Coronasur Is Replacing Mahishasur In Pandals, But Will It Make Durga Puja Less Casteist?

Not everyone is equal at a pandal.
An artist finishing Asura where Durga idols are being prepared ahead of Durga puja in Nagaon District of Assam, October 9, 2020.
An artist finishing Asura where Durga idols are being prepared ahead of Durga puja in Nagaon District of Assam, October 9, 2020.

When I first read the news that Durga Puja committees in Kolkata have commissioned statues of ‘Coronasur’ to represent the forces of evil instead of the traditional Mahishasur this year, I felt mildly optimistic. After all, the Asur tribal communities have for long voiced their discontent over how the festival celebrates the killing of an adivasi king by Aryan-Brahminical forces. As someone who belongs to a scheduled caste, I figured Coronasur might go some distance in phasing out the underlying themes of caste and tribal oppression on which Durga Puja is predicated.

When I was very young, I was blind to the caste factor of course. Back then Durga Puja just seemed like a 10-day carnival of fun, food, and creative aesthetics that was open to anyone and everyone. Besides, my paternal uncle and cousin earned much praise for their work in decorating pandals, including the one in our community. So, I felt right at home inside the pandal.

That feeling of belonging dwindled when I was still a child, maybe 7 or 8 years old. I remember returning from our community’s pandal one day and asking a relative why only the same ‘uncle’ performed the Pujo every year. In that conversation I learned that only a Brahmin man is considered fit for the job. The additional, and inevitable, disclosure of my own lower-caste origin followed, and I learnt that no one from my family ever had or ever would perform the Pujo on that elevated stage.

On my next visit to the pandal, I minutely observed the rituals and idols, taking note of the sacred threads on the statues of Lords Ganesha and Karthik. I asked my elders which caste these deities belonged to, but they didn’t say much. Just enough for me to know that the gods and goddesses were Aryan and that their light skin represented their virtue, and that Mahishasur was non-Aryan and savage, with his dark skin mirroring his evil intentions. In that moment I learned that as a Shudra, I am non-Aryan and thus not as respectable as a Brahmin.

An artist applies finishing touches to a face of demon king Ravana in preparations for the upcoming Durga Puja festival at a pandal, a temporary platform, in Kolkata, India, October 6, 2015. The Durga Puja festival will be celebrated from October 19 to 22, which is the biggest religious event for Bengali Hindus. Hindus believe that the goddess Durga symbolises power and the triumph of good over evil.  REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An artist applies finishing touches to a face of demon king Ravana in preparations for the upcoming Durga Puja festival at a pandal, a temporary platform, in Kolkata, India, October 6, 2015. The Durga Puja festival will be celebrated from October 19 to 22, which is the biggest religious event for Bengali Hindus. Hindus believe that the goddess Durga symbolises power and the triumph of good over evil. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

At that time, I had not yet experienced any overt discrimination or hostility in my community so I struggled to reconcile my non-Aryan origin with that of evil incarnate Mahishasur. I ended up discussing this with my non-Brahmin schoolmates as the Pujo vacation ended. To my bewilderment, some of my lower-caste friends were already aware about the Pujo pecking order and the superior position of Brahmins. I realised then that though the Pujo in my neighbourhood did not reflect rigid caste distinctions (except for who could conduct the religious rituals), others did.

Some friends of lower caste origins told me that they had to be vigilant about not touching Pujo equipment and to keep a distance from consecrated spaces. Some said they could not sit next to Brahmin friends during Anjali; if they were from the lowest caste among the Bengali-Hindus, they were asked to sit in the last row. In many Pujos, the Sindur-Boron Utsav on Dashami Teethi could only be initiated by married Brahmin women, I was told. Since most of these strictures did not apply to the Pujo in my community, I felt relieved and proud. After all, I could offer Anjali shoulder-to-shoulder with upper caste friends in my neighbourhood pandal.

That feeling of comfort did not last long. As I grew up and started throwing myself into my studies, the same upper caste ‘friends’ started taunting me about how I didn’t need to study because my scheduled caste identity would be enough to land me a good job thanks to reservation. I’d be subjected to jibes about how they were the ones who would have to do ‘real’ studies to get jobs because they did not have my caste ‘privilege’. These incidents coated my caste-identity with shame, and robbed me of the elation I’d always felt during the community Durga Puja. For many years afterwards, I felt unspeakable pain and shame during the Ashtami Anjali when I’d stand with the same non-Shudra friends. My community did not feel casteless anymore. Their disregard of the history of caste distinctions and struggles dug deep under my skin.

I also became more rebellious. Having learnt Sanskrit at school, I decided to chant the Anjali Mantra along with our priest for Ashtami Teethi, rather than repeating it after him like everyone else. Only once I memorised the mantra did I go to the pandal to offer the Ashtami Anjali and chanted it along with the priest. It did give me some satisfaction, but I did it from the crowd below, in my lowest voice, and made sure that no one noticed. The ‘victory’ was hollow. I could still not picture myself on that elevated stage, and I knew I would never be there.

My innocence about caste is long gone. I now know the realities of caste discrimination intimately. I’ve experienced my hard work being ignored and my caste identity getting the spotlight instead. My enjoyment of Pujo has been tainted now that I am aware of the inherent casteism in the rituals and themes. When I tour the local pandals and see my cousin’s work being praised, I no longer feel the same pride. It doesn’t matter whether or not I hear casteist remarks in the crowd, or whether or not the attendees must follow the codes and norms of caste — in that setting, feel painfully aware of my non-Brahmin, under-respected, lower-caste origin. I cannot help but think that a Brahmin priest can be chosen for the ritual only when there are people in society who cannot be chosen for the same job. Therefore, my scheduled caste and not-worthy-of-respect Hindu Bengali identity help the Pujo committee in sorting out the right kind of person (i.e. Brahmin man) to perform the ceremonies and rituals.

An artisan sprays paint on idols ahead of the Durga Puja festival at Machalandapur village on the outskirts of Kolkata October 6, 2012. 
An artisan sprays paint on idols ahead of the Durga Puja festival at Machalandapur village on the outskirts of Kolkata October 6, 2012. 

However, over years of varied reading, my understanding of Mahishasur has deepened. I can loosely relate to the identity crisis regarding Durga Puja that the marginalised Asur tribes (who claim to have descended from Mahishasur) experience. To many of them, Mahishasur was not a vile demon but a virtuous and kind king who has been unfairly scapegoated. Some observe an ‘Asur Utsav’ in lieu of Durga Puja to commemorate an indigenous king who they believe was killed by Aryans seeking to establish their supremacy. It’s a reclamation of history and identity by groups that are still marginalised and treated as less-than. As scholars Georgy Kuruvilla Roy and Samata Roy observed in a piece published in Round Table India: For an Informed Ambedkar Age, it is “Brahminical, Aryan Hinduism that designates the Asurs as ‘ugly, weird, large toothed’ creatures with long nails, instead of recognising them as who they were — the original inhabitants of the land, and people who were often brutally killed by the Aryans and whose descendants continue to be denied citizenship status.”

Yet, in Pujo pandals, marginalised communities continue to be assailed by representations of themselves as villains with fangs and long nails who are trampled underfoot by a light-skinned divine being. When viewed from this lens, the mythical narrative of Durga Pujo can only survive at the cost of the mythical loss of identity of extremely marginalised tribes.

When I’ve tried to discuss this alternative narrative with my peers in Kolkata, I’ve usually been greeted with a mixture of ignorance and denial. While some do acknowledge the atrocities suffered by tribes, they dissociate it from ‘modern’ life in a metro. But my reality is that I have faced and still face caste discrimination. Casteism and tribal discrimination are present in Bengali Hindu culture, irrespective of geographical location.

KOLKATA, WEST BENGAL, INDIA - 2020/10/13: A member of the Durga Puja committee dressed in a protective suit sprays disinfectants to sanitise a Pandal in front of an idol of Goddess Durga as a preventive measure against the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Jit Chattopadhyay/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
KOLKATA, WEST BENGAL, INDIA - 2020/10/13: A member of the Durga Puja committee dressed in a protective suit sprays disinfectants to sanitise a Pandal in front of an idol of Goddess Durga as a preventive measure against the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Jit Chattopadhyay/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This brings me back to my sliver of optimism that Coronasur might play some part, however small, in releasing Durga Pujo from its legitimisation of tribal discrimination. To see if my feelings resonated with others from marginalised communities, especially those who have been countering traditional Durga Puja celebrations, I decided to speak to representatives of some Asur Smaran Sabhas (Asur memorial committees).

When I asked Ajit Prasad Hembram, who started the Asur Smaran Sabha of Purulia in 2011 to celebrate an illustrious past and also acknowledge the subsequent loss of social esteem under Brahminical-Aryan oppression, he was highly sceptical about the destigmatising power of the Coronasur. In fact, he said, the idea was highly disrespectful.

“Coronavirus is a problem faced by the whole world, including us. We have been affected by the pandemic too. Therefore, to relate this virus with one of the aboriginal communities of the country is disrespectful,” Hembram said. He added that the term Coronasur is inherently biased. “Durga is not killing the coronavirus here. She is killing the Coronasur. And in the minds of most people, ‘asur’ is imprinted as the symbol of evil. Referring to a common enemy of humanity as ‘asur’ only solidifies this stigmatisation,” he said. Hembram added that changing the conversation matters more than changing the name of an ‘asur’.

“These urban, educated people either don’t know about this counter-narrative or don’t want to know about it. I’ve been organising the sabha along with age-old mourning rituals because I want our discourse to be discussed among ourselves and beyond,” he said.

Saradindu Uddipan, the co-ordinator of the Mahishasur Smaran Sabha Samiti of West Bengal and an organiser of the Jai Bhim Network, was equally unimpressed and said that the linking of coronavirus with the identity of a tribe is “anti-humanitarian” and does nothing to reduce the “hatred and disrespect” directed at Asur communities. According to him, in a culture that is already replete with beliefs and traditions that incite “ignorant” people to celebrate caste discrimination, a more radical change is required. A positive step, he said, would be to stop placing Mahishasur at the feet of Goddess Durga. “He is not just a character in a story. He was a man who lived and served his subjects virtuously. These projections (such as Coronasur) continue to erase the glorious history of the community.”

These conversations helped me realise that Coronasur is no panacea for the casteism infecting Durga Puja. In fact, all it does is add yet another negative association to the Asur community. Although I could relate to the oppressions faced by them as a scheduled caste person myself, I realised that even I had not comprehended the depth of their hurt vis-à-vis Durga Puja. I came away from this exercise with a far greater awareness about the importance of listening to representatives of specific communities in order to advance beyond my generalised view of Brahminical oppression on other non-Aryan populations.

Ultimately, Coronasur is a novelty, but nothing has changed when it comes to the caste stigmas and stereotypes perpetuated during Durga Puja.