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‘No mask, no goddess’: Kolkata reimagines Durga Puja festival amid pandemic

This week Kolkata is preparing for its largest annual festival celebrating Durga, the Hindu goddess of war and strength, even as COVID-19 cases in West Bengal state continue to rise. Over 4,000 new COVID-19 cases were recently recorded in one day – an all-time high – bringing the total number of cases in the state to nearly 330,000.

Durga Puja, a five-day festival, begins on October 22nd when millions take to the streets day and night visiting temporary pop-up temples known as pandals to honor the ten-armed goddess and her family across the city .

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It is often referred to as the world’s largest community event. The city has over 1,200 public pujas, or places where the Durga idol is worshiped, in different parts of the city. Including pujas in private homes, this number rises to well over 2,000. But this year the city has to redesign its biggest festival due to the pandemic.

Worship rituals will change significantly this year. As a rule, followers of the pandal crowd and toss petals to the goddess, while drums are beating, incense is being smoked, bells are ringing and platters of cut fruit are offered. But this year, Kolkata-based Malavika Banerjee says she’s not serving sliced ​​fruit to the deity and plans to reduce the number of garlands hanging pendants around the family’s 110-year-old Durga idol to encourage physical distancing. Banerjee also says we are “preventing more than 65 family members from coming” due to the pandemic.

Same goes for Chandreyee Chatterjee, whose extended family usually comes to their old family home in Calcutta to celebrate Durga Puja. But this time, they have a strict schedule for family members. Chatterjee says they “divide the number of days we come so that there aren’t more than five or six people [at home] at the same time. “

Usually the whole family comes to pay for the celebrations. But she says months of the pandemic hit the paperbacks hard. “Not everyone has money to spare,” says Chatterjee. Therefore, family members are only asked to contribute whatever they can.

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They’ve eliminated large lunches, reduced the number of priests who come to their home to perform the rituals, and the family Durga idol is half the size and common.

This is true of many Durga pujas across the city: ritual worship is taking place, but the scope and size have shrunk. And the practices will be very different this year, with temperature guns, hand sanitizing mandates, and a strict no mask and no goddess policy indoors.

The Calcutta Supreme Court has also just decided that no visitors are allowed into the pandals – only selected organizers and priests can enter.

Jaydeep Mukherjee promotes Durga Puja as a cultural attraction through his Meghdutam Foundation. He usually invites international journalists and bloggers to come to Calcutta to judge their annual Durga Puja competition, with categories such as “best soulful creation” and “exquisite idol”. This year, the international judges cannot come due to travel restrictions due to pandemics. So he brings Durga Puja to them virtually.

“We’re going to switch to different pandals, record these little videos and share them [the videos] with them, and we will hold this award ceremony virtually, ”says Mukherjee.

Festival goers typically wait in line for hours to take selfies at the giant pandals that compete with each other to attract the most visitors. There were Hogwarts pandals, Thai-style temples, and biscuit pandals.

This time the pandemic weighs heavily on worshipers: Durga always appears astride a lion who kills Mahisasura, the buffalo demon. “This time the demon is the corona[virus]“Says Mukherjee, showing a series of pictures that kids recently drew in a sit-and-draw competition. Most depict the goddess killing a green, spiky coronavirus-like patch.

A pandal is shaped like a lung, and some Durga idols are dressed in hospital scrubs.

Durga Puja theme designer Rintu Das was moved this year by the heartbreaking images of thousands of migrant workers he saw on television earlier this year, trudging home on foot through India when the trains stopped running because of the blockade. Instead of a goddess and her children in shining splendor, his Durga idol is a migrant with her family made of simple clay. He says he wants this to be a “people’s puja” because “… serves humanity [is] a way to serve God. ”

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The theme designer Anirban Pandalwala also designed his temple with the pandemic in mind: his temple has a broken wall so that passers-by can see the goddess Durga from the street without having to enter.

And most of the Durga Puja organizers are streaming live on the internet so you can catch the fanfare from home, says Pandawala.

Not only is Durga Puja a religious festival and street art extravaganza, it’s also an economic lifeline for tens of thousands of carpenters, electricians, priests, grocery vendors, painters and musicians. “For some it may be a festival, but for us it is the livelihood,” says Anirban Pandalwala, who believes that 30% of the state’s gross domestic product is somehow connected to this mother of all festivals.

While this year there was talk of canceling Durga Puja, at this time it seems more important than ever to believe in a goddess who conquers evil.

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Mukherjee, whose foundation works with children in the villages destroyed by the lockdown, organized occasions to celebrate the goddess. In one village they created a miniature Durga idol, barely a foot and a half tall. In another village children made tiny lamps out of white cork; Another group built a bamboo temple. Mukherjee exhibited all of her creations in a unique tableau in a Kolkatta alley. As a sign of the times, it was inaugurated by a little boy in a mask who sprayed the idol with a disinfectant.

This humble portrayal of Durga Puja sends a message that perhaps most importantly during a pandemic is that the community come together.

From the world © 2019

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