Chronicles of the ‘other’ puja

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Midnight’s children The Komalgandhar troupe practising for their moment in the limelight.
Midnight’s children The Komalgandhar troupe practising for their moment in the limelight.

The transgenders have always felt unwelcome during the puja celebrations. “Ostracisation is part of our everyday life. But during the puja when the society makes a show of opening itself up, we are shunned,” says Bhanu Naskar, the puja committee head. Mithu Dutta, another member of the committee says, “We want to be part of the revelry. But whenever we have gone to pandals, we have been subjected to abuse and mockery. However, this time we have taken charge despite our limited means.”

Needless to say, the journey was not smooth. The organisers had to meet with vicious objection from local people, the tension palpable on their faces as they narrated their experiences. Bhanu’s home served as a venue for organising the event. “Groups of hooligans have threatened to sabotage our plans. A constant anxiety looms over us as we try to materialize our vision,” says Mithu. She explains how they originally wanted a ‘thakur dalan’, the main porch found in old north Kolkata buildings which is a popular venue of idol installation during the puja. “But nobody was willing to share their space with us,” she sighs.

It was at this point that the Uddyami Yuvak Sangha extended their sincere support. Pal was burdened with multiple assignments when Bhanu approached her for the idol. Yet she did not have a moment’s hesitation before agreeing to take up this assignment. “It is nothing but divine blessing that amidst rain and heat I can put clay to the goddess’ spiritual self,” declares Pal. The humble budget of Rs 1.5 lakh could not deter the pandal decorator from executing his grand ideas. He pitched in with more material on his own accord. Biton Das, an organiser is all smiles as she says, “He insists on the decorations being a surprise for us.” Meanwhile, contributions both from within and outside the community are flowing in.

The idol itself is a balance between tradition and the avant-garde illuminates Anindya. While the framework and embellishments hark back to antiquity, the idol is modelled after the ‘ardhnarishwar’, the binary of male and female. “This is the original manifestation of ‘Adi Shakti’ [supreme power],” elucidates Bhanu. Though the organisers had initially contemplated keeping the puja restricted to the transgender community, they opened doors to everybody to generate awareness in the mainstream society. Anindya articulates how beyond all religious aspects, their puja stands as an expression of the struggle for their rights in a space dominated by class and caste structures.

This puja will run a packed schedule. It will be inaugurated with cultural programs comprising of dance, music and drama by a troupe of transgender artists called the Manorama Kinnar. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation has decided to include representatives of the transgender community such as Manabi Bandhopadhyay, the first transgender college principal in India and Anindya, to adjudicate the finest pujas in town.

While Biton, Mithu and Aanchal Rai debate the exact tint of colour to be applied on the Ganesh idol, Bhanu Naskar wants Saraswati to wear a yellow saree. When one of the assisting artisans brings in the crown of the goddess made of intricate zari work, Aanchal turns ecstatic. “Make one for me as well. I’ll wear it during the dance at Dashami,” she exclaims.

Faith for All

The Kamarhati Sarbojonin Durgotsav is largely organised by the Muslims of Kolkata every year. It is an embodiment of inclusive zest of the Durga Puja. The industrial belt of Kamarhati where residents of differing religious convictions live in concord, mutual collaboration is not a foreign affair. The 106-year-old puja stands witness to forbearance and brotherhood amidst the communal flusters in the nation.

Moment of pride Bhanu Naskar and her team with the ‘ardhnarishwar’ idol
Moment of pride Bhanu Naskar and her team with the ‘ardhnarishwar’ idol

Shamsher Ali, 36, is the vice president of the puja committee and has been sharing the responsibility of orchestrating the puja for the past 10 years. The design of the pandal supposed to resemble a luxurious palace with extravagant chandeliers and classic glass-work, is his brain-child. Rather preoccupied between going back and forth on his motorbike instructing the pandal decorators, Ali is a busy man. He also has a plan for how the lighting should be in the lanes surrounding the pandal. “We cannot imagine going anywhere else for the five days of the puja. Nobody will cook at home because we are going to have a feast here every day,” says Ali.

Sikander Naaz, the 47-year-old working president of the puja committee breaks into a passionate ‘shayeri’ to convey his sentiments. “Aye kaash apne mulk me aisi faza bane ki mandir jale to ranj mussalman ko bhi ho, pamal hone paye na masjid ki abru, ye fikr mandiro ke nigehman ki ho.” (Lets hope for an atmosphere where Muslims feel agonised if a temple is desecrated and Hindus feel concern about the protection of mosques). For 15 years, he has been handling the financial preparations of the puja. Additionally, he leads a team of 150 volunteers who are responsible for ensuring safety and security in the area during the festival. Sikander says, “This year the responsibility has doubled for us. On 23 and 24 October falls the holy occasion of Muharram and it will be a great cultural confluence with the entire community celebrating both the festivals.”

Shamsher and Sikander along with a band of organisers, mostly Muslims, redefine the expression ‘faith’. When Hindus and Muslims will share the meals in the ceremonial banquet, many a deliberation raging and dividing the nation will be silenced.

Meanwhile the ‘city of joy’, is going to reach the crescendo of a sonorous harmony with the lilt of added voices.

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