By Dylan Cohen
Durga Puja is a truly vibrant celebration of art, culture and religion. Taking place over a five day period in the South Asian region, Durga Puja is celebrated predominantly by Bengali Hindus. Outside of South Asia, Durga Puja festivities also take place in Bengali Hindu communities all around the world. The largest celebrations of Durga Puja take place in the Indian state of West Bengal , but also hold major importance in the municipal regions of New Delhi and Kolkata. Outside of India, the largest Durga Puja celebrations take place in Bangladesh, where approximately eight percent of the population is Bengali Hindu. The festival celebrates the victory of the goddess Durga over the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura. The story of Durga’s victory over Mahishasura manifests itself as a celebratory example of good winning over evil, but also as an important religious example of the power of the female spirit. Durga Puja is known internationally as the largest open air art show, as art and visual representations of the Goddess Durga appear to be the festival’s main focus. However, philanthropy and charity also hold an important role in the Durga Puja, a role that has evolved greatly as the festival’s prominence has caught the attention of multi-national corporations and regional big business.
From a religious standpoint, there are many ritualistic elements to the festival of Durga Puja. “Puja” has a close resemblance to the English definition for “ritual”. Bengali Hindus typically wake up at four am on the first day of the five day festival, to listen to pop culture personalities retelling the epic tale of Durga and Mahishasura. Ritual drummers, known by the name “Dhakis” walk the streets performing prayers and ritualistic dances. Statues of the goddess Durga are also constructed and hand painted, later to be dissolved in water at the end of the five day festival, usually in the river Ganges or a waterway that flows into it. The most well known religious element of Durga Puja, however, are the Pandals. Pandals are outdoor prayer chambers of sorts. They are manually constructed, and are used to perform the “pujas” or prayer rituals within. Pandals have come to take a most well known position amongst all the religious elements involved in Durga Puja, because of the decorative, communal work involved in their design and construction. Pandals are typically highly decorative and usually depict Durga with her children. Pandals can also be themed, as they often are, manifesting the physical characteristics of t.v shows, ancient civilizations and world cultures within their design and construction.
Fundraising and charity also have a part to play within the context of Durga Puja. Historically, local communities would go door to door, fundraising for the actual construction and preparation of the often ornate Pandals. The money not used towards the construction and preparation of the given community’s Pandal would be donated to a charity or cause chosen by the community members themselves. However, with the emergence of multinational private interest, fundraising for the construction of the Pandals has changed drastically. Now, in major urban centres all over northwestern India and Bangladesh, construction of communal Pandals has been funded largely by private corporations and interest groups. At present, when a community does choose to fundraise, it is usually to recognize tradition for symbolic purposes, and not actually required to prepare the Pandal for Durga Puja.
The emergence of private interest funding of Durga Puja-related activities, has changed the character of the festival on a large scale. As mentioned earlier, Durga Puja has been labeled “the largest open air art festival in the world”. This must be due to, at least or in part, to corporate funding of Pandal construction activities, leading to Pandals being bigger, better and more eye catching. This may be a good thing, yet there may be many unknown negative aspects to this shift in funding Durga Puja Pandal construction. Many communities may no longer have a say in terms of how non-pandal construction funds get distributed my corporate funders/sponsors. Construction of Pandals sponsored through corporate sponsorship may not even include a charitable giving aspect to the festival. Research for this short paper was not extensive, and corporate sponsorship of Durga Puja have only been in full swing since the mid 1990’s, thus, the full effects of this change cannot be exhaustively described here. What can be said, is that the grassroots organizing and the communal choosing of charitable causes is quickly shifting to becoming responsibilities of the many private corporations who sponsor Durga Puja Pandal construction and other activities.
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