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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

The San Francisco Bay Area will come alive this weekend with the sound of Durga Puja’s dhak mixed with the melodious voice of Kavita Krishnamurthy and a performance by Bollywood actress Raveena Tandon. After a COVID-forced break last year, Bay Area Prabasi (BAP) – one of the oldest socio-cultural organisations of its sort in the USA – is organising this in their much-awaited annual Durga Puja and Dussera festivities from October 8-10 for the American Bengali community. 

To make it more special, BAP has got their tallest ever new Goddess Durga idol – a handsome 10 feet high made in fibre – shipped in from Kumartuli in Kolkata, India. “BAP’s Puja’s go back to 1971 when it was first started with a painting of the Goddess done by an IIT-Kharagpur architect and has found a place at the San Francisco Cultural Centre,” says Sudipto Mukhopadhyay, chairman of BAP, who is a full-time software and systems architect and settled in the SF Bay Area for 18 years.

“We wanted to give a big order to the Covid-hit potters in Kolkata. This is our way of helping them… and as of inviting Kavitaji and Raveen Tandon is concerned – well, people had been craving Bollywood entertainment. We managed to get Kavitaji after trying for two years!” adds Mukhopadhyay.  

Though according to the Bengali calendar Durga Puja falls between October 11 and 15 this year, the American Bengali community will celebrate it over the coming two weekends. “Our five days of Saptami to Dashmi are celebrated between Friday and Sunday as people want to be able to attend it fully, meet each other, spend time, enjoy. The fact that different Bengali clubs organize the Puja on different weekends in the US allows us to travel from one city to another, partly living the charm of hopping from one pandal to another in minutes in Kolkata during the Pujas!” says Tanuja, who asked her last name to be withheld, a homemaker who lives near Boston and has attended various big and small Pujas around the US in 8 years.

Tanuja at a Durga Puja in Boston in 2019.

Settled miles away from their birthplace in West Bengal, it is the Durga idol that has kept the bond strong in the American Bengali community in many ways. “This year, 32 Durga idols have been shipped from Kumartuli to various parts of America; some are yet to be delivered. Last year, due to Covid, only 22 had been shipped, but even in 2019, the number was 58. In the last 15-20 years, since the idols started getting made in fibre instead of delicate shola, the number of orders has steadily increased,” says Babu Pal, secretary, Kumartuli Mrit Shilpa Sanskriti Samiti (KMSSS), Kolkata. KMSSS is one of the two prominent potters associations in Kumartuli – perhaps the world’s largest one-of-its-kind clay idol-manufacturing hub. 

“This time, our total budget is about $120,000-130,000, down from $180,000 in 2019. Of the present current cost, about $12,000-13,000 is being spent on the purchase and transport of the deity from Kolkata,” shares Mukhopadhyay on Prabasi’s 2021 event, which is organised on a much larger scale compared to its counterparts around the country. Interestingly, while today one can easily seek Kumartuli artists online and arrange for shipment of the idols, some, like Mukhopadhyay, even visit the crowded narrow lanes of the potters’ hub to have a look at what is in the offing for them. 

The exported idols in fibre are of a finer quality, lighter in weight and more expensive than their traditional clay counterparts used in Bengal. “It took a team of about 12-14 men working systematically over two months to complete BAP’s idol. Once made, we pack them in ply boxes and send (via ship or air) so nicely that even a child will require only an hour to unpack and set it up for the big day,” says Kaushik Ghosh who has sculpted Prabasi’s idol this year. He laments that due to a Covid-related hike in freight charges – about 100% (for ship) and 300% (for air) – from India to America, many prospective orders didn’t materialise.

An expensive affair, a fibre idol is used for anything between 5-10 years by organisers, before being replaced by a new one. Idol old or new, every Durga Puja is looked forward to with vigour. “There is so much to look forward to – authentic Bengali cuisine, all the rituals being followed to the tee despite being performed by senior committee members who may not always be Brahmins, prasad, adda, entertainment by popular Bengali bands and Bollywood personalities and the Bengali language all around…When you enter the auditorium, it is mini-Bengal. Not for a second [would] you feel you are outside Kolkata,” beams Laha with pride. 

After every celebration, the non-profit associations safely pack and store the idol in garages or storehouses in the same way it came from Kolkata, to reuse next year. 

“Fibre idol doesn’t get damaged with time, requiring only minor maintenance in areas such as hair, ornaments and clothes,” says Prashanta Pal of Shilpa Kendra, whose Durga idol has been shipped to Jamaica, New York in September 2021 for a new community Puja. He has also sent a Kali idol, a new dhak and Bhagwat Gita in the consignment.

The annual celebration gives the community the environment they long for around the year. While last year most organisations organised the Pujas virtually, this year they are going back to in-person gatherings, making pre-registration on the website and vaccine certificates mandatory. Organisers are keen on keeping it safe instead of crowded this year. 

“There were a lot of visa restrictions this year for travelling artists. We started preparing 6 months ago and chased artists who had the requisite visas. We managed to rope in the famous Jatin of the Jatin-Lalit fame with his 5-member troupe among other prominent artists and performances for our cultural programmes from October 15-17,” says Anupom Saha, treasurer, Kallol, New Jersey. Kallol, like Prabasi, is among the biggest, popular and oldest Puja organisers on the other side of the US and is holding its Puja at the Ukranian Cultural Centre for many years now. Saha, 51, is otherwise a senior project manager with a construction company.  

“We even have the holy Ganges water…to carry out all the rituals of the Puja as they are done in Bengal. If any item gets finished, it is replenished from India by any of us travelling there,” adds Saha. 

Kallol Durga Puja in NJ

While the bigger organisers like Kallol and Prabasi are looking at a capping of about 600-800 participants for each day of celebration this year, many smaller ones are still sticking to the virtual platform like last year. Prantik, Bengali Association of Greater Baltimore Area is one such. “Our organisation has a more aged population… we would be having the virtual streaming. But we are sponsoring one of the five days of festivities at the Washington Kali Mandir – one of the most famous temples in this part of the world. About 3000 people visit the temple each day during Durga Puja,” says Sutapa Goswami, member of the executive team at Prantik. Goswami is a highway engineer manager with the Maryland Department of Transport for 17 years. 

Goswami, like all her brethren, shares that dressing up is an important part of the whole celebration. “Worshipping is important, but we crave for the environment to feel at home. Every Bengali in America dresses up to the occasion in his/her best notun (new) traditional attire. While the option to order online from Kolkata boutiques has become viable, in Edison at least – called mini-India – everything from ilish to sarees are available for us,” says Rajrupa Mukherjee, a data analyst who lives in Edison, New Jersey, and looks forward to this year’s celebrations too.

“But 2021 Pujas will be different as we meet each other after a gap of pandemic struck year. A sense of fear exists among many of us. We won’t be able to freely sit and enjoy the prasad like always. Food packets will be given out for the first time ever and there is a time limit for staying on the temple premises,” says Payal Banerjee, member of the prestigious Ananda Mandir in New Jersey, who’s living in the USA for 15 years. 

Armed with masks and vaccines, the American Bengali community is waiting for the Puja fervour to take them over as they pray for the safety of one and all. 

Suruchi Tulsyan is a homemaker and freelance journalist based in India.