The worship of Shakti (power), in the form of Goddess Durga, is the cornerstone of the five days of Durga puja festivities in West Bengal. Women, of course, are an integral part of the community and family celebrations, with several groups even successfully organising and managing the entire events themselves.
Just like the 50 women of Sreebardhan Pally in Thakurpukur area of South 24 Parganas district, who, in these times of enormous community pujas with budgets running into several lakhs of rupees, are out to prove that faith and tradition are not dependent on finances.
The area has 180 families and with a subscription of Rs 300-350 per family, this women-only puja committee is working to a low budget, yet traditionally religious, ‘barowaree’ or community puja. “We hope to collect about Rs 60,000 to Rs 65,000 (US$1=Rs 47.8). This is adequate for the festivities we have planned with more focus on proper rituals and community participation. Big sponsors, expensive decorations, lights and designer idols are only ways to attract huge crowds, aimed always at getting even more money next year. This, in fact, dilutes the local community participation in celebrating the Goddess’s arrival and stay,” says Shikha Ghorui, 55, president of the Sreebardhan puja working committee.
The Durga puja of Sreebardhan Pally is into its 10th year and after nine years of male dominance, the Puja committee has now come under the total control of women. “Except for carrying the idols to the mandap (stage), since they are very heavy, everything else is being done by us,” points out Shikha.
The women have held regular meetings, updated the plans for the festival and chalked out budget details. “We are doing door-to-door subscription collection ourselves and every family approached so far has been very cooperative. We do not hesitate to mark down the subscription, if someone displays an inability to pay,” says Sheela Das, 45, secretary of the committee.
For residents, this is a welcome change. “The women are compassionate and understand that everyone cannot pay the fixed subscription. They are also flexible in their attitude towards the puja itself, willing to compromise on extras like lights, decorations and so on, to keep things within the budget,” says Bappaditya Ghourui, a resident.
Traditions rather than expensive glitz – that’s their whole idea. Says Sheela, “From paying an advance to the decorators, getting the dhakis (drummers), deciding on the priest, choosing the idols, we concentrate on tradition. For example, we insisted on ‘ekchala’ (single mould) idols rather than the modern fashion of having separate Durga, Ganesh, Sarawati and Kartik ones. The ‘ekchala’ is traditional and also cheaper.”
The committee has also distributed work efficiently amongst its members, most of whom are housewives. Of the 50 involved in the organisation, 35 work on weekends for the committee. Most finish their household chores early in the morning and then rush to the puja meetings. Even the women who are working are free on weekends. “We have formed groups of five and delegated separate responsibilities to each group, including management duty during the five puja days,” informs Shikha. While one group is shopping for the ‘dashakarma’ (ritualistic puja items), another is finalising deals on fruits and vegetables which will be required for the ‘bhog’ (offering to the goddess), yet another is collecting advertisements to sponsor the souvenir.
“We are putting great emphasis on the souvenir. The real culture of Bengal gets reflected in the short stories, poems, essays that are printed in it, authored by the local residents themselves. We wish to highlight this more than celebrity inaugurations or disco type entertainment shows, which have become the norm amongst many community pujas,” says Sheela, who runs a garment business.
During the puja days, the women have decided to introduce community programmes rather than inviting DJs or reality show singers to perform. “We will organise competitions like candle lighting, quizzes, drawing and recitation competitions and stage cultural programmes by the residents. We want to achieve community bonding during the ‘pujas’ as that is the real purpose behind the community puja pandal concept,” says Sumita Sen, 31, a housewife.
On ‘astami’ (the eighth day), lunch will be served to the entire locality. “We have hired cooks to make the bhog, but we will do the shopping for vegetables, fruits, grains and spices and one group will supervise the cooking while another will look after the serving. Community feasts during pujas are another tradition we want to reinforce. It’s a great social equaliser,” says Susmita Talukdar, 25, a committee member who works for FEDEX Express in Kolkata as a senior sales executive.
According to the treasurer of the committee, Manisha Mukherjee, 53, while this is the first time they have taken up the challenge of organising the puja, so far the going has been easy. “There is unity amongst us and confidence levels are high. Our group has the enthusiasm of young blood and the experience of senior women. We hope we will give the locality a puja to remember,” she says.
But if anyone knows how to pull off a low budget puja it’s the Falguni Sangha club, also in Thakurpukur. “A group of 20-30 women organised our local Falguni Sangha club puja for three years. Our budget was Rs 70,000 to Rs 80,000. Besides organising the entire puja, we also arranged door-to-door van delivery of ‘bhog’ within that budget. This year, the men have taken over and they are already struggling with the budget!” says Krishna Majumder, 50, who was the former President of this puja committee.
When the women were in charge, they organised dance and song programmes staged by the local women residents and their children. “The entire community came together to participate and we all had a fantastic time. These kinds of activities strengthen cooperation and unity,” says Soma Das, 46, a former committee member.
Besides these, the other kinds of puja celebrations that happen are the ‘Bonidi’ (traditional family) pujas where the old ‘zamindar’ families of Bengal hosted the puja in their ancestral homes. These too are almost always organised totally by the women of the family with the men just lending a hand. These pujas are open to the local residents and other visitors who want to catch a glimpse of traditional family festivities.
“Women have been integral to the puja celebrations. Earlier, they just were on the sidelines cutting the vegetables or in welcoming the Goddess with the betel leaves in a ritual called ‘boron’, or participated in the ‘sindoor khela’ (play with vermillion) on the Dashami day,” says Mitali Chakraborty, 47, a puja committee member, adding, “but now they are showing their organisational and budgeting skills by taking over the management of the entire ‘borwaree’ pujas.”
More power to the women in the worship of the Goddess!