Durga Puja where the East India Company had gone before

Boys will be boys. A Bengali anywhere will always be a Bengali. Feed a Bengali some mutton curry cooked in mustard oil with steaming white rice and cut-up onions, green chilies, and cucumbers for salad on a Sunday afternoon, sit him or her in a rocking chair with Rabindra sangeet playing nearby, then watch his or her eyes roll heavenward and thoughts drift homeward. Nostalgia glides into the Bengali mind like monsoon mists in the Himalayas. The non-resident Bengali relives memories of childhood and good old days growing up in tradition-bound parts of West Bengal, like it happened only yesterday.

Durga puja back home is a time for much-awaited rejoicing. Every non-resident Bengali wishes he or she was there, particularly where childhood was spent. In far-flung metropolises of the world, come October, and the great grand festival of Bengal makes the heart beat faster, whether or not accompanied  by reverberating dhaks or today’s filmy geet blaring from public speakers.

Ma Durga travels faster than thought, beyond what the East India Company could ever achieve even in their wildest dreams…to Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Frankfurt, Zurich, Stockholm…wherever Bengalis call home. Bengalis, like the rest of us, pray that evil be thwarted, and promptly too! Light years ago, when the Heavens saw the forces of evil seeking to wreak havoc amongst mortalkind, the Gods gathered all the strength of earth, water, and sky, and embodied them in a vibrant, beatific-in-her-rage, savior — Ma Durga! Ma Durga is “shakti” personified, the symbol of power with a righteous purpose.

Bengalees without borders

Rarely uninspired, the Bengalees of New England, a representative non-profit community organization in the greater Boston area celebrated Durga Puja over the weekend of October 16, as did its rival group Prabasi. Weekends are suitable for obvious pragmatic reasons: to get around working weeks, sans Indian holidays, in the U.S. The puja itself, complete with traditional artisan-crafted clay images of the goddess and her entourage shipped in from Kolkata; alpana and homemade decorations; familiar Sanskrit mantras; resonating chants of anjali; fruit-laden prasad bitaran; and shindur khela is zealously performed here, just as tradition dictates. An indigenous twist to the celebrations in Boston (and presumably all around the world) are variety programs in the evenings, staged by local artists as well as popular celebrities, who travel all the way from Bengal to add their touch of class to the proceedings.

Local members work tirelessly to entertain with songs, dances, drama and the like while their children boldly stride on stage to display glimpses of “amazing grace.” The high points in BNE’s program this year comprised on Saturday of Satinath Mukhopadhyay, a household name back home, for his evocative reciting, acting, and anchoring. Satinath regaled Boston Bengalis with some brief literary gems from contemporary Bengal, transporting them into gullies and by lanes of Kolkata. He led them into Bengali homes — into bedrooms and kitchens — where the word “spice of life” took on a new meaning. Most of Satinath’s presentations — pithy, altogether delightful, and evocative — were poems and short stories by celebrated littérateurs on the current scene. One fascinatingly light-hearted love poem was penned by a lay weaver — a tanti, to be exact! Satinath’s deep, rich voice exalted these creative outpourings, further heightened by background music and sound effects. To most weather-worn Bostonians, Satinath’s presentation sailed into the auditorium like a breath of fresh air inside a dingy warehouse basement.

Soft lights, soulful sounds

Following close at heel was a sonorous and sweet 45 minutes of popular, folk, and bhatiali songs by local artist Sonia Mukherjee from New York who sang “Shaader Laau” before dinner; willfully or not is hard to tell (because that “green gourd” grows nowhere in these parts). Sprucing up such delectable fare further on Sunday was upcoming artist Sounak Chattopadhyay, mentored by none other than Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta and Pramita Mullick in Rabindra sangeet, and Ustaad Mashkoor Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan in classical music.

A 400-plus audience sat entranced listening to Sounak’s melodious repertoire of Rabindra sangeet and other inspirational songs. Sounak’s numbers added much-needed value especially in the sphere of musicality, where things in Rabindrasangeet often tend to sag and drag. Next, Jhinook Mukherjee from Kolkata, tutored by the famous Bharatnatyam guru Thankamani Kutty, captivated a packed audience with her beautiful sense of bhava, raga, and taala, before dinner on Sunday. Her dances added visual spectacle to many hours of sound entertainment.

Besides prayer and good wishes, Durga puja always brings together good food, good friends, and good fun. Many BNE members who witnessed the variety programs agree it has been many years since they enjoyed Durga puja so much. Bengalis all around the world know all too well how Ma Durga killed the demon Mahishashura, and vanquished evil from the earth. She does it again and again, not just during such auspicious weekends, and we hope will go on doing it for all time to come. Meanwhile, have Bengalis (in fact, all Indians) not forgiven and forgotten the East India Company? They have indeed, because they have now settled where the erstwhile, ambitious enterprise finally left off. Omn Shakti, Omn Shanti, Omn Shanti…

Shyam Bhatya

The foregoing article appeared in The Bengal Post on October 19, 2010  and subsequent shorter versions in community newspapers like India Abroad and India New England.

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