The brand conscious Durga Puja

Oct 03, 2011, 11:53 IST | Soma Das

The city's oldest Durga Puja at Tejpal Hall enters its 82nd year. With a fine balance of tradition and controlled commercialisation, it has, in fact, become the real 'brand' for Mumbai's devotees to reckon with

The city's oldest Durga Puja at Tejpal Hall enters its 82nd year. With a fine balance of tradition and controlled commercialisation, it has, in fact, become the real 'brand' for Mumbai's devotees to reckon with

The Bengali term for migrants living away from home is 'Probashi', which is symbolic of an in-transit stage with a yearning for home. Wherever they go, Bengalis attempt to re-create a part of their home state by celebrating Durga Puja -- the autumnal festival that was originally observed across zamindar baris (homes) in Bengal. It was a similar kind of homesickness that inspired Mumbai's first Durga Puja in 1930.

Bombay Durga Bari Samiti President Soumitra Banerjee (extreme right)
alongwith committee members Subir Roy, Tamashree Sen and Shampa
Banerjee. Pic/ Bipin Kokate

As the Puja enters its 82nd year, the Bombay Durgabari Samiti (the committee handling the Puja) is leaving no stone unturned to plan another memorable celebration for Bengal's beloved goddess. While most pandals across the city are content with upping the glamour quotient, complete with celebrity performances, towering idols and corporate branding, the Tejpal Hall Puja (as it is commonly known) prefers to stick to its simple Puja and Bhog (food blessed by the goddess) for devotees.

Bring home Ma Durga
"Ours is not a pandal, it's a Puja Bari, which re-creates a homely ambience. We stick to traditions and the essence of the Puja. The worship is as per Shastras and we only allow Satvik Bhog (vegetarian food) stalls in the premises. The solemnity of worship and the Bhog distribution is never compromised, even if it's at the cost of entertainment," shares Soumitra Banerjee, President of the Samiti.

While the emphasis on tradition makes them similar to the Ramakrishna Mission Puja, they are open to sponsorship as well, but on their terms. "Until two years back, we didn't allow advertisements during the Puja. But since last year, we decided to allow banners, as sponsorship revenue is also important. It is however restricted to a single wall inside the auditorium," says Jayanta Basu, General Secretary of the Samiti.

While branding is allowed, sales promotions are not. Yet brands are happy to comply, as the Puja has become an "iconic brand in itself", feel the organisers.

Though this Puja doesn't boast of a lavish budget, fancy stalls or celeb-heavy entertainment, it hasn't deterred the Bengali corporate honchos and businessmen from dropping by to seek the blessings of Ma Durga. "The initial conveners of the Puja were entrepreneurs and civil servants. Due to the location (South Mumbai is a business hub) they remained patrons even post-Independence. Now, when most of us have shifted to suburbs such as Andheri and Kandivli, we still return as it generates the vibe of an extended family, akin to returning to your native town," reasons Banerjee. Interestingly, during the Puja, the suburban committee members shift to hotels near the auditorium to ease the commute.

What's up this year
The focus of this year's celebration is Swami Vivekananda's 150th birth anniversary. Coincidentally, it was Swami Vivekananda who first celebrated Durga Puja at Belur Math, in Bengal in 1901. He was the pioneer of the Kumari Puja (worshipping of a pre-pubescent girl as the mother goddess) and is believed to have worshipped a Muslim boatman's four year-old daughter as the divine mother (Uma) during a visit to Kashmir. To ensure authenticity, the Samiti has sought guidance from the monks at the Ramakrishna Mission as well.

"Swamiji's teachings are from a time when people were aping the West and had lost touch with their identity. The situation is relevant today as well," says Banerjee. This year, the idol of Goddess Durga and other deities will be in separate moulds and will be decked up in diverse ornaments unlike the usual Dhaaker Saaj (ornaments made of weeds). Bhog will include Khichdi, Bhaja Sabji (vegetables), Chutney and Payesh (pudding).

The cultural programme includes a staging of the play Balmiki Pratibha by prison inmates from Alipore Central Jail. Summing up the fervour for the festival, Salil Kumar Dutta, former President and committee member at the Samiti, says, "For a Bengali, Durga Puja is all about welcoming the Goddess as a daughter who is coming home with her children in tow. There is a deep sense of bonding and more than a festival, it is a celebration of life."

Slice of nostalgta
In 1930, a group of five Bengalis living in South Bombay decided to start a Durga Puja in the city. "These Bhadralok (gentlemen) would meet at Good Man Restaurant on Lamington Road and felt that this Puja would be a good platform to exchange nationalist views as well," reminisces Dutta.

In the absence of local idol makers, the deity was created and sent by train from Varanasi and the members received it at VT station. The paraphernalia for worship was sent from Calcutta and the Puja was held at Sleater Road (Nana Chowk).

By 1940, the group had transformed from a club to a samiti (association) and in a few year's time, the Puja was held at places across south central Bombay, from Talmiki Wadi to Madhav Baug. In 1971, the Puja shifted to Tejpal Hall at August Kranti Maidan (where Gandhiji delivered his Quit India speech on August 8, 1942) and has been organised there ever since. The Samiti headquarters has been on Bank Street, Fort, for three decades.

Time: Anjali at 10.30 am, Bhog at 12.30 pm and Sandhya Arti at 7 pm
At: Tejpal Auditorium, in front of August Kranti Maidan, Grant Road (E).

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