October 10, 2013
My Memories of Puja – Amar Puja-r ek dojon Goppo by Derek O`Brien
by Derek O`Brien
Since I was born, this is the second time I will not be in Kolkata for the pujas. Previously, I may have missed one or at most two days of this annual festival, due to work engagements, but had made it a point to spend the pujas mostly in Kolkata.
This year, I will be spending the pujas with some 'probashi bangali bandhus' (including my wife) in New York and Long Island. As a matter of fact, in USA and most other western countries, pujas are generally organized over the weekends, to facilitate maximum participation, and not on the exact puja days. So that's why, I'm feeling a pinch in the middle of my heart, but again looking for a new experience.
One of my earliest sweet memories of puja was that of holding the hand of a girl I loved, for the first time. I was in class VII/VIII (aged about 13/14) and she was my first love. I got a chance to hold her hand while going to the 'bhashan' atop a matador. While I'm really tempted to share the girl's name, what I would only say is that her name began with the letter 'N'.
In the early-1980's, a paint company used to give out awards for excellence in various fields of arts like, music, drama, painting, literature etc., which was followed by a hearty lunch. In one such lunch, which took place at the Calcutta Club, one of the winners was the late poet Subhas Mukhopadhyay. There, he suggested to us that since we're giving away honours for people from the arts fields, why not honour the people who organize the puja – in his words “Pujo-r je shrishti hoi – take shamman janano“. So it was left to my colleague Sumit Roy and me to create the first 'Sharad Shamman' awards, for this paint company. In fact, the catch line for this awards were even provided by the poet Subhas Mukhopadhyay – “Suddho shuchi – shustho ruchi“.
By the late-1980's, when this 'Sharad Samman' has become quite popular, I felt I was extremely lucky as through this venture, I could meet various stalwarts and the best brains of Calcutta, say for example the painters – like Ganesh Pyne, Paritosh Sen, Manu Parekh and actors like Rudraprasad Sengupta etc. Frankly, before this exercise, the young upstart in me would have tempted to ask – “Who's Ganesh Pyne?” but now I would be rather give my left arm to have a Ganesh Pyne tempera.
My earliest association of food during the pujas goes back to the pre-egg roll days! The favourite with the mass at that time was the Moghlai Parota. But my favourite was the vegetable chop from Kalyani Hotel near the Ballygunge railway station. Deep red inside (because of the use of beetroot), it was a puja must-eat for me, from the little money we used to keep aside for refreshments from the 'para-r puja chanda'.
In 2003, I cherished the first experience of seeing the pujas accompanying the most respected politician of our state. What struck me most was her tremendous energy as the whole entourage covered more that 8/9 pujas in one hour! By the end of these exhausting (for me) tours, I felt that I needed another holiday to recuperate from the superfast pandal hopping experience.
It was only during the Pujas, during my school days, we somehow obtained the license of staying away from home till late night. With the 'dadas' of the para we would go on nearly all-night treks from Jodhpur Park to Park Circus. After walking for such distances we would nearly always suffer from blisters and corns, but sincerely, nobody cared for those little hindrances.
Maddox Square has always been a happening place during the pujas, even during when I was in school! During the pujas, at least two-three visits to Maddox Square were always on the rosters, for the obvious reasons and also something beyond that! I used to love the 'balloon phatano” by rifles or handguns in the stalls lining the park. There used to be friendly betting on that, with the person losing the challenge bearing the cost. Frankly, I did lose some amounts at certain times.
With the pujas closely following the monsoon season in Bengal, nearly every year the people from various parts of rural Bengal face devastating floods and destructions which rob them of their homes, leave alone money for celebrations! I still remember the first time we organized a flood-relief committee from the 'para puja committee' itself and made a contribution by using a part of the 'Chada' that was collected and collecting and donating garments and saris.
Starting from my earliest memories about puja, I must say that it has evolved with time. One of the major pointers to that fact is the coming of age of 'theme pujas' which stated mostly around south Calcutta and the southern suburbs to attract pandle-hoppers. Nowadays, apart from some really traditional big pujas in the northern parts of the city, nearly all the pujas are organized after being based on a theme. While some of these themes appear astounding the aesthetic senses of the main function are kept unchanged, some of them tinker with the whole concept of the puja itself!
Another thing I will miss this puja is the 'bhog'. Several of my friends are residents of big building complexes around the city and I really look forward to their invitations throughout the pujas. The different types the 'bhogs' on offer in the 'apartment pujas' really appeal to my taste buds and I do have certain favourites in this category also!
Right from a very young age, I distinctly remember the 'para functions' centered on the pujas. Some of them were held right within the puja days, some of them were integrated as a part of the 'Bijoya Sammilanis'. Whatever the occasion or the day, those functions sometimes gave me s chance of compering them, which obviously I loved to do most.
Maha-Ashtami – somebody who has lived and was born and brought up mostly in this city, how can he forget the excitement of this particular day. To me what struck most was invariably the 'sandhi-puja' in the evening and the boisterous 'dhunuchi-naach' performances accompanied with it. Never a dancer myself, I'm always marveled by the skill portrayed by the 'dhunuchi-dancers'; both the young and the not-so-young.
One of the main sources of our entertainment during my school days was the 'pujar gaan-er album', that were released just before the pujas. Every artist of that time was very particular about this, and their contributions were always noteworthy. Even today, some of the perennial Bengali favourite songs from the 1960s and 70s that we get to hear were actually released to celebrate the pujas.