Durga Puja has significance for Bengalis, wherever they may be. Come Autumn, the streets of Kolkata and adjoining areas are adorned like a bride on her wedding night. Communities and houses gear up to usher in the ten-armed-goddess and her children Ganesha, Laxmi, Saraswati, and Kartikeya. While the rest of India may look at Goddess Durga as this fierce protector and the vanquisher of demons, to Bengalis, she is a loving mother and doting daughter who visits her paternal home once every year. It is a time for homecoming, festivities, and hullabaloo. But with the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the world, is Durga Puja the same as it was in pre-covid times?
Sudakshina Mukherjee, who is associated with the organization Pujari, in Atlanta, Georgia says that Durga Puja to them is not only a time for festivities, but, is a social and cultural extravaganza as well.
Sudakshina, who was born and brought up in North Kolkata, before migrating to the US, runs a dance school there and regularly participates in the cultural activities of their club. “Earlier it used to be a huge congregation (pre-Covid times),” she says, adding that while last year no festivities took place, this year Pujari will be celebrating Durga puja, but with a few curbs and curtails in place.
“For starters, a mail has been sent to everyone, urging them to register for the puja, without which they will not be allowed to attend,” says Sudakshina, adding, “While it is not a mandate, but everyone has been urged to sanitize their hands and sport masks if they are planning on attending. As far as I know, the members have already been double vaccinated, so that should not be a problem for our puja celebrations.”
Among the other changes that a pandemic-riddled Durga Puja in Georgia will see is the stark absence of big-ticket celebrities headlining the cultural programmes. “A huge part of our budget goes behind bringing in celebrities from Kolkata or Mumbai to showcase their art. However, this year, we have decided against it and instead, we will be doing a small cultural show ourselves,” she reveals.
The pandemic will also mean that there will be no gala bhog that the community can have together. Instead, patrons will be given a box that they can take back home and partake from.
Professor Rimjhim Banerjee, who teaches Business Administration at Santa Fe College, and is associated with the Gainesville Bengali Association, Gainesville, Florida, says that while theirs is a small community puja, each year they celebrate it with a lot of pomp and splendor, bringing in youngsters from India who are studying at the university as well as second and third-generation Indians living there. However, the pandemic means celebrations will be a bit muted this year.
“We just had a meeting regarding the Durga Puja, we will be celebrating all five days of the puja on Saturday, October 16,” she says, adding that while she misses puja in India, there is a way of bringing the Bengali community and the greater part of the Indian community together. “The religious and cultural festivities play a great deal in bringing everyone together. I myself am a part of the cultural committee and every year a lot of youngsters, both Bengali and non-Bengali from India and Bangladesh come in huge numbers to be a part of the cultural activities during Durga Puja.”
Last year, there were no celebrations. The idol was just brought out of the storage and a small arati was done, with only 10 of us in attendance, following strict covid-protocols.
Sudakshina too shares an anecdote. She is perhaps a single individual in the US who actually celebrates Durga Puja at home! While mostly it is a community affair, Sudakshina, by a stroke of luck, was able to bring the ten-armed goddess home. “Last year since we did not have any Durga Puja, I received so many calls asking me to allow devotees a glimpse of the Devi at my place. I allowed a few, but following strict covid guidelines.”
Professor Banerjee adds that given the current situation, with the prevalence of the delta variant, they might also consider setting up an online viewing of the puja, so that no one misses out on Durga puja in 2021.
Umang Sharma is a media professional, avid reader, and film buff. His interests lie in making the world a better place through the power of the written word.