Durga Puja celebrations at Santosh Mitra Square in Kolkata, where the pandal theme is based on the Buckingham Palace of London. (Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • Many may welcome Where is Uma?, a documentary that appears to highlight how Durga pujas in Bengal have turned commercial.

    But it can only be hoped that it has been handled in a sensitive manner, keeping in mind and respecting religious sentiments.

After Padmavati and S Durga, yet another film on goddess Durga could trigger a controversy. Where is Uma?, a documentary on Durga Puja celebrations in Bengal, takes a critical look at the commercialisation of Bengal's biggest festival.

The documentary, made by former station director of Doordarshan Kendra, Kolkata, Abhijit Dasgupta, was submitted for certification on 21 October this year. Dasgupta fears that the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC) is delaying the certification due to the controversial subject of the documentary.

Where is Uma? (Uma is another name of Devi Durga) focuses on the lack of devotion around the Durga pujas and the crass commercialisation of the festival in Bengal. It contains interviews with art historian Tapati Guha Thakurta, former CEO of Prasar Bharati Jwahar Sircar and present curator of Victoria Memorial, Jayanta Sengupta. According to Dasgupta, the interviewees have all said that Bengal's biggest festival is devoid of devotion with commercial interests playing a major role. Some of the interviewees have also spoken of the dubious role of middlemen who get sponsorships and advertisements for the puja committees from big businesses for a commission, and also the role of politicians who patronise the various community Durga pujas.

While the subject itself is controversial, many would, in fact, welcome a documentary on it. But what some people are apprehensive about is how the subject has been handled by the director. "Yes, Durga Puja has become very commercial and the puja part has been relegated to the background in most large community pujas. But it has to be handled in a sensitive manner keeping in mind and respecting religious sentiments. We will watch the documentary and then take a stand. But we won't tolerate any attempt to denigrate Hindus or Hinduism in the guise of criticising the commercialisation of Durga Puja," said a leader of Hindu Samhati, a popular and influential organisation that safeguards interests of Hindus.

The apprehension among some that the controversial subject may not have been handled with adequate sensitivity stems from the director's choice of persons he interviewed. "While we haven't watched the documentary and can't really comment on it at this stage, the choice of interviewees may leave a lot to be desired. Taking the views of religious leaders would have been appropriate. And the documentary also ought to focus on solutions instead of just concentrating on the problem," said the Hindu Samhati leader.

Tapati Guha Thakurta, whose latest book, In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata, is a faculty member at the Centre For Studies In Social Sciences ,Calcutta (CSSSC). CSSSC is a largely left-leaning institution and its faculty has, for long, been the exclusive preserve of left academicians. Sircar is well known for his proximity to the Congress and that party's first family while Victoria Memorial's Jayanta Sengupta is also perceived to be close to the 'left-liberal' quarters. Thus the apprehension amongst some that the subject may not have been handled sensitively.

The commercialisation of Durga Puja and the lack of devotion and religiosity of the festival has been a cause for increasing and grave concern. Sadly, even the nomenclature of the Durga pujas has been deliberately changed to 'Sharad Utsav' or autumn festival (Sharad means autumn in Bengali). This change of nomenclature was a conscious decision by Bengal's erstwhile communist rulers to 'secularise' the Hindu festival and minimise the religious element of the festival. Their successor Mamata Banerjee, infamous for her blatant minority-appeasement, was only too happy to carry forward the insidious agenda to de-Hinduise the Durga pujas.

In most of the large community Durga pujas, which have ranking Trinamool Congressmen as their primary patrons, the puja actually takes a backseat. Rituals are performed very perfunctorily and very few devotees participate in the puja. The primary goal of the organisers of community Durga pujas is to raise enough money to engage top artists and makers of murtis, make huge and eye-catching pandals based on 'themes', and win awards that would bring in more money and sponsors for the next year. Durga pujas in Bengal have degenerated into a large glitzy pageant that attracts lakhs of people who flock to pandals not to worship Devi Durga, but to appreciate the artwork and creativity involved in making the innovative pandals and the murtis. Few even pay obeisance to Devi, preferring instead to click selfies with the murti of Devi Durga in the background. The grander the murti, the better the selfie.

For politicians, patronising the Durga pujas has become an exercise to curry favour with their electorate and also demonstrate their resourcefulness  (in getting corporate sponsors). Their ability to get big corporates as sponsors enhances their social and political prestige and also displays their political clout. The avowedly atheist CPI(M) and its fellow communist parties have, for decades, been putting up stalls peddling its noxious literature and enrolling members in most community Durga Puja grounds in Bengal. The Congress and the Trinamool have happily followed in their footsteps. Thus, Durga pujas in Bengal have for long been happy hunting grounds for politicians. The Durga pujas are even 'inaugurated' by politicians and celebrities!

But unlike the Ganesh festivities in Maharashtra, which also have a large glamour element, the religious element is totally missing from Durga pujas in Bengal. There is no piety and devotion involved here (unlike the Ganeshotsav in Maharashtra where devotion and piety are its prime foundation) and the millions who queue up for hours to visit the brilliantly designed and decorated pandals and the innovative murtis of Devi Durga and her children flanking her inside them, don't do so out of any devotion. They may just be visiting a fair for entertainment.

The jury is still out on Dasgupta's documentary and it would be premature to draw an opinion on it without watching it, but knives will surely be unsheathed if he is found to have handled the subject in an insensitive manner with scant respect to religious sentiments and sensibilities.

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