Kolkata is decked like a glorious bride for Durga Puja. With millions flooding the streets, a frenzied amalgam of religious fervour, art and aesthetics and crores of rupees worth of economic transactions in the span of a few hours, the festival is India’s very own Rio Carnival. Most aspects of the grand puja have been explored in media. However, little is talked about the spirit of the ‘carnivalesque’ during the puja, which resists social and religious hierarchies and precincts.
A closer look at the festival exposes that beyond the ostensible facade of jubilation, longstanding cultural prejudices try to govern who can and cannot take part in the celebrations. Yet, those who have been shunned from the festivities are striving to make their voices heard by taking charge of their own right to celebrate.
Devotion Never Comes Easy
Custom holds that the first handful of soil to cast the Durga idol must come from the threshold of the homes of sex workers. For Sonagachi — Asia’s largest red-light district — in north Kolkata, the four days of the puja are unusually eventful with the number of people visiting the area increasing exponentially. Yet, it is the very same community that is kept from partaking in the festivities. “None of the puja organisers from the vicinity miss their chance to collect money from the women here. Yet our women are ridiculed and dehumanised when they want equal treatment and their right to choice,” says Bharati Dey, the director of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Samiti (dmss), an ngo working for the community in Sonagachi.
For the past nine years, the sex workers have refused to give away the ‘punya maati’ (sacred soil) for the Durga idol. “After the refusal to give the soil, tiny lumps of mud are in fact sold in local shops for Rs 200-300 and passed off as earth from their doors. I have seen desperate customers seeking them as ‘oi maati’ [that soil], too ashamed to openly ask for soil from a sex-worker’s house,” says Bharati.
Some years ago, the sex workers, along with the dmss, also launched a legal battle for their right to organise the festival. In 2013, in the face of concerted opposition, the Calcutta High Court finally granted permission to the sexworkers of Sonagachi to conduct their own puja. Armed with legal permission from the Court, the sex-workers rented a three-storey community hall for the celebrations. The driving vision behind the organising of the puja is “Amar shontan jyano thake shobtate” which Bharati translates as, “May my child be a part of the world”. Sex workers from more than 60 settlements across West Bengal will participate in the celebrations. “The women have been divided into teams for managing the various aspects of the celebrations,” says Puja, an activist with Durbar and the daughter of a sex-worker. “We will bid adieu to the goddess amidst sindoor-khela [a ritual where married women smear vermilion on each other’s faces] and the beat of the dhakis [musicians].”
The children of Sonagachi are equally excited about the celebrations. A perceptibly irritated Priya surrounded by Sunny, Abhijit, Manisha and Ratan, all children of sex workers, has little time to elaborate upon her plans for the puja as she can’t wait to head out for shopping. The children, all of them part of Komalgandhar, the cultural troupe of the children of Sonagachi, will be busier than bees throughout the puja. They have lined-up various musical, dance and dramatic performances for the inaugural programmes for the puja. “We have been working very hard in the rehearsals. Ratan is in vocals. He sings Kailash Kher and Arijit Singh songs. Priya only likes Bollywood dance. The rest of us are into contemporary fusion,” enlightens Abhijit.
Inside the rehearsal room, Payel, Bobby and Rajkumar are fine-tuning their movements. Abhijit points from the window at the makeshift stage where their performances will take place. Payel cannot help but glimpse repeatedly at the mirror to admire her newly straightened hair. “We hardly sleep in these four days. We have plans to go pandal-hopping throughout the night,” quips an otherwise reticent Manisha.
As the conversation with the children winds up, a woman can be seen getting picked off the street by the police looking to make quick money during the puja season. Her bail will be worth a week’s earnings.
Gendering the puja
Elsewhere, as the night nears dawn in the rain-swept lanes of Kumartuli, a group of women adorned in bright colours and glitzy jewellery enters the studio of artist China Pal. Kolkata’s Kumartuli, the famed ghetto where hordes of traditional idol-artists work in studios, is brimming with activity as Durga Puja draws near. The studios are but derelict workshops covered in tarpaulin or plastic sheets to prevent the rain from destroying the earthen idols. The beaming women, unperturbed by the steady drizzle, beckon at China di twittering busily among themselves. They have come to inspect the progress their Durga idol is making.
These are no ordinary women. They are members of the Pratyay Gender Trust (PGT). Headed by Anindya Hazra, a transgender activist, in collaboration with the Uddyami Yuvak Sangha, pgt is making history by organising the first transgender Durga Puja in north Kolkata’s Jay Mitra Street. The Uddyami Sangha, otherwise a rather nondescript local club, has been organising Durga Puja for the past 26 years. But this year, they set a benchmark to the concept of inclusiveness by co-organising the puja with the transgender community.