The myth of the Pujas is a simple one – full of rural sweetness … The Pujas are, in part, an ever-returning homage to that magical sense of being rescued, so indispensable to children. ― Amit Chaudhuri, Calcutta: Two Years in the City
A famed myth that revolves around the onset of Durga Puja involves East India Company’s victory over Bengal under the leadership of Robert Clive in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Finding himself at the crux of great wealth, Clive desired to offer his benedictions to the Lord. However, Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah had destroyed the only Church in the city of Calcutta. Taking advantage of the situation, Clive’s Persian interpreter and clerk, Nabakrishna Deb, a prominent Zamindar in Bengal, turned Clive’s attention towards Durga Puja, and arranged for a grand celebration at his Shobhabazar Mansion. There exists no evidence to corroborate such an extravagant tale except an anonymous painting probably commission by Deb himself. Moreover, Deb became Clive’s munshi only after the battle and the rise of his prominence is recorded only after 1775, with the hanging of Maharaja Nandakumar, thereby making the rumour seem even more erroneous. It is clear, however, that Deb himself drew certain benefits from such a fabricated story, so much so that even today, the Puja celebrations held at his mansion are referred to as ‘Company Pujo’.
In the essay entitled ‘Of Public Sphere and Sacred Space: Origin of Community Durga Puja in Bengal,’ Saugata Bhaduri points out that while the worship of female goddesses covers the whole span of Bengali history, the worship of Durga emerges only during the latter half of the 18th century. This development seems to be in tandem with the British accession of power in Bengal after the defeat of the Nawab. The English soldier historian, Robert Orme, has commented upon the Nawab’s avarice. He writes, “The Nawab fixes his eye on every portion of wealth which appears in his province.” Since the conditions under Nawab rule were harsh and oppressive, widespread celebrations were rare. One reasoning for the religious revivalism was that it came as a reaction to Muslim rule which imposed a festival tax on the Hindus, which was relaxed under the Company’s regime in 1765 and completely abolished in 1772 by Governor General Warren Hastings. Perhaps Durga Puja stood as a symbol for power that the Hindus could somewhat exercise only under the British. Hence it was an attempt on the part of powerful Hindu zamindars to carve a space in the state apparatus under British administration by trying to appease them through their inclusion in the festive activities. British tolerance led to a proper establishment of the Puja celebrations on a grand and extravagant scale as middle men, financers, merchants, translators used religious festivities in order to enhance their social status. In fact, the British participated in the celebrations with much enthusiasm and pleasure, till the 1830s. Newspapers from this time carry several descriptions and reports of Durga Puja revelry.
However, what is essential to note is the fact that the significance attached to Durga Puja changes with changing sociopolitical and economic developments as one progresses through time. There are often contestations to the claim that Durga Puja came up as a reaction the Muslim oppression. Since the time of the Mughal ruler Jahangir (1605-1627 CE), when zamindaris like those of Burdwan turned very powerful, there was a need for loyal allies, who would help bring Bengal under Mughal control. There was great tolerance and support for Hindu festivities. Even the Nawabs independent of an overarching Mughal control supported these zamindars, who modelled themselves on the Muslim patrons. While there is hardly any mention of Durga Puja before the mid 18th century (two instances being Raja Kamsanarayan’s organisation of a grand Puja for a female goddess after his accession in 1583 and Lakshiminath Ganguly’s Puja in the Zamindari of Barisha in 1610), Hindus lavishly organised pilgrimages, marriages and funerary processions. Despite such cooperative support from the Mughals and Nawabs, the birth of Durga Puja is usually paralleled with the coming of the British, who brought in a system of tolerance, which was hitherto discouraged, in some versions of history.
While the British might have brought in laws that promoted religious tolerance, abolished religious taxes imposed on Hindus and participated in the Pujas, they also brought in a much more rigid system of taxation. In such a scenario, the festivities of Durga Puja were in fact a Hindu manoeuvre to subvert the state apparatus. Although the zamindars were much perturbed, they were quick to realise that the British did not desire to intervene and meddle in their religious affairs. An annual lavish, magnificent and mesmerizing event like Durga Puja allowed the zamindars to receive major tax reliefs where they even managed to get extra allowances from the British. With the beginning of the Permanent Settlement in 1793, when zamindaris found themselves in huge debts, an annual celebration like Durga Puja allowed a safety net whereby each zamindari exploited British leniency while according funds for the festival. By the 19th century , the annual celebrations became a huge affair. Thomas William painted an image of the immersion of Durga in 1810, an activity he witnessed during his boat ride with Daniel William in 1788. The canvas is now preserved in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata.
As the zamindars laundered money from the British, competitiveness developed among zamindaris, where the focus of the celebrations shifted from devotion to a display of wealth and opulence. The British in turn patronized the Pujo for the legitimacy of their rule. Talking about the pompous show of wealth during the Pujo celebrations during the 19th century, historian Tapan Raychaudhuri writes,
For the nouveau riche, the products of the East India Company’s trade and their tenurial system, Durga Puja became a grand occasion for the display of wealth and for hobnobbing with the sahibs. Initially, the tendency was to celebrate in one’s village home and thereby acquire a reputation for wealth and generosity in the eyes of the local community. But soon one had higher aspirations: wealth was not worth acquiring if it was not used to impress the elite of Calcutta and the sahibs who were the ultimate source of that wealth as well as status. This is how the rural elite of Bengal began to sever the umbilical cord which had bound them to the villages and their people for centuries. Conspicuous consumption rather than display of bhakti was the central motif of these urban festivals. Bhakti, such as it was, was directed as much to the English masters as to the mother of the universe.”
This competitiveness can be seen in contemporary Bengal as well resulting in a ‘pandal aesthetics’, as described by Bhaduri.
The ‘Sarbajanin Puja’ or the ‘public’ Puja as we witness now, developed by 1910, when the Sanatan Dharmotsahni Sabha organised the first truly community puja in Baghbazar, Kolkata with full public contribution, control and participation. This public capture of an otherwise selective participation is accredited to twelve friends in Guptipura near Hooghly river, who in 1790, collected funds from the residents and organised the first ‘community puja’, christened ‘baro-yaari’ or ‘twelve-pal’ puja, owing to the number of friends involved in its initiation. The Cossimbazar Rajas brought the baro-yaari celebration to Kolkata where Raja Harinath performed the puja at his ancestral house from 1824 to 1831, which was however discontinued in 1832. His son, Krishnanath revived the custom of the baro-yaari puja in 1842 and organised it with the help of eleven other friends. By 20th century, the baro-yaari puja had transformed into the Saarbajanin puja which was open to the public at large.
Durga Puja celebrations also contributed to a nationalist identity as Indians championed for the cause of freedom and independence. Tapsi Raychaudhuri writes,
In Bengal, the link between the mother cult and nationalist perceptions was first projected by the writer Bhudev Mukhopadhyay. Responding to the comments of an English Professor of Hindu College who asserted that Indians never had a sense of nationhood, Bhudev wrote that the story of the pithasthanas, the legend that the parts of the goddesses’ body was scattered all over India, was really an allegory: the divine body was the same as the motherland. His younger and better-known contemporary Bankim Chatterji carried the idea much further in his novel Anandamath (Abbey of Bliss). The novel, based on a highly fictionalised version of a popular rebellion in the days of Warren Hastings, the Faqir or Sanyasi Rebellion, has for its protagonists a group of patriotic monks who worshipped Vishnu in his role of a very well-armed God the Preserver. But their monastery also contained three images of the Mother: as she had been, as she had become and as she would be in the future. These images, more of the Motherland than the Mother Goddess, projected the increasingly popular belief in a glorious and prosperous past, impoverishment under colonial rule and the hopes of a great future in which at least some were beginning to believe, The patriotic monks are described by the novelist as the santans, the children, of the Mother, i.e., both the Divine Mother and the Motherland. The two are in fact the same. The Motherland is conceived as Durga with ten arms and the song to celebrate her glory, Bandemataram, which became India’s first national anthem, pays homage to a land that is prosperous, beautiful and endowed with the potentialities of great power.
Since the departure of the British, Durga Puja has been through myriad transformations, where pandals have been thematically used to comment upon the sociopolitical realities of the country and the world. Recently, the Chakraberia Sarbojanin Durgotsav Committee in Kolkata decided to pay homage to the British for acting as an agent in popularizing Durga Puja. A 19 Lakh Pandal commissioned by them contains items used by the Babus or the British in the heyday of their Raj. The pandal has been designed like a zamindari house where the idol of Durga would be housed!