Thursday, 31 October 2013

Four Days of Durga Puja

Durga bids farewell for another year. Baul Bari, Sonar Char, Monpura.

There’s a time for dancing. There’s a time for laughter. There’s a time for wild joy and freedom, to with abandon celebrate good’s victory over evil.

By shoshthi, the sixth day of the waning moon in Ashvin month, the day before the four climactic days of the Durga Puja, a gate is going up, of bamboo and coloured cloth, by the roadside in Hazirhat’s keora forest, in Monpura. Lights will make the gate shine like the faces of the performers in the coming forest nights.

The last paint needed to be applied, Hazirhat.
Down the earthen path beyond the trees, at the pandal, the last paint is being applied to each protima, the embodiments of goddess Durga, her family, consorts and foes. The power of God is in everything – each protima but a focal point. For the handful of organisers anticipation reigns, with that mild panic that marks the kind of hours that tick by progressively faster when important preparations are underway.

The dhak drums are coming. The crowds will arrive. There’s a laptop ready and a sound system for pulsating, electronic rhythms. The Hazirhat pandal is the most renowned for technology, of the seven in Monpura, with an eighth on a nearby shoal.

“A demon long ago ran the world,” explains Dulal Chandra Das, president of the puja committee at Dulal Memberer Bari in Sitakunda in Monpura’s north, “Society was tortured and Durga Debi came to Earth to destroy the demon. Durga comes every year to conquer evil with her ten hands and superpower.”

It’s the day of Moha Shoptomi and Vashkor Chandra Das is thinking of his Bholan home. He’s been a puja artist for twenty years, shaping each protima with straw, mud and jute. “All is difficult,” he says of the striving to achieve unmatched beauty in the marginally-unique design imagined for that year.

Durga Puja mantras being recited at the Thakurbari pandal.
At the Thakurbari pandal incense sticks are burning, offerings being made. Om Jayanti, Mangala, Kali, Bhadrakali, Kapalini. It’s time for flowers. Durga, Shiba, Kshama, Dhatri, Swaha, Swadha Namahstu Te. It’s time for Durga mantras recited by Brahmin in Sanskrit. Esha Sachandana Gandha Pushpa Bilwa Patranjali, Om Hrring Durgaoi Namah.

The attendant police look bored. There’s minimal chance of Durga Puja being disturbed. It’s a wonderful boredom they face. “There’s no distance between Hindus and Muslims here,” said an old man at the Ishorgonj pandal in Sonar Char, “We go as one. Together we face the river.” Monpura suffers from severe erosion. The Ishorgonj pandal continues a 40-year tradition, but its position is new: the old site river-devoured.

At Baul Bari pandal, where I am greeted by Hindu religion teacher and puja president Bimal Chandra Das, one man tells how he’s relocated his house four times due to erosion. Another says with enthusiasm of his expectations for the puja’s final day: “How joyful!” A third man comments that at their puja it’s not unusual for 25% of the spectators to be of Islamic faith.

Aroti performed at the Baul Bari pandal.
It’s probably in the evenings when Durga is best entertained: dhak drumming, song and dance, including the aroti, a ritual dance featuring smoking clay pots.

I want to be entertained. I head twenty kilometres down-island to find the South Sakuchia pandal, located down a muddy track under the local cyclone-shelter primary school.

And on the way I rode, riverside, along the embankment; through cosy bazaars and larger stands of keora forest – stunning – where wild deer are plentiful. I stopped by a net-fixing fisherman who was eager, without being asked, to give direction to the best deer-sighting spot. It’s inspiringly peculiar, the way he says it, the hope in his voice – as unmistakable as dhak drums – of a successful deer encounter. If the visitor has an enjoyable time in his Monpura, none would be happier than him. But there wasn’t time for wildlife.

Oshi Mazumder and Nodi Rani Das shine at Baul Bari.
Around the school is a minor fair: fruit, sweets, trinkets and sugar cane. The Nogendro Doctor Bari pandal has a 55-year history but is newly sited under the school because the roof of the nat mandir, the performance space at the nearby temple, was destroyed by Tropical Storm Mahasen. “We’re not sure how to fund its repair,” says union parishad member, crab businessman and puja president, Moharlal Chakraborty.

There’s wonder in a rice-field evening – of frogs and stillness. There’s divinity in the contrast of lively movement, colour and noise. Let the performers’ ears channel their dancing bodies in surrendering to the music of devotion! “Durga Puja is our biggest celebration,” says Chakraborty, “Heart and soul we enjoy this festival.”

Meanwhile I’ve been wondering if I don’t need a village flute to travel the country with. You never know when a flute may come in handy. Certainly it can carry you away through village laneways of an evening – a flute song has its own life. It might as well, if there is to be a flute, be from South Sakuchia at the time of Durga Puja – so I ask.

At any South Sakuchia function Lokkhon Chakraborty, tailor, is in demand. He’s been learning flute for fifteen years, because he likes it. He plays Rabi, Nazrul, folk and modern, but his favourite are country songs like Eh Padma, Eh Meghna and a Monpuran song Nithua Pata Rei, meaning “Dear, Strong-Hearted Leaf.”

The village flute: flute by Noruttom Chandra Das, flautist Lokkhon Chakraborty

Having explained that I might need a flute, he returns to offer a piece in duli bamboo that has been covered in mustard oil, wrapped in cloth and fire-heated in a process by which striped designs were imprinted. His Ustad, Noruttom Chandra Das, who eight years before moved to India, made that flute. “It’s a thanda flute,” he says, meaning mellow, with a low pitch. He brings it to life in the evening’s first melody; and quietly I get to him some taka, though he wanted none. He didn’t look to see how much.

Later, away from spectators, come my embarrassing efforts. It’s one thing to have a flute; it’s another to make a sound beyond that of an elephant, with a healthy case of bronchitis, wheezing.

Prayers to Durga at Baul Bari, on Bijoya Doshomi.

At Baul Bari on the following evening there’s a bold and unapologetic dance by young girls Oshi Mazumder and Nodi Rani Das, and two popular versions of the current favourite Lungee Dance, by Watson Chandra Das and seven-year-old Shubho Chandra Das. Abdullah Al-Baki, upazila nirbahi officer, was there, like me, touring the pandals and enjoying.

There’s a time for unrestrained happiness. There’s a time for the kind of joy that conquers each face no less than Durga did the demon. There’s a time for wild jumping and syncopated lungee shaking.

Moha Ashtomi and Moha Nobomi passed in this way – thus arrived Bijoya Doshomi when Durga is relieved of her earthly duties to ride the river currents back to the realm divine.

Colour wars at Baul Bari on Bijoya Doshomi.
It’s then that puja fervour reaches its crescendo. With coloured dyes the villagers attack – the kids not shy to wrestle friends into the mud. Nor do the adults escape – one in a group of mothers, respectably onlooking, says with a sigh, “That’s the puja until next year” – but it wasn’t quite finished for her. Minutes later those mothers had coloured smeared faces. Durga Puja stands not on formality.

As the time drew near for each protima to be cart-transported to the river, there were final prayers and a woman sang a moving, mournful solo. Such had been the joy of those days, somehow infused into the pandal – infectious – that I too feel that sense of loss.

A woman sings a moving solo as Durga readies to leave.
See the children jump – splash! Plummeting wildly into the Meghna – consumed by excitement they hold no fear. Watch each protima heaved to shore and emersed in water – the start of a heavenly journey. Feel the resignation creep like a shadow into the crowd – that daily life is returning, the worship done.

And the goddess shall ride the currents – the very currents that snatch back Monpuran houses, Monpuran homes.

These mothers and grandmothers could not escape the colours.

The Durga protima being carried from the pandal to the river.

A final farewell at Baul Bari pandal. Durga meets the Meghna.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Four Days of Durga Puja

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