While Chittarajan Park, known as mini-Bengal, has lakhs of devotees (and then some), it is the Durga Puja in Timarpur which has more cause for celebration this year. Organised by the Timarpur & Civil Lines Puja Samity, the Puja here is celebrating its 100 years.
The Bengalis here say they have the British to thank for bringing Durga Puja to Delhi.
“My grandfather worked for the British government in Calcutta, and when the capital shifted, we too moved to Delhi. We would go back to Calcutta for Puja every year. My grandfather would take a month’s leave, and so did other Bengalis. The British couldn’t afford to have a majority of their staff gone for a month, and that too at the same time. So they encouraged us to celebrate Durga Puja here,” 59-year-old Samit Brahmo, vice-president of the Samity, says.
It started out as a small-scale celebration, a ghoroa (homely affair) of probashi Bengalis (Bengalis living outside Bengal).
“In those days, one person would provide the space for the puja, another would cook the food and a third person would organise programmes,” samity member Anand Shankar Sengupta says.
“I came to Timarpur with my parents in 1924. The elders prepared for the event four-five months in advance — drama and dance rehearsals were held in different places and the children would gather at the residence of Indu Bowmick, where the idol was always made. When I turned 10, I was given the honour of serving the mother goddess,” 93-year-old Heramba Mukherjee recalls.
One of the major attractions of the Puja during the ‘30s was the screening of Bengali movies.
“People didn’t have TVs and there was no way to watch Bengali movies in Delhi. So, the samity would screen the most popular Bengali movies of that time over two days of the festival. We would hire a guy who would bring the film reels and a 35mm projector to the pandal on a ‘phat-phat’ auto. Others brought home-cooked biryani and traditional Bengali food and we would watch movies till 4 in the morning,” Mukherjee says.
The screening stopped in the mid-’80s with the advent of TV, he adds.
Puja was also the time when the children of the locality got enough money to fund their ‘chotoder’ library (children’s library).
Ashok Nath Chatterjee (82) says, “We sold tea during the Puja. In those days the plays and movies would go on till morning, and as 10-year-olds we were even free to go inside the ladies enclosure to supply tea.”
Since 1970-1971, the samity decided not to hire workers to carry the idol to the immersion spot seven km away.
Instead, people from the locality volunteer to pull the bullock-cart carrying the idols. “Every man in the locality has pulled the bullock-cart over the years. It is quite a sight, besides the usual singing and dancing many stand on the bullock-cart with sticks to push branches and wires which might entangle the idol,” Sengupta says.
The only time the samity did not indulge in a full-fledged Puja was during the 1965 war. “We just had a low-key Puja. There were no plays or screenings that year,” he says.
However, as is the case with government servants, many of those who were present when the samity was formed have now moved to other places.
“There were about 100 Bengali families then and now there are about 15. My daughter is flying in from London and my son from Dubai. There are others who once lived here and are part of the samity. They are now spread across the country and abroad. They too will come,” Brahmo says.
Though modernisation has influenced the Puja, it still remains true to its Bengali roots. Idols are made in studios, and the food that was usually cooked on chullahs is now cooked on gas stoves as the samity decided to go eco-friendly three years ago, much to the indignation of some of its senior members.
“Everyone is so busy these days that we don’t have that much time to prepare for the Puja. Most of the senior members of the samity take some days off to put the programme together, but, even then, the number of plays have gone down. We have also started calling bands and artistes from Bengal to perform,” Sengupta says.
And while some may wonder about the the contribution of today’s youth to the Puja, Sengupta insists that the youth still take part in the Puja, distribution of the bhog and organisation of competitions.
Even though they are expecting a footfall of 2 lakh people this year, the members claim that they have not let commercialisation seep in. “It’s not like in Calcutta where pandals compete with each other. In fact, I know so many Bengalis in Calcutta who go for a vacation during the Puja because that is the longest holiday they get,” Brahmo says.
“We still follow some strict dos and don’ts — the samity member in charge of the Puja cannot eat non-vegetarian food and has to fast. He cannot have any leather on him and has to wear dhoti.”