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Durga puja can be a global crowd puller

September 06, 2003 12:29 IST

Durga puja's approach sends nervous shivers down some Calcutta spines. But though acutely aware of the inconveniences associated with the orgiastic festivity, I can see why, properly handled, this efflorescence could be as much a tourist attraction as the Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro's annual fiesta.

The American consul-general I once saw standing knee-deep in Hooghly mud, clicking his camera away at images being immersed, would have agreed. It can all be choreographed, orchestrated, packaged for participation, and sold as India's unique devotional happening. It's a vibrant pop festival noted for artistic creativity, entrepreneurial vigour and rampant consumerism.

Profitable showcasing of this showbiz extravaganza would be some compensation for the hassles we have to suffer. Though the puja is still four weeks away, the traffic is beginning to congeal at the end of my road where the skeletal pandal straddles a small park and one of the two roads round it so that up and down traffic is squeezed into the other narrow lane.

The jams now are nothing compared to what lies in the future when Bengalis in their thousands will swarm the pandals, gazing, eating, shopping and gossiping.

A gang of young toughs invaded my flat one day, turned up their collective nose at the proffered donation and demanded advertisements for a souvenir brochure. It was their "post diamond jubilee" Durga puja -- whatever that might mean-- and the cheapest half-page ad cost Rs 3,500.

For Rs 25,000 you'd get the back cover. Another gang, smaller and less tough, argued that its puja deserved funding because it was "on the way"-- Durga alone knows from where to where.

No wonder many denounce the frenzy as a waste of time, energy and resources. People decry a shallow faith that commercializes religion, and cite worthy causes like flood relief or rural medicine that could do with money.

It is easier still to deplore the man hours lost as work piles up in offices throughout West Bengal during that week of merriment.

The cost in terms of production and efficiency must be colossal. To take one example, I doubt if letters that pile up in post offices during the closure are ever delivered.

All this is undeniable. So, too, is the fact that the city's semi-underworld uses these collective celebrations for extortion and blackmail, albeit on a modest scale. The politicians operate only at one remove, and sometimes not even that.

Durga puja is an occasion for councillors, aldermen and legislators to mobilise youth power, rake in the money and consolidate their power over the neighbourhood.

These secular objectives have become so important that ideology is no longer a bar to patronage.

That exercise in bonding is relevant to the practice of grassroots democracy. One may denounce the democrats and deplore their use of authority, but the process has to be supported at all times.

Similarly, money management is useful training. Crores of rupees are spent on the pujas and related activities, and much of the spending is done by younger people who raise funds through the methods already described.

Some puja committees do, indeed, help schools and hospitals, but not as many as one would like.

Pandals are becoming more and more innovative. Images of pith and paper have replaced traditional clay.

Aluminium, coconut fibre, bamboo reed, areca nut membrane, sand sculpture and even handloom fabrics are some of today's imaginative materials.

Replications of the Red Fort and Victoria Memorial have given way to all the architectural wonders of the world, ancient and modern, as well as soaring space age structures and recreated villages.

Many pujas evoke a particular theme, historical or cultural.

Experts from the lighting industry in Chandernagore have gone to Dubai where expatriates celebrate Navaratri with great gusto, and London where Bengalis are honouring Durga on the Thames.

These technicians say they are in a bad way this year because of the Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation's demand that puja organisers deposit Rs 75 per kilowatt in advance. The usual daily power consumption is of about Rs 37,500.

Shops spring up everywhere selling everything from sarees to sweets, kebab rolls to kitchen fittings. Shopping and eating are pursued with great gusto.

Evening crowds are entranced by the sinuous convolutions of arati dancers, smoke and incense, clash of cymbals, the tinkling bells and deep roll of drums.

This is living theatre. Let entertainment industry professionals put it in some order, with galleries for spectators, al fresco gastronomy, song, dance, variety entertainment and even voluntary participation for enterprising tourists during an exotic gala week.

Special limousines can follow the immersion processions and comfortable launches take visitors out for a mid-river view of the final ceremonies.

There is scope for the kind of inspired commentary that passengers on New York's Staten Island ferry find so absorbing.

It's something that the Indian Tourism Development Corporation could sell abroad if it had a mind to.

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Sunanda K Datta Ray