With the strains of Mahalaya drifting out of every window in the early morning of October 6, Durga Pujo in West Bengal took off in earnest. While the state is still a little crippled from the pandemic, the emotional enthusiasm is clearly evident, no matter where you turn. Pandals have been erected, excessive shopping is still underway, and Kumortuli is - mercifully for the artisans and sculptors who were out of work - slowly but surely getting back in business.

In the midst of this boisterous celebration, a celebration that racks up an expenditure of hundreds of crores, some pujo committees find the time and reason to make it timely and relevant.

The Dum Dum Park Bharat Chakra Club has this year adopted the theme of the farmers’ protests currently underway in India, and more specifically the Lakhimpur Kheri violence.

“We had given complete freedom to the artists who worked with us,” says Sandeep Banerjee, President of the Bharat Chakra Club Pujo Committee. He recalls the time in 2008, when the entire pandal was black and white - He goes on to describe the theme, saying, “Pujo is about colours, but we had built it by only using two colours - black and white - because that is life, isn’t it?”

Speaking of this year’s installation, Banerjee says “If you look at this year’s concept, it is on an issue where we want to actually pay tribute to the farmers because of whom we are surviving…. In India there have been a lot of sangrams - we have always protested. But this time, it is not in the tune of a protest. We are trying to put up that they (farmers) are people, for whom we should work - we should support them.”

Despite these intentions, the Dum Dum Bharat Chakra Club has also been facing some flak for this innovative installation. “A lot of people are saying that in a Hindu puja, why are there slippers and shoes on the walls? There has been a lot of debate.” Banerjee tells The Citizen.

The road to the installation depicts the sketch of a car running over a farmer.

The installation, the brainchild of the artisan who is also based in Dum Dum, depicts huge models of a pair of feet, and the walls are haphazardly adorned with shoes and chappals.. To this, Banerjee points out that if these visitors are so against shoes in the pandal, then they should themselves remove their own shoes before entering one.

However, he also clarifies that on the part of the club, they made sure that the area where the idol of the goddess is placed, does not have any such installations or depictions of chappals - they are only placed along the viewing areas.

This year, the club is also separately celebrating the goddess Laxmi, in keeping with the theme. “The plantation of rice is the blessing of Goddess Laxmi,” says Banerjee. “The farmers are the ones in charge of planting and breaking these plantations for us.”

“The artists have thought to pay this tribute - of the different ways the farmers are trying to raise their voices. About the negligence that has been happening. And it has been happening for years. They (the farmers) don’t get what they are supposed to get.”

“This is a sheer installation, where we are trying to show the lives of the farmers. There is no politics in it.”

Riddhiman Dutta, a 23 year old music student now based in Chennai, has been coming home for Pujo ever since he moved to Hyderabad at four years of age. “Even if my parents were busy that year, they would send me to Kolkata during pujo, without fail. Even when I had school I would miss those many days and come down.” Dutta has always been deeply involved in one of the many community pujo pandals in Lake Gardens. This pujo has been generationally organised by a group of friends and family mostly based in the area.

He recalls noticing certain nuances in the culture, as he grew older, watching the process of arranging a pujo and erecting a pandal. “Growing up in the south of India, there is obviously a very different culture there,” he says. “I really found it fascinating, how it brought people together.”

The one thing he admits he adores the most about the pujo is the sound of the dhak resounding in all the pandals. Most pandals for the duration of the pujo - shashti through dashami, which is when the idols are immersed in the Ganga - hire dhakis to play at the premises almost all day long.

“That sound always made me feel that the fun was about to start,” says Dutta. “At times I would feel that even the pandit is getting in the groove.” He says that for five to six days, a small ecosystem is created.

Dutta says that once he grew up he became conscious of the amount of labour that goes into the organisation. He recalls seeing all the married women go from home to home to collect the contributions for the puja. He started to notice the manual labour and deep involvement required for the collection of funds, arranging of advertisements and conducting the cultural programs, which is an annual attribute of the Lake Gardens community puja.

He stresses the potential for community reach of these event, “I felt like we were really getting involved in the community and creating something here. It’s our celebration, but it is also leaking out to everyone else who is there.”

Speaking of the themes undertaken in recent years by the more renowned Kolkata pandals, he says, “Ideally it would make sense because these pujos are conducted by these big clubs.”

Dutta recalls visiting a pandal in Ahiritola of North Kolkata in 2018 which flaunted the subject of the sex workers at Sonagachi. He notes that had this been somewhere else in the country, it is possible that such a theme being attached to a puja would not be well received at all. “That’s something that’s already very progressive in Bengal - where it’s not only religious but also symbolic.”

However, Dutta also adds that he hopes that a portion of the profits made from these pandals also go to these issues that they are themed upon. “If one uses this mouthpiece just to gain attention and reach, then it’s just that - a marketing strategy.”

Anjan Ukil, the general secretary of the Ballygunge Cultural Association - one of the most famed and anticipated Durga Puja celebrations in West Bengal - is of the opinion that including themes in the Durga Puja pandals dilutes the spirit of the festival itself.

“Basically, the whole thing is about Durga Puja. Even if we associate an issue with it - it is still basically a puja,” he says. “The puja itself should be primary… With this new trend, the priority of the puja has gone down. The other thing becomes more important.”

“How relevant are these issues to the actual puja?” he asks.

“There is a positive and negative side to everything,” says Ukil. “So many different kinds of installations are being erected. People are doing a lot of creative and innovative work. Many new artists are coming up through this.”

According to Ukil, the picture of the next pujas will depend on the next generations and their preferences. “It will depend on what the new generation enjoys and values more.”

Ukil has been involved in the pujo for nearly 30 years, and notes that the trend of themed Durga Pujas began in the late nineties, when clubs began imitating different architectural structures like churches and Roman monuments instead of sticking to the typical pandal designs.

Following this, more specific themes came into play, where the pandal, the idol and the lighting are designed with conceptual similarities.

“The tradition is very deep rooted,” says Ukil, speaking about the original style of Durga Puja pandals. He lists his own club, the Ballygunge Cultural Association, and adds, “Some of the old and renowned clubs, like Ekdalia Evergreen and College Square - they are still conducting the same kind of puja they were conducting 30 years ago.”