade of pink. But this year, uncertainties plague the close-knit community, most of them generatonal artisans dependant on this dedicated skill set.  

Prodyut Paul, from Gora Chand Paul’s famous artisanal family—in the business of idol-making since 1950, tells me that this year has been catastrophic for Kumartuli artisans. 

“We faced a terrible financial crisis in the beginning of the lockdown months in India, where we had to take some very hard decisions. I had announced that I would reduce the rate of the idol by 20 per cent for those who looking to book in advance, and only then, some orders started pooling in. But it was worse than I’d imagined. If an idol cost Rs.s 2 lakh, the person booking it could only pay Rs. 60,000. Say this person is a long-time customer, so I have to agree, but you can imagine what dire straits this left us in,” he says. 

Paul, whose clientele extends to pujas abroad, had his international orders cancelled due to border closures and travel restrictions. As for local orders, profits were hard to come by. He doled out more examples of heavily slashed rates: “If it was an order for Rs. 2.5 lakhs, the buyers could somehow put together only a lakh. Those who’d purchase idols for Rs. 70,000-80,000 could not fork out more than Rs. 40,000. You have to understand that on an average, the cost of making the idol itself is Rs. 40,000. As a result of this, I had to let go of many orders that came my way,” he adds.

Paul’s concerns centre around the three workers in his shop. Are they following safety guidelines? Home-cooked meals and accommodations (so that they don’t have to  venture out for any reason) are already in place, he says. The state government and local committees have pooled in to provide them with masks and sanitisers and regular oximeter checks are being conducted. When the lockdown was in place, Paul had to give instructions over calls—a maddening task for any artisan—and had to grasp at straws to even pay their salaries. Things have gotten a little better for the Kumartuli artisans after the lockdown was lifted. But, the larger struggle remains. 

“Our annual income is pretty much derived from the sale of Durga idols that we make. And with the orders at bare minimum, where do you think that leaves us?” he asks. 

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Merry in Masks: Inside Kolkata's Pandemic Puja 3

On the final leg of the five-day festivities, Dashami, women don red-and-white saris, pray to the Goddess and smear each other with vermillion in a famous ceremony called ‘sindur khela’. Photo By: Nisha Dutta/Shutterstock

 

B is for Baari’r Puja

My friends, many of them camping indefinitely in Kolkata after the pandemic set off a work-from-home trend in their respective work cities, say that they’re leaning towards the baari’r pujas (smaller pujas, organised at private residences/homes), and may be even the slightly more communal block/apartment ones. To the uninitiated, many baari’r pujas in Kolkata boast a lavish quality, no less in flair and flourish than their commercial cousins, and almost always with heavier history. The guestlist, not always restricted to known faces, is richer for passersby pouring in for that intimate feel, the close-quarter chant of mantras or the glory of standing only inches away from Ma Durga. This year, however, there is stricter control over entries, most residential pujas limiting attendance to that of close relatives and friends. If you’re lucky enough to be one of these people, baari’r pujas are definitely among the safer spots for an extra helping of that delicious bhog (food offering), or a power nap, to energise for the day. 

“This year, we’re excercising tight control over who we invite into our home, only people closest to the family, and only those who we know have been social distancing,” says Haimanti Deb, whose family has been involved in a lovely baari’r puja in South Kolkata’s Dover Terrace for over 60 years.  

The greatest sacrifice she’s making this year? Letting go of the dhaaki (percussionist specialising in dhaak, an Indian beat-instrument synonymous with the festival). He lives far away and would have to travel in local trains, a dangerous feat amid the swelling puja crowd. A medical facility near the Deb residence is conducting free rapid COVID-19 tests, so they plan to get the caterers tested before they enter. The family has also ensured private transport to wheel in the priest and is allotting separate timeslots for the few guests who have signed up for anjali (offering of flowers to the goddess)—three at a time—to practice social distancing. 

Sindur khela (where married women smear each other with vermillion), dhunuchi naach (a special dance performed while balancing a burning a dhunuchi, a traditional incense burner) and bhashan (immersion of the idol) have also been scaled down at the Deb’s; lesser people will attend the ceremonies and participation is personal choice. 

 

Merry in Masks: Inside Kolkata's Pandemic Puja

The ‘boron thaali’, which married women assimilate for ‘sindur khela’ contains betel leaves, betel nuts, vermilion, alta, incense sticks and sweets. Photo By: The Captured Creations/Shutterstock

 

What about cultural programmes, I ask, having been roped in to sing and dance for neighbourhood pujas since my pigtail days. “Going by government guidelines, cultural programmes, at least the ones taking place in public settings, are banned,” she tells me ruefully. 

The rules, however, do not seem to extend to private buildings and housing. A friend living in Elgin Towers, a high rise near Calcutta Riverside, tells me that the society is buzzing with preparations for a socially-distanced puja, cultural fete in tow. 

“We have all the chops in place—fashion shows, dance competitions, dandiya performances, a children’s band, and painting contests,” she laughs. However, a strict protocol banning outsiders into the society during the events has been put into place. Even among their own, masked social distancing is a must. 

Hanging up my twentieth phone call, notebook brimming with fresh perspectives, I look out at the artisans hard at work on the little pandal sprouting in my neighbourhood. Are we ready for a pandemic puja? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

 

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  • Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.

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