Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Durga Puja: Yesteryears

LOA Vol 36 - Issue - 02 - 15 Oct 2012
Durga Puja: Yesteryears

By Basudev Dass

Secularism, we don't preach but practice,' said a proud islander to a local tourist at Rajghat in New Delhi while paying tributes to Gandhiji. 'Come October and visit Andamans to enjoy Durga Puja not only for entertainment but to realise universal brotherhood and only brotherhood without any religious abhorrence', said he and added, "And why should it not be. The seed of this festival was sown by the 'freedom fighters' and 'political prisoners' along with other convicts deported to the infamous Cellular Jail from all parts of the Country. It was they who celebrated the first 'Durga Puja' inside the high-rise bricked walls of the 'Cells beyond Cells'.
Irrespective of the fact what religion they practiced, whether atheist or theist, the states they belonged to, the language they spoke, the rituals and culture they followed; they registered their participation in the Puja in the year 1934. The celebration of this was not alone a ritual for them but an opportunity to mark a symbolic triumph over the British tyranny and exhibition of supremacy over the foreign clout. The 46-days 'Hunger Strike' observed by the 'Heroes' of the 'Freedom Struggle' inside the jail ended on 26th June 1933. Though three of many became martyr for the cause, the prisoners were extended substantial relief including, reading and writing materials, significant improvement in living standard with better food, bed, games facilities, reduced working hours and allowance of following religious rituals.
In his book 'In Andamans - The Indian Bastille'Bejoy Kumar Sinha, a well known revolutionary and a close associate of Sardar Bhagat Singh, tried along-with Bhagat Singh in Lahore Conspiracy Case was sentenced to 'Saza-e-Kalapani' in Cellular Jail in 1933 has said, "Durga Puja had approached and we therefore readily seized the opportunity as an occasion for having a grand festival, rich in it round of amusements and other social features".
A five-day festival, each day having its own rituals, was not a matter of joke in those days that too for prisoners under the foreign yoke staying inside the 'Cells beyond Cells'. But who could stop their indomitable courage, enthusiasm and determination who had already sacrificed everything including themselves for the cause of motherland!
Meetings were held, committees were formed and programmes for Puja as well as amusements were finalized. It had puja committee, amusement committee, reception committee, stores committee, kitchen committee etc. Everyone was given task as per their capability It was a situation where each worked as a team presenting their individual expertise and dedication.
"We formed our Drama Committee that included among its members, coach, manager, electrical engineers, prompter, technical director, music master, in short, the complete troupe of a drama company. For scenes we collected a large number of our bed-sheets and stitched them together. Our painter comrades by their day and night labour transformed them into scenes far better than what one ordinarily finds in amateur drama club of our small towns. Wings were also painted. Our artistes were so successful in their enterprise that they earned universal praise. One local high official even expressed his desire to purchase one of the scenes".
Envisage the situation where even the people outside the jail were unable to gather items of their daily needs, how could the prisoners, that too under the foreign command, manage the required items of erecting the deity, the bamboos, earth and husk for the structure, paints for colour, apparels and ornaments for the image, items to perform the rituals and above all, a priest to conduct the puja during all the five days. But nothing could stop them and the first Durga Puja in the islands was celebrated by the prisoners facing the challenges of physical approval but mental disapproval of the British rulers inside the Jail made by them to 'tame the freedom loving lions'.
Sinha concludes about Puja, "After a crowded programme of five days our Puja was over. We had enjoyed the festival more than we expected. We now craved for a change. .......The old order was changing yielding place to new."
Time and tide waited for none. 12 years had passed. Political prisoners had left for mainland. Even people in the islands had started smelling the fragrance of freedom which was not far. NK Patterson was the British Chief Commissioner of the A&N Islands. Mihir Kumar Sanyal (English pronounced him as Sandal) had joined the then Marine department as Harbour Master and Assistant Engineer (Marine) on November 30, 1945. The very next year in 1946, Sanyal himself made the image of Durga and her accomplices at his residence at Marine Hill and conducted the Puja. And the lone Puja continued there.
"I was a student of 2nd standard in School Line Primary School and would walk to my school from the hilltop residence at Dairyfarm. Since walking was not a problem, I with my three elder brothers would walk to 'Sandal Saab ka Durga Puja' at Marine Hill on Asthami and Navami day of the Puja to have Khichdi Prasad as well as visiting the Mela at Marine Ground (now the Marine Recreation Club and the Mohanpura School up to private bus-stand premises)". This can be termed as the older form of the present 'Island Tourism Festival'. It might have much lesser charm and modern activities then the present ITF but, had the 'heart full of emotion and concern for each other'. The Mela comprised of 'Pashu Mela' (Animal fair) too. Apart from stalls of exhibition, there existed fancy dress competition, sports and games also during all five days of celebration. People would come to Port Blair from distant villages on bullock carts. Even devotees from islands like Havelock, Rangat etc. would come days before and would stay with friends, relatives and even as guests with people in Port Blair Since then the islands witnessed Durga Puja uninterrupted.
Till 1960 only one Puja at Marine Hill was performed followed by the second Puja at Haddo in 1962. This Puja was later shifted to Atul Smriti Samity in 1965, it is said (to some, the year is 1964). The 1949 colonization Scheme of Indian Government saw many Bengalese settled in different islands and as a result they too started conducting Durga Puja. Havelock was the first outer island that witnessed this Puja and the deity was made at the Marine Hill Durga Puja premises and was transported to Havelock by the tug boat 'Moti'. While describing the event, a few names other than Mr. and Mrs. Sanyal needs be mentioned among many others. They are Mintu Biswas, Manabendra Chaki, KN Adhikari, Manik Sarkar, Dilbar Hussain etc. Later when APWD too organized Durga Puja Executive Engineer KP Mohinuddin was the chief organizer of the first Puja. M Chaki, Mintu Biswas, Sardanand, Jagdish Narayan etc. were the main actors to start and continue Puja at Junglighat. The organizing committees till now do not harvest any religious differences and responsibilities are given and accepted according to one's ability.
But now counting of Puja-Pandals in and around Port Blair as well as in different islands is becoming difficult. From Diglipur to Campbell Bay including tribal areas, the Puja is celebrated. Followers of any religion will participate in the festival as if it is their own. Ismail would not compromise without new pant and shirt to visit pandal on one hand while Samuel is intolerable without the pair of a new branded shoe. And all these demands are met by the parents happily since the celebration is a Island Festival as a whole.
However, with the advent of modern facilities, the emotion and involvement is fast annihilating instead exhibition of show and competition with involvement of money and politics are making its way. The Budget of a Puja varies between Rs 5 to 12 lakhs and Committees are formed with senior members of various political parties. In earlier days, rice, necessary commodities and vegetables would form part of donation. Now all the activities are becoming highly professional and commercial, right from preparation of idol, Prasad, reception, decoration, ritual and also immersion. The emotional involvement is fast receding and days are not far that this Island Festival will also become an attraction of pomp and grandeur alone as happening in other part of India.  

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