While walking inside the ground of Bengali Senior Secondary School in Delhi’s Alipur area, you could see a group of workers who have come from West Bengal and Bihar fixing the tents for Durga Puja. The location also happens to be the oldest in Delhi to organise the Puja. The first Durga Puja that was organised here dates back to 1910. “We used to come here every year during this time for work before COVID-19 pandemic hit,” says Ravi from the group while tying the poles in a tight knot. “Work is not exactly as handsome as it was earlier but we are hoping it will get better from here,” he adds and then turns back to bow to the still underdeveloped Goddess Durga idol.
Durga Puja is celebrated with much fervour across the national capital and the two-year gap due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made this year’s celebration all the more special. We visited some of the popular pandals in Delhi to witness the preparations, understand the economy of the Puja and the general vibe of the jamboree that is to take full shape in days to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected the world unlike nothing else most of us have seen before. The damaging effects of it could be felt at the oldest Durga Puja venues of Delhi. Gopal Pal, a murti designer from West Bengal’s Krishnanagar, faced problems while finding work. “We were called by our contractor very late this year. I wasn’t sure of getting a job but it happened for me finally unlike the other people I know from my village who didn’t get it at all,” he tells while sticking a broken finger to the idol of Durga. There were monkeys in the ground a day before and they ruined parts of the idol. Pal was being assisted by Pradeep, a young man from Bihar, who seemed rather content from the work he had in hand. “Muje kaam mila hai aur maza aa raha hai (I have got work and I’m enjoying it),” Pradeep chuckles as he applies adhesive on one of the broken pieces.
When we move to the South of Delhi, businesses there seem to be facing similar issues. “The idol size has shrunk because people are not buying bigger idols,” says Ravi, who has a shop in Saket. “The business hasn’t revived yet,” he adds. Another shopkeeper in Chittaranjan Park (aka CR Park), Gopal Nath, says he’s been facing the same response. His family has been in the business of making idols for the last 50 years but they haven’t “faced such losses ever before”. “Our business got impacted. It’s not even 25% of what it was two years ago.” Despite witnessing a slow start for the businesses, the hope for good times remains intact.
Excitement at an all-time high
Nath says that the low business was expected to happen given the long pause in the last two years, but the footfall he is witnessing this time is quite huge. Ayan Sengupta, a long time resident of CR Park, is excited for the Puja and claims that there are going to be at least 4-5 lakh people coming everyday in days to come. “There is no denying that there has been a downer in terms of operations for small businesses but I believe that the expected footfall might make up for it,” he asserts.
“We are expecting a higher footfall this year,” says Tamojit Chakrabarty, Secretary of Delhi’s Bangiya Parishad (Paschim Vihar), which is organising its 38th year of the Puja. He further says that though the excitement is high this time but the overall collections for organising the whole event has not been at par. “We still have some very good sponsors onboard like BMW and Nestle, among others. The downer is quite natural given the budget cuts in the private and government sectors post the pandemic,” Chakrabarty explains.
Celebrations at CR Park
A strong sensation of modernity and tradition is bound to catch you as you enter the lanes of CR Park. And more so if you are visiting at this time of the year. The footpaths are being renovated as they will soon host hordes of people coming from all over the city and beyond. The story seemed quite sorted in the popular pandals of CR Park. The pandals there are getting the traction from sponsors and organisers alike. “We have repeat sponsors onboard this year. The overall funds have been adequate too,” Kaushik Chattopadhyay, Vice-President, Cooperative Ground, proudly says. The Cooperative Ground has also been the recipient of the best pandal award in the past and is known for its interesting pandal themes.
“The pandal will look like a traditional house of Kolkata. We are specifically focusing on the details like louvre windows and colonial-era iron locks and chains for doors,” says Saurav Chakraborty, the secretary of the Durga Puja committee at Cooperative Ground. He leaves for instructing the workers to paint the wall in an orderly manner.
Chattopadhyay was happy with the business that they have been able to successfully generate this year. “Of course, there is no denying that there has been a decline in the operations because of the pandemic but it has not impacted us as much. That is mainly because the Cooperative Ground has created a brand value over the years,” he explains. “The committee here has young and vibrant people working hard to implement the overall vision,” says Vivek Bhattacharya, a part of the organising committee at Cooperative Ground. “In fact, a deficit of around Rs 11 lakh for the Puja was contributed by the young ones in the team,” Bhattacharya proudly adds.
Preparations in full swing
The cultural programmes have started in most of the pandals already. At some pandals, kids were ready in the dresses in which they were to perform at the dance competition. There were parents backstage giving a quick final rehearsal to their children. Some pandals were hosting a singing competition, others were hosting a poem recitation competition.
The preparations at CR Park’s Shiv Mandir (aka Kali Mandir) are in full swing too. The size of the crowd to visit soon can be imagined from the huge cauldrons in which ‘bhog’ will be prepared. “These vessels are specially designed for preparing bhog for all the devotees during Puja,” says Ayan. “The food is prepared here in a very traditional way by digging a deep pit and with the help of wood,” he explains as we walk to the next point where the magic unfolds.
There are two places in Delhi where the Durga idols are made in bulk. One of them was at the Shiv Mandir. Idol makers at the temple, who have come from various parts of India (mostly from West Bengal), work in unison while working on the murtis. The idols stand next to the other similar ones only differing in either the size or colour. It is most definitely a sight to behold.
The sentiment of Durga Puja seems mixed this year. While some businesses are still overcoming the adverse effects of the pandemic, there are people who have been waiting for a long time to go out and celebrate the Puja like they used to earlier. In either case, the days ahead do look brighter and hopeful.