Durga Puja owes its popularity in and around Calcutta to the coming of the British and the advent of Babu Culture in the city. Though it all begun by Laxmikanta Mazumder of Barisha in 1610, the opulence associated with the festival was initiated by Maharaj Krishnachandra of Nadia who also simplified the religious practices observed in the course of the Puja. It is said that during the reign of Nawabs the rich were wary of showing off their wealth, apprehensive it would be taken away by their Muslim rulers but there was nothing to fear from their new British masters. In fact Durga Puja became a practice among the new urban mercantile aristocracy in Calcutta, pioneered by Nabakissen Munshi, the patriarch of the Debs of Sovabazar Rajbari, a way of enhancing business interest as well as to mark their rise up the social order.
Calcutta got initiated in the concept of “business entertainment” when the wily Nabakissen Munshi organised Durga Puja in 1758 at his newly constructed thakurdalan to allow Lord Robert Clive thanksgiving for the victory of Plassey since the only church in the city had been razed to the ground by the Nawab’s forces. The rituals went for a toss as Lord Clive came and sat in a golden sofa in the open area in front of the thakurdalan, where Maa Durga stood decked in finery and later watched Bai Naachh, performed by Muslim Nautch girls. The Bai Naachh went on to become an essential part of Durga Puja celebrations in almost every zemindar’s house in Bengal till the militant nationalism brought in the idea of display of martial arts with lathis. While watching their performances the European guests dined on beef and ham brought from Wilson Hotel, washing down with wine. A happy East India company allowed their Munshi the rare privilege that his family would be the first one to immerse their idol in the water of River Ganges as the clock struck four in the afternoon. However, the Brahmin families refused to accept this and would immerse their idols in the morning. The commencement of the Deb’s Puja was announced by firing of canons.
Govindram Mitter the black deputy also observed Durga Puja with much fan fare spending considerably and so did his son Raghuram Mitter. The entire image was wrapped in gold and silver leaves and nearly Rs 50,000 were spent on the fortnight long celebrations including feeding of Brahmins. Rogho Mitter’s grandson Abhoycharan’s revered disposition towards his kulguru earned him name as did his Puja celebrated with much pomp. Dewan Krishtochandra of Shyambazar also earned fame for charity during his Puja. It is said that after the immersion he would return home on foot and on the way if anyone would show him a “purnakalas” (a pot full of water) he would give them a rupee. Nearly 7,000-8,000 people would assemble on that stretch which would be less than a mile long. His descendents also kept up the practice but as their financial situation worsened the amount came down to half a rupee.
The Mullicks of Pathurighata and Chorbagan organised cultural programmes during Durga Puja. In Babu Britanta, Loknath Ghosh describes how the celebrations went on for a fortnight which was attended by the laatsahibs and judges of Supreme Court. Neelmoni Mullick, the forefather of Rajendra Mullick of Marble Palace fame was at the helm of the Puja which was later carried on by brother, Baishnabdas Mullick. The idol was Abhayamurti or Shiv-Durga. On the day of Panchami there used to be a mehfil where all the celebrated musicians participated and also received suitable inaams. Neelmoni was known for promoting “full akhrai” musical performances- classical music with proper orchestration which was too, a part of the Puja and famous Ramnidhi Gupta (Nidhubabu) had mentioned about Neelmoni in his autobiography.
The Durga Puja at the residence of Gopimohan Tagore was also known to be attended by the top British officials. Lord Wellesley (Duke of Wellington) had also attended it once. An accident had occurred during his visit when a pankha had fallen off and crashed near where the Duke was seated; however, he escaped unhurt. Gopimohon’s grandson, Jatindramohon Tagore was bestowed the title of RaiBahadur by Lord Mayo, the then Viceroy and Governor General. The 12 days-long public holiday which Bengalis had been traditionally enjoying during Durga Pujas was only due to his efforts; the Bengal Chamber of Commerce had recommended to Lord Lytton that it should be reduced to a mere four days. However, Jatindramohon impressed upon Lytton to continue this practice since it was not only the Bengalis but other communities too enjoy this break, utilised by most for either visiting their relatives and kin or resolving property related issues.
In the Sketches by Hutom by Kaliprasanna Sinha of Jorasanko we get a good description of Durga Puja in “Babu” culture. The decorations of images were cheap imitation of the West. The idols were huge; there were embellishments all around comprising horse riding Scot Highlanders, fairies, birds and flowers and lotuses made of pith and in the middle stood the image of Maa Durga. The lion was gilded with silver. The face of the idol was modelled on the Armenians or Jewish Bibis. On the top of the backdrop there were small gown-clad fairies playing the trumpet, bearing flags and insignias and Queen’s unicorn and the royal crest were also on display. The silver foils used for decorations were even imported through post.
The image of the goddess at Shivkrishna Dawn’s residence was known for its decorations. A well-known saying went this way: “Maa Durga after her arrival to this the earthly world dresses up and wear ornaments at the house of Shivkrishna Dawn, eat the lavish spread at Abhoycharan Mitter of Kumortuli and keep awake throughout the night watching Bai Naachh at Sovabazar Rajbari.
Kaliprasanna gave a vivid description o the prevailing culture observing at the very outset that earlier only the kings and the aristocrats held Durga Pujas but now even Punte Teli (in the sense of every Tom, Dick and Harry) was bringing an image of the goddess at home. Khelat Chandra Ghosh of Pathuriaghata and Shibkrishna Dawn in particular were at the receiving end of Hutom’s satire. Khelat Chandra had constructed a new mansion and obviously his Puja that year assumed additional lavishness. Kaliprasanna described the Babu sitting on a thick mattress, clad in a dhoti of tussar and distributing cash, clothes and ornaments among the Brahmins and Pandits. His house is full of those seeking his generosity on the eve of Pujas.
He describes initially the shopping spree among the residents on the eve of Puja; the mahajans with Dhakai and Santipuri sarees visited houses, agents of Yatra groups looked or bookings, servants sold gilded ornaments, bangles and false pearls. With the advent of Sasthi the streets of Calcutta were exceptionally crowded, the residences of rich men are full of servants and kins wearing new starched clothes and shoes; there was a great din coupled with drum beats, roshan chauki and shehenai. There is great procession on the occasion of bathing the kalabou in the water of Hooghly with Babu leading the way, a huge silver umbrella held over his head by servants.
Hutom also provided a delightful insight into the Pujas conducted by the members of Young Bengal; instead of feeding the Brahmins they treat their friends with a fare of meat and alcohol. While among conservative Hindus, the small change given as pronami to the goddess is taken away by the Brahmins conducting the rituals in case of Young Bengalis it finds its way into the account of the householder. At the thakurdalans they are liberal enough to allow wearing of shoes and the image is decorated with the embellishment brought from foreign shores. Maa Durga wore a bonnet instead of her traditional crown, the spread in front of her includes sandwich and the kalabou is bathed in water warmed in a kettle instead of water from Ganges (Gangajal).The water is then used to prepare the tea and coffee for breakfast of the householder.
On Saptami, there were goat sacrifices later offered to the goddess. It was marked by a huge racket because it was believed that with the head should be severed at one stroke. By evening a large number of people began visiting the houses were the Pujas were being held. Hutom criticised the lack of hospitality of the Babus who seldom came out to meet those invited. Hence most people send their sons and other kinsmen and since Hutom did not have any, he planned to send the money by post and even through registered post to some of his relatives to ensure “safe arrival”.
In some of the well-known households the Babu would sit in the middle at the chandimandap wearing a dhoti of Benarasi Silk and showing off his gold and silvers by displaying the hookahs studded with costly gems like diamonds, emeralds and pearls. After 9 pm started Bai Naachh and the Babu came out dressed in zaris and gold ornaments and ended up looking like an “Egyptian Mummy”. At some places Yatras were being held or pantomimes, the more crude ones watching khamta. In the resultant din the goddess in the thakurdalan trembled in fear, her lion left the demon and instead looked for an escape route. On Nabami sacrifices were at an even more grand scale, some had promised twin buffaloes or ninety goats; the Vaishnavs opted for pumpkin, sugarcane, betelnut, and even fish. The Babu under the influence of alcohol and friends smeared themselves with clay and the oozing blood of the sacrificial goat and sang songs replete with abusive words. Since this was part of the rituals some of these kheurs were also copied down.
Finally, the images were taken out in large processions and public were given an opportunity to compare the idols, their embellishments and pomp and gaiety of the various families. Some of the Babus would sail in various kinds of fancy boats with their friends and sycophants watch the immersion. Finally, the Neelkantha birds were set free to carry the good news to Shiva of the imminent return of the goddess to their abode at Kailash and the Babus too, would return home and embrace each other on the occasion of Bijoya. The festival would end with having siddhi on Bijoya and the city which had seen witnessed fortnight-long-hullabaloos suddenly seemed empty and silent.
Not much has changed over the centuries, isn’t it so?