Baghbazar's Durga: Goddess of freedom movement

Durga worship in the municipal park became a vehicle for spreading the message of 'Swadeshi' through 'Made in India' products, with freedom fighters including Netaji Subhash Chandra joining in.
View of a community Durga Puja pandal during the sixth day of the Durga Puja festival in South Dinajpur on October 2, 2022. (Photo | PTI)
View of a community Durga Puja pandal during the sixth day of the Durga Puja festival in South Dinajpur on October 2, 2022. (Photo | PTI)

KOLKATA: The drums rolled and the colourfully dressed crowds milled as the 28-feet-high Durga idol decked in traditional 'Daker Saaj' towered over a park, dotted with stalls selling everything from Ashirwad atta to Kwality ice-cream, in north Kolkata, at a stone's throw from the Baghbazar jetty.

This is Baghbazar Sarbojanin, the oldest community Durga Puja in the megapolis, known for its carnival-like atmosphere during the five days of worship of the Goddess.

The annual puja festivities were started here in October 1919, and within a decade, Durga worship in the municipal park became a vehicle for spreading the message of 'Swadeshi' by selling 'Made in India' products, with freedom fighters including the redoubtable Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose joining in.

"Earlier big landlords and merchant princes used to organise Durga Puja at their homes but common people often found they were shut out of parts of it, especially if English patrons were invited. So, people in this area got together 104 years ago to start the city's first community Durga Puja at 55, Baghbazar Street," said Abhoy Bhattacharya, 77-year-old vice president of the puja committee.

As the puja became popular, it shifted out from the original site to open spaces which were bigger and could accommodate more people.

At the same time in the 1920s, social reformer Nagendra Nath Ghoshal and 'Swadeshi' activists such as Hem Mukherjee, Durga Charan Banerjee and Chuni Lal Chatterjee joined the puja committee.

"They approached Subhas Chandra Bose, who was then general secretary of the Congress and CEO of Calcutta Municipal Corporation, and he allotted the current site of the puja – a huge park -- officially to us in 1928. From 1929 onwards, Baghbazar Sarbojanin started the Swadeshi Mela to coincide with Durga Puja, at Bose's suggestion. This was a way to popularise 'Swadeshi' products such as locally-made matches, textiles, ink, paper, machinery, medicines, etc., as opposed to Lancaster or Manchester-made products which were ruling the Indian markets," said Bhattacharya.

The use of the Mother Goddess imagery and worship to gender imagine the motherland and bring in feelings of nationalism among the masses had started with author Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and was continued in the 20th century by both armed revolutionaries of the Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar party as well as non-violent Congress workers.

"Bankim babu fathered the idea of using gender imagining of the motherland in the 19th century and this was picked up by nationalists afterwards. The use of the festivities to get messaging across to the common people was an obvious extension," said Professor Maroona Murmu, head of the Department of History at Jadavpur University.

However, Murmu added that ideologues such as Rabindra Nath Tagore soon pointed out to leaders like Bose that "the mother worship imagery was alienating Muslims" and attempts were made to bring them into the fold.

Luckily, the Muslim community as well as many others had been involved in the Baghbazar puja from the start itself and the tradition has since only been reinforced.

"People from the 'Mikiri Patti' (fishermen's locality) and Muslim drivers from the coachmen's 'bustee' (slum) had always played an important part in the puja here and the Swadeshi leadership insisted that this must continue. I can proudly say they are still as involved as their forefathers. We are in the true sense a 'Sarbojanin' (for everyone) puja," said Bhattacharya.

Aditya Mukherjee, a well-known professor of contemporary history and author of several books on India's freedom struggle explained, "Since Tilak's time, Indian nationalists have used popular festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Puja and iconography associated with the motherland to popularise their messaging."

"But this appropriation was not intended to promote religion and conscious attempts were made to use them as 'all religion-supported events'. The tradition continues in Kolkata where we even have Durga seated in a marquee copy of St.Peter's Basilica," he added.

The Goddess idol at Baghbazar has always been a traditional one, 'ek chala' (in one platform) with 'Daker Saaj' (literally décor sent by post, in reality made of silver foil).

"The same Pal family of clay sculptors has been making our Durga for the last 70 years," said Soumendra Lal (Raja) Kar, a life member of the puja committee.

As the 'dhaaks' (drums) continued playing and more people entered the park to see the Goddess and be part of the carnival of colours, history, tradition and commerce meshed into one single stream of endless heads, under the watchful eyes of the Goddess of Baghbazar and of the freedom movement.

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The New Indian Express