Friday, October 10, 2008

The Durga Puja Index of Bengal Economy


(a Durga Puja pandal in Calcutta depicting the 'Nano' episode of Singur)




When we were growing up in the 60s and 70s, there weren’t any “mega-Pujas”. We had the humble community “para – Sarbojonins” in every locality. Then there were the ‘heritage’ Pujas of North Calcutta - Bagbazar, Kumartuli, Ahiritola, College Square, Vivekananda Road and a few – such as Park-Circus, Madox Square, Swamaj-Sebi Sangha (Lake Road) - in the South.

The emphasis at most of the Pujas was essentially on the beauty and artistry of the ‘idol’ ( the Murti or Pratima). While the traditional ones like Baghbazar (‘Daaker Saaj’) or Madox Square stuck to their pristine style – others experimented a bit with form. The Puja committees tried to out do each other on the novelty of their “thakur” as we referred to the image of the Goddess. Ramesh Pal was the doyen of Kumartuli and having his sculpture bestowed a certain stature to the Puja. Remember on one occasion – a Puja in the Bhowanipur area, I think, had an idol made entirely of “shola” by an artist from Shantiniketan – Ananta Malakar, which became the talk of the city. Later the piece was moved to an art museum - instead of immersing it in the Hooghly as was the custom.

The pandals and the lighting were still important – but they were generally shorn of glitz and extravagance. Each year some Puja or the other tried some minor innovations or gimmicks in the form of tableau inside the mandap, architectural replica in cloth of well-known temples or monuments on the façade of the pandal or thematic lighting. But these were at best secondary attractions and ornamental add-ons, usually deployed by the lesser-known Pujas as differentiators to draw crowds. The illumination was infact a specialty of Chandernagore – which was more famous for Jagadhatri Puja, which comes later in the year.


community sarbojonins

The community Sarbojonins were all organized with modest budgets – raised primarily from contributions of the local residents, ‘topped-up’ with small amounts in the form of souvenir advertisements and product display banners. The larger Pujas like Baghbazar, Madox Square and Park-Circus generated some additional revenues from selling exhibition stalls in the Puja grounds.

An average Puja would net at best a lakh of Rupees of which they would carry-forward couple of thousands to the next year – after paying for the well-earned revelry of the organizing members and volunteers after the immersion. If some extra funds were still left over – it was used for a film show, jatra or a musical evening as a post-puja bonanza for the locality – while the festive mood still lasted. Even the most affluent Pujas didn’t have a budget of more than Rs 2 to 3 lakhs or 5 lakhs at best.

The standard contribution of a household would be in the range of Rs 10 to 50, which would go to Rs 100 if you were really well off ( the term “HNW” hadn’t been invented then). At Rs 500 you would be considered a VIP and a thousand Rupees would raise your status to that of a Principal Benefactor.the trend of 'Mega-Pujas'

The era of more opulent Pujas started in the mid 70s – which saw a revival of non-communist political configurations in the state. So, newer Pujas like the Ballygunj Evergreen Sangha in Ekdalia came up, with the patronage of the up-coming generation of “youth leaders” who were more adept at raising funds. Till then such ostentatious display of pomp were generally reserved for some Kali Pujas organized by notorious Dons of the underworld – most notable among them was the legendary “Phata-Keshto” (the subject of a recent low-grade Tollywood production starring Mithun Chakravarty). Came across an interesting article on a web-site: Puja Company - The Old world Chanda dependent Festivities are passe; the Sponsors are here (click here for full article)


Bollywood-isation
Even then – the culture of inaugurating the Pujas with Bollywood stars hadn’t set-in. The opening honours were generally reserved for the local Municipal Councilor (who had to grant permission for the pandal – blocking sections of the road) or, at times, the MLA or MP. Today, lakhs of Rupees are spent on getting celebrities from Mumbai for “ribbon-cutting”.

I lived away from Bengal for almost 2 decades. Returning to Calcutta in early 2000s – I found the scale of things had changed exponentially. I was told that the budget of a regular “Para Sarbojonin” is now no less than Rs 25 – 30 lakhs. A little up-scale Puja would be between Rs 50lakhs to a crores. And, the real top-end Pujas could be as high as Rs 2 crores or even more.

I believe there are nearly 5,000 Pujas in greater Calcutta alone. At an average of Rs 10 lakhs per Puja – that’d be a whopping Rs 500 crores at a very conservative estimate. Some would place the figure at over Rs 1,000 crores. And, this is for Calcutta alone. The Pujas in the Districts, I am sure, have been scaled up in equal proportions.

rising SDP and growing Puja Budgets

Considering that most of the benefits of economic growth are believed to have accrued in rural and up-country Bengal these figures are baffling indeed. At any rate, it would out-strip by a huge margin - the highly padded statistics of increase in the State Domestic Product (SDP) and Per-capita income published by the State government. It's all the more remarkable that, this grand up-scaling of the Pujas has happened in the last 30 years, when the state has been ruled by the Communists - who shouldn't be encouraging idol worship or any other form of Puja as a matter of philosophy.

a matter of spirit

It’s another matter tho’ – very little has changed in the conditions surrounding these pandals. Food is still sold in the most un-hygienic form by roadside vendors – no one gives a damn about safety, sanitation, cleanliness or pollution. Loudspeakers and horns continue to blare undeterred. Old vegetable colours and clay that were used to making the idols are being replaced with chemical substitutes – that pollute the river and ponds, poisoning fish. The cloth and tarpaulin pandals are giving way to more sophisticate synthetic materials of construction. Nothing has evolved in the last 40 years – only the crowds continue to swell each year. At The Telegraph, we had attempted to bring back some of the pristine and simple joys of the Pujas - while encouraging a few progressive practices in keeping with the times - such as Eco-friendliness, Safety ( every year there are instances of burning down of Pandals by electrical short-circuit - caused mainly due to illegal tapping of power connections), Hygiene in and around the pandals (simple provision of toilets) and facilities for the physically challenged - thru' a contest called the "True Spirit Puja" (click here to read). But, with very limited success, I must admit - tho' I am told, much to the credit of the paper and the sponsors, the contest ( and, thereby, the concept) has still been kept alive.

who cares ?

But these are non-issues in today’s market driven economy. What matters is the increase in spends. It’s also pointless wondering if even a part of this Rs 500 or thousand crores could have been diverted to more productive or developmental expenditure – which could truly contribute to uplifting the economic index of the state. Frankly – who cares ? Not, we the Bengalis !! I am sure there must be a sociological explanation to this – going far beyond the apparent economic inconsistencies.


Also read new blog on Durga Puja by clicking here: Outlook Diary