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Puja? It's now Durga Inc.

September 27, 2008 12:07 IST

This column once suggested that Durga Puja, which will burst upon us on Monday with the resonance of Mahalaya chanting, should be showcased for tourists. That is beginning to happen in a small way with a special air-conditioned bus to do the round of select pandals.

But the more significant development is that just as politicians took over pujas some years ago, NRIs, hi-tech and market managers are now moving in.

I have nothing against them except that it would be sad if professional commerce overwhelms the spirit of collective youthful effort that traditionally sustained public pujas.

Foreign orders for images are not new. Kumurtuli, the potters' quarter in north Kolkata, apparently first began to export Durga images to London in 1954, long before Kolkata-connected luminaries like Lord Bagri, Lord Paul and Lakshmi Mittal became puja bigwigs there.

London had just one Durga Puja then (against about 20 now) and I have a memory of hassles like the image not arriving in time and of immersion being forbidden.

There were no fibreglass Durgas either. To start with, Kumurtuli joyfully embraced the new medium but pleasure turned to grief when the potters discovered how durable fibreglass is. Online purchase of images would have seemed like something from an H G Wells fantasy.

All that has transformed those six or seven days of robust fun. I read of an enterprising Calcutta businessman, Tanmoy Goswami of Techno Developers'Group, creating a webcast of the festivities.

"There are millions of people across the globe who can't make it home for Durga Puja," he says. "It's our effort to take Goddess Durga and their home ambience to them."

Surfers can even worship on-line. Goswami, who claims his site is popular with NRIs in North America and Europe, will beam them pictures of community marquees.

Not that NRIs would be bereft without his website. Durga Puja is celebrated, sometimes in deadly rivalry, wherever in the world Bengalis congregate.

Five young Bengali communication engineers and software specialists (hence the name, Panchamukhee Durga Utsav) set up a year or two ago what is regarded as London's most professional puja in the suburban Harrow Arts Centre.

Helped by 70 volunteers -- also techies -- the five friends use power point presentation and entertain with rock bands. The reason for their initiative was that they found the long-established Camden Town puja too big and impersonal and wanted the homely atmosphere of a Kolkata neighbourhood event.

That, alas, is a lost cause. Dependent on friendly donations, the Ekdalia Evergreen Club puja used to be just that with home-made decorations, borrowed potted plants, volunteers and a modest budget. It's now a showpiece puja with a separate office, rows of food stalls, brilliant illumination and huge hoardings proclaiming that Subrata Mukherjee, the Trinamul Congress politician and former mayor of Kolkata, is president.

If a politician, why not a film star? The Badamtala Ashar Sangha puja in Kalighat has made Mithun Chakraborty its brand ambassador. Mukherjee would of course clear licences and permits and attract funds from ingratiating businessmen.

But what is a brand ambassador's function in a supposedly-religious festival? Chakraborty can sing, dance and jump around in the pandal but that will be publicity for him rather than for Durga. In any case, does the Cosmic Mother need publicity or the patronage of politicians and actors?

But advertising does, and advertising makes the world go round. When a group of young men trooped into my flat just before the pujas some years ago I thought they wanted the usual donation. But no.

"How many covers?" the leader asked. When I looked baffled, he added cryptically "Ads." I explained I had no pull with advertisers, whereupon the man walked out with his gang saying, "You thought we were wasting our time for chanda!" No one has bothered to ask me for donations since then.

The homely neighbourhood puja is rapidly disappearing. Small fry like me are becoming irrelevant. The Badamtala organisers have sold the entire outdoor advertising rights to an NRI-owned US company, Media Morphosis, whose Indian arm, Manhattan Communications, reportedly engaged a mobile phone company to run an SMS contest to decide the theme.

"By selling the outdoor advertising rights to the American company, we no longer have to visit clients" explains Badamtala's working president, Shibaji Basu Ray. Management consultants will be hired next.

After that, Durga puja might be outsourced to NRI organisations. It's called marching with modernity.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray