NEWS

Those Ranting Against Jawed Habib's Durga Ad Know Nothing About Bengal's Puja Traditions

Myopic and plain silly.

07/09/2017 10:41 AM IST | Updated 07/09/2017 11:40 AM IST
Anandamela cover.

One of the greatest benefits of being a human being in an age of technological advancement is that one can say the most outrageous things on online and get away with it.

So, it was not really surprising that a bunch of angry people were closely dissecting the political implications of a print advertisement put out by popular cosmetologist Jawed Habib in the Kolkata edition of a newspaper.

Despite the 'have Twitter, will rant' phenomenon having tired the most outraged of us, the disregard and ignorance most of these tweets by self-certified guardians of Indian culture showed about the traditions of Durga Puja in Bengal were still part-amusing and part-infuriating.

The ad depicted goddess Durga with her entourage in a salon, getting facials and beauty treatments done like ordinary mortals. The conspirator behind this grand design to 'denigrate' Hindu gods gave himself up at his name — Jawed Habib. A Muslim man, he couldn't possibly have non-sinister intentions behind printing an advertisement announcing discounts for people who wanted to doll up during the festive season.

While the 'why not the Prophet' brigade was working itself up to great fury and victimhood, several Bengalis wondered why they were riled by a cultural narrative created, endorsed and appreciated mostly by Hindus themselves.

For several generations of Bengalis and residents of Bengal, the tradition of humanising deities for artwork, commercials, plays and suchlike is as old as their first memories of Durga Puja itself.

For several generations of Bengalis and residents of Bengal, the tradition of humanising deities for artwork, commercials, plays and suchlike is as old as their first memories of Durga Puja itself.

Apart from the usual religious paraphernalia that introduced most of us to the concept of the Puja, most of us were treated to — again very humanised — accounts of what the celebration meant. The formative years of our association with Durga Puja was hinged on the fable that goddess Durga was visiting her parents' home with her four children. It's a lore that's still widely narrated among Bengalis and also serves as the basis of various creative expressions like television commercials, skits, promotional artwork like the one that got Habib into an unthinkable soup.

Nobody believes it to be true, almost everyone grows up to become familiar with the more complicated mythological roots of the celebration and almost no one feels inclined to challenge the first story of "Maa Durga" they were ever told.

Goddess Comes Home

That's not because of some sort of a genetic cultural complacence these sanctimonious Twitter handles have accused residents of Bengal to be suffering from. In fact, the tradition of not frothing at the mouth over creatives such as these stems from an acute awareness about the place Durga Puja celebrations have in Bengal's cultural topography.

As children, we consumed the lore of Durga visiting her parent's home with a sense of familiarity. Her story had a tangible parallel in our own lives and the concept of 'mama'r bari' — uncle's home or maternal grandparents' home. 'Mama'r bari', for most Bengali children, was synonymous with indulgence, merry-making and temporary relief from disciplining. For women everywhere in Bengal, the first Puja after their marriage was a deeply emotional affair — it signified their own homecoming, along with the goddess — to their childhood home of love and safety.

And it seemed believable that goddess Durga was coming home — which was Bengal in our imagination — resulting in all the colour, warmth and hedonism we saw around us.

And it seemed believable that goddess Durga was coming home — which was Bengal in our imagination — resulting in all the colour, warmth and hedonism we saw around us. It was a strange, reassuring happiness that children derived from being told gods were no different from their own kind.

And most importantly, stripped off complicated othering elements, it fostered a feeling of community — merry-making at the grandparents' home couldn't possibly be typical to a single religion, right?

It wasn't a lesson that the Bengali Hindu households I knew actively taught their children for any greater good or to lay the foundation of future 'communists' that Bengalis are often accused of being. It was just a comforting, pleasant tale to regale children with.

The reason that it was comforting was perhaps because it was shorn of the politics of 'good' and 'evil' that most mythological accounts of almost any religion come burdened with.

Cultural Paraphernalia

The cultural paraphernalia around the Puja — down the years — further expanded the tradition of humanising deities. Most Bengalis have grown up witnessing neighbourhood uncles and aunties fervently chanting hymns during morning pushpanjalis and laughing at skits, where deities are PLUs, performed in the neighbourhood pandal in the evening.

We've watched skits where Ganesha is the spoilt, youngest sibling who comes down with a stomach flu, we've watched plays where Kartik is a cocky adolescent boy dancing to 'Ek Pal Ka Jeena' and at least a few dozen depiction of goddess Durga as a woman like our own mothers — fretting over food, pissed at bad grades and exasperated at the theatrics of her truant children. The two decades I have spent in the state — with relatives spread across various districts — I've never heard about incidents of people taking exceptions to a theatrical, cinematic, creative spin-off on the fable around Goddess Durga.

In a similar vein, the cover-page artwork of most Puja edition magazines for children and adolescents continue to be quirky, humanised depiction of Durga and her family.

In a similar vein, the cover-page artwork of most Puja edition magazines for children and adolescents continue to be quirky, humanised depiction of Durga and her family as a regular Bengali family. Bengalis and a majority of them Hindus have devoured these magazines every year without their skin scalding with rage or bile spilling over.

Forget skits, people in Kolkata have thronged pandals made from biscuits, broken records, kulhars, and household utensils. Just a thought: if Twitter ranters ever run out of things to scream about, they could look up the wackiest pandals in the last 30 years. I mean, if goddess Durga and her entourage can't visit a salon, surely, they have no business setting up home in a structure made of biscuits.

Despite its Hindu roots, the overarching sentiment around the Durga Puja in Bengal — for several years now — has been one that has to do with a feeling of community, not communalism. That is not to say, the celebrations boast of a homogenous secular nature and participants in this celebration are conscious upholders of secularism. There have been stray incidents of conflict over the Puja in the state as well.

Despite its Hindu roots, the overarching sentiment around the Durga Puja in Bengal — for several years now — has been one that has to do with a feeling of community, not communalism.

Yet, response to reactionary forces have also emerged from popular culture — consumed by thousands of people, all of whom couldn't be deliberate promoters of secularism. One of the most celebrated works of Bengali popular cinema is perhaps Antony Firingee, released in 1967. The film starring Tollywood superstar Uttam Kumar and Tanuja revolves around an aspiring poet-performer from the foreign shores who arrives in Bengal and falls in love with a courtesan.

The film concludes with the death of the courtesan after radical Hindus set fire to her house, angered that a woman like her dared to hold a Durga Puja in her home. The film is considered to be a scathing statement on communal politics and the inhumanity of radicals blinded by hubris. It also sought to expose how religion in practice, often, has little to do with faith or spirituality, but more with ego and the preservation of oppressive social hierarchies.

Habib had to issue an apology for 'hurting religious sentiments' of Hindus. Bengalis have a new demon to slay this Puja.

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