Pujo, Nostalgia and the Probashi Bangali Experience

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Pujo, Nostalgia and the Probashi Bangali Experience

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Bengalis are extremely emotional about their cultural heritage, and more so for those living outside of Bengal, people that are called Probashi Bangali. It is natural for diaspora communities to feel nostalgic about their roots and for Bengalis, such sentiments are the strongest when Pujo is just around the corner.  Waking up early on Mahalaya (first day of Pujo) and listening to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s Mahishasuramardini on a beat down radio, gawking at your neighbourhood crush in the pushpanjali (morning puja at the pandal) queue, sitting for hours at your colony’s pandal with your closest childhood friends just talking about life, gossiping and drinking tea, are just some memories from a collection of a million that are fondly reminisced upon around this time of the year. Even as the para (neighbourhood) pujo remains a distant memory in a globalised world, Probashi Bangalis perfectly manifest its spirit through an annual 5-day party filled with dance, music, food and culture: the Durgotsav or Durga Puja. Our National Capital is no different and with a massive immigrant Bengali population that have called this city their home, Delhi witnesses some of the biggest and most exciting Probashi Durga Pujos in the country.

Durga puja festivities by dancers and musicians in Calcutta, c. 183040
By William Prinsep

There are several associations and committees around Delhi that organise these lavish festivities in all corners of the city. The pujo association at Kashmere Gate in Old Delhi is the oldest in the city and has been conducting Durga Puja here for more than a 100 years. Pandals in Delhi borrow heavily from their older cousins in Kolkata as flamboyant and thematic creations of art. The sacred murtis of Maa Durga and her children are also usually made in keeping with that year’s theme by highly skilled artists from Kolkata or elsewhere in Bengal. The mood is set by the festive sounds of the dhak (drum) and traditional “dhakis” are a staple of all the pandals. The pandal and the atmosphere created within it is a silent but resonant ode to the craft of the sculptors, dhakis and pandal craftsmen who, for generations, have invested their blood, sweat and tears to create the most cherished times of a Bengali’s year.

“Pandal-hopping” remains a major activity during Puja days as enthusiastic Bengalis, clad in new clothes, throng the various pandals in Delhi to meet up with friends and family who are usually busy in their fast-paced lives of the metropolitan. This presents the best opportunity to indulge in a Bengali’s favourite pastime- adda (sitting and talking to your friends until oblivion). Most Puja associations organise the Ananda Mela on Panchami (fifth day), which entails a potluck of homemade Bengali classics and melodious music performances to go with it. The fragrant bhog meals with yummy khichudi, spicy laabda and sweet roshogulla (there could be variations of this combination in different pandals) are eagerly awaited by all. As Ashtami (eighth day) rolls around, the pandals witness colourful crowds of devotees in traditional pa’jaama-panjabi (traditional Bengali attire for men) and jaamdani sarees lining up for the ashtami’r anjali (the puja held on Asthami morning). The sounds of oolu (sounds made by women through their mouths on auspicious occasions), conch shells and the smell of fresh flowers fill the air. As people stand in several files before the glorious deity, their shoes arranged neatly beside them, hands folded and lips chanting upon the directions of the purohit, one can feel a sense of belonging in a community of strangers bound by culture. 

Delhi Pujas are also attractive destinations for foodies across the city, Bengali or otherwise. The Bong affection for food is perfectly represented in the multiplicity of food stalls that are a common sight in the pandals, serving fan-favourites like kathi rolls, Kolkata biryani, kosha mangsho, luchi-aloo’r dam, fish kobiraji, sorshe elish, baked roshogolla, lengcha and the list goes on. Apart from in-house stalls, numerous Bengali-cuisine restaurants in Delhi also host hordes of food-lovers who want to avoid the crowd and chaos of the pandals. Cultural programs are a must during Durga Puja especially for Probashi parents who are eager to give their kids a taste of the vast world of Bengali creative universe. So don’t be surprised when you see the resident Tubai’s, Monai’s and Shonai’s (typical Bengali nicknames) dancing to the tunes of Bengali children’s songs, putting up a theatrical performance of Hingshute Doyitto (a famous Bengali children’s play) or doing impressive aabritti (poetry recitation) in your nearest Pujo pandal. These occasions are, however not only child’s play and adults of all ages also instinctively take on complicated productions of Rabindranath Tagore’s plays, mesmerising traditional dance performances or enthralling rock concerts playing Bengali and English chartbusters. Bengali folk music like baul gaan by authentic artists, beautiful Rabindra sangeet and mystical Sufi music enrich the environment of Delhi’s Probashi Pujos.

Just as the impending end to the beloved festive season draws closer, one’s spirit is greatly lifted as Pujo-goers engage in Dhunuchi-naach to the tune of the “dhak” on Nabami (ninth day). While some opt for the classic one-dhunuchi-in-each-hand approach, others can get more ambitious with an extra dhunuchi (incense burning earthen vessel) balanced on their mouths as they sway rhythmically around.  On the emotional Dashami, as the rest of the city prepares for the “Ravan-dehan”, Bengalis leave for the pandals one last time in red and white sarees and kurtas to bid farewell to Goddess Durga. They venerate her through boron (offerings of sweets, paan leaves and prayers) and married women partake in the shidoor khela which puts an end to the celebrations in jubilance. While lowering the diety from her seat into large trucks that would transport her to the Yamuna, people exuberantly shout “Aashche Bocchor Abar Hobe!” (Let’s do this again next year!) while dancing to the beat of the dhak. As the visarjan rituals commence at the banks of Yamuna, devotees chant religiously, dance to their heart’s content and most of all, await the return of maa and the celebration of her blessings to mankind again next year.

Dhunuchi naach on Navami via Wikimedia Commons

The Probashi Bangali pujos of Delhi and elsewhere in the country, help members of the Bengali diaspora to connect with the most poignant part of their culture that they had to leave behind in order to pursue better opportunities for themselves and their families. It gives them a chance to meet people of similar circumstances, memories and values in their home-away-from-home so that they can re-create the kinship and community ties that were so central to their old “para” pujos in a new kind of community set-up. These pujos are not only significant to first-generation Probashis but also the subsequent ones that were born and brought up outside of Bengal, who have never experienced the group effort in going from house to house collecting pujo’r chanda (puja donations) or the gruelling month-long dance practices with 30 other children at your neighbour’s place in order to get the perfect sync. For them, Probashi Pujos is more important than its Bengal counterparts because they represent their multi-cultural upbringing. It is an opportunity to learn the Bengali way of life and bask in the glory of its heritage, while in the beloved city of their birth that has become such an integral part of their identity. 

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About Anisha Debnath

As a student of History, Anisha finds Delhi a melting pot of cultures and people that provides the perfect atmosphere to feed one's intellectual curiosity. The writer in her is in awe of the stories that cities tell through their music, architecture, food and much more. The City that has been settled seven times thus draws her to a world where its poignant past lies in concurrence with its present.

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