Kali Puja in times of Diwali

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By Garga Chatterjee

What importance is accorded to which people by governments is often revealed by official calendars. Indian Union government doesn`t recognize any holiday (compulsory or optional) on 10th November on account of Kali Pujo. The next day is a compulsory “national” holiday called Diwali. Government of Bangladesh recognizes 10th November as an optional holiday for Hindus on account of Kali Pujo. There`s no Diwali. There`s no Diwali in the West Bengal government`s official holiday either although it lists both 10th and 11th November as holidays – 10th as Kali Pujo and 11th as day for immersion of goddess Kali. In West Bengal`s post Durga Puja festivity calendar, Kali Pujo`s prime importance was underlined by multiple recent tweets made by trinamool Congress quoting Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. “We must follow all regulations during Kali Puja festivities. Enjoy the fun but with safety”. “Maa, Mother and Ammi are one and same. She cannot be divided. We worship Durga then Lakshmi. Now Kali Puja”. “There are several forms of Maa Kali: Chhinna Masta, Shoshan Kali, Siddheswari, Katyawani, Jagadamba and many more”. Finally, she subsumed Deepavali within the ambit of Kali Pujo – “Hope Maa Kali fills darkness with light. Let us pray to Maa Kali to bring happiness in everyone`s life”. There will be customary Deepavali greetings from her but the priorities and hierarchies are clear. Her Congress background also makes her particularly amenable to strongly patronizing Ma Kali. From Bengal`s pre-partition Swadeshi political terrorists and their physical culture associations to neighbourhood Congressite “dada” and their local youth clubs, all have been part of a continuous tradition of patronizing Kali Pujas.

I share with Mamata Banerjee our extended residential neighbourhood, the Kalighat-Chetla area, the world capital of Kali Pujo in terms of variety. There is Hajat Haat, Shoroshi, Aakali, DhyanTara, Johura, SwarnoKali, Jwolonto, SwetTara, KrishnaKali, Nataraj Kali, Aadya, Chandraghanta, Chamunda, Doshomunda and many more forms including MohunBagan Kali ( with the goddess painted in the football club`s colours). The roughly 3 square kilometre Chetla-Kalighat area has several hundred Kali pujos pandals. Here, on the only Shaktipeeth in metropolitan Kolkata, stands the famous Kali temple at Kalighat. Myself being a Shakto and a Chetla resident, Kali Pujo has always been special. The prasad of curried goat meat, preferably sacrificed and offered to our holy mother beforehand, is one of the high notes of Kali Pujo for millions in Bengal.

For Bengalis, till a couple of decades ago, in the post Durga Pujo period, Kali Pujo was the only show in town. Diwali was miniscule. Not any more. Diwali contests Kali Pujo in public spaces. Ma Kali Puja is absent from the festival-centric marketting tactics in Bengal by non-Bengal commercial entities. One is bombarded by huge advertisements of “Diwali Dhamaka” offers in Bangla and English newspapers headquartered in Bengal by various non-Bengal ship-product-to-home-bypassing-local-shop entities. Some Bengal-based entities are also joining the fray. There are relentless text messages, that are Diwali themed sales pitches. One Bangla paper also carried an advert for some garment stores masquerading as a news article on “Diwali fashion” for Bengalis, whatever that means. If one picked up the leading Bangla and English newspapers of Bengal, the glitzy and colourful advertisements therein would not give anyone a clue that this is Bengal and Kali Pujo is around the corner. Who are these ads for?

Kali Pujo has traditionally been one of those festivals where the so-called “lower” castes have dominated much of the happenings. While the upper-castes also celebrate Kali Pujo with vigour, a small but well-off section of their new generation has grown alienated from a celebration so rooted. This probably reflects on their general alienation from their surrounds, but are also the high-spending class for whom the Diwali teasers are designed for. And its partially working. Economic elites influence the aspirational tastes of those lower down in the rung. Entities that hate tariff barriers between states as well as the local sourcing clauses in retail inundate us with “Diwali” and not Kali Pujo around this time of the year. Kali Pujo is something that commercial entities that cater largely to the aspirational urban classes cannot easily negotiate. Its too democratic and actually religious, still too much rooted and real content – not a shell like the range of `pan-Indian` hashtag religious festivals, inside which anything can be stuffed and sold, to assuage the identity anxieties of the aspirational rootless urban class while peddling “deals”. The Diwali-Dhanteras combo is here in Bengal to stay and spread – before-long without the need of alienated Bengalis as Trojan horses. Kali Pujo will become Diwali, or rather, Diwali with Bengali characteristics – the only kind of `diversity` that “unity in diversity” ideology tolerates. In Bengal, Doljatra is already becoming Holi with Bengali characteristics (nevermind that they dont even fall on the same date). Navratri-ization of Durga Puja has also started.

Not long back, the Kalibari signified a Hindu Bengali settlement outside Bengal. For the newly arrived, the Kalibari was an embassy and community-space rolled into one. While the Bengali labourer mentally still carries his gods and goddesses with him, the “cosmopolitan” ones travel lighter. And some travel without the baggage even without leaving Bengal. Diwali is perfect for the self identity of the small but increasing bloc of urban Bengalis whose non-rooted Hinduness also makes him an Indian without qualifications of ethnicity and culture. They aren`t Bengali. They aren`t Indian first and Bengali second. They are only Indians, without hyphenations. and nothing but Indians. They are the ideal citizens, the “Indian” for whom a centralized Indian Union was dreamt up in the first place, except that most inhabitants didnt live up to such non-hyphenated and flat Indianness and still dont.

Cultural exchange and spread has happened throughout the human past. The problem arises when certain forms of cultural spread also signify a uniformization project by external cultural dominance with the active connivance of government, media and business, behind the fig-leaf of “unity in diversity”. Their combined power is immense. With deracinated elites of vernacular origin as collaborators, their project has started acquiring the qualities that US conservative political strategist Karl Rove had in mind when he said “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”. This reality is created when ostensibly “national” TV channels carry a Diwali icon on their screen on Diwali day but never on Kali Pujo or Onam, hence signalling not so subtly what it means by “Indian”. A North-Indian bania`s domestic culture is “Indian” without qualifications but a Bengali“s Kali Pujo is not similarly “Indian” but a variant or a quirk. One-way cultural entry on the back of money, media and political power is cultural aggression. I cannot think of any religious spread from Kali-land or Onam-land into Diwali-land but the opposite is progressively true. In this particular scheme of unidirectional entry, Diwali is not alone. It comes with things as disparate as CBSE, Holi and Hindi, with the pace quickening in the post-liberalization period. Join those apparently disparate dots and the contours of the post-1990 Bharatmata is revealed. Whose `local` becomes `national` and whose `local` disappears when ideas like `all India` and `mainstream` are evoked? Why is the direction of traffic in this supposedly two-way street so predictable? Why does the ruling party and its leading star focus most of his political energy and reaps maximal benefits in aeas where Diwali is the uncontested name for the festival of lights? In all of this, what is the lesson for us, the still non-Diwali people?

While Kali Pujo has a non-vegetarian overtone, Diwali signifies quite the opposite. Around Kali Pujo time, why are there no “Diwali Dhamaka”deals for a wholesome Biryani in the non-vegetarian land of Bengal, something that`s common during Durga Puja? These are subtle undercurrents with far-reaching consequences for Bengal`s social fabric. Kali Pujo is primarily a religious festival, around which other rituals like Bhoot Chaturdashi are woven. All of these entail generationally handed down customs of eating, behaving and being.

Bengal, in the face of state-sponsored, money-powered, media-assisted cultural aggression, is undergoing a hollowing out of richness and long-preserved and celebrated ways of life. The resultant Anglo-Hindiization of public culture is a poor replacement. Interestingly, Chhat Puja of Biharis hasn`t encroached in the Bengali cultural space in the way Diwali has, while the ethnic observers of Chhat Puja far outnumber Diwali`s ethnic celebrators in Kolkata. So the Diwali effect isnt due to the cultural mixing that happens due to mere physical presence of cultural `others`, but the expansion of outside ideology wedded to power. Will this encroaching front invoke a wall of resistance from Mother Kali, the protectior of her earthly children, whose cultures and identities are under siege? Time will tell.

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