As far as names go, the “Battle of Plassey” is a terrible one. It was actually fought at a place called “Pawlāshi” in modern West Bengal, “Palāsi” being the Persian language mangling of the village adopted by the British. It was also not much of a battle. Bribed by the British colonel, Robert Clive, most of the Bengal army simply deserted Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah. After a little more than half an hour of fighting on June 23, 1757, Clive found himself master of Bengal and one of the richest, most powerful people in the subcontinent.

So astounding was his fortune that Clive attributed it to providence and sought to give thanks to the Lord. Unfortunately, the only church in the town of Calcutta had been destroyed by the Nawab. At this moment, Clive’s Persian interpreter and clerk, a zamindar named Nabakrishna Deb stepped up and asked Clive to offer thanks to Maa Durga instead. Nubkissen, as he spelt his name at the time, ensured a grand celebration for Clive at his mansion, as his pandits conducted an equally grand puja to Durga to celebrate the British conquest of Bengal. And thus, it is said, the tradition of Durga Pujo was born in Calcutta. In fact, till today, the pujo conducted at Deb’s historic Shobhabazar mansion is called the “Company Pujo”.

This tale, neat and explanatory, has gained wide fame as the definitive origin tale of the modern Kolkata Durga Pujo. The only problem ­– it’s completely made up, probably by Deb babu himself. The only source is an anonymous painting, maybe commissioned by Nubkissen. Deb only became Clive’s munshi after 1757, so it seems unlikely that Clive would have partied at his mansion after the battle (although, as you can imagine, the rumour did Deb no harm).

Raj associations

However, even if the literal details of this particular story are untrue, it can still act as a fairly accurate allegory, telling us that the modern festival of Durga Pujo was developed by the new zamindar class of British Bengal and was tied closely to the establishment of the Raj.

To begin at the beginning, as academic Saugata Bhaduri points out, while worship of the mother goddesses, both Vedic and adivasi, has been a feature of Bengal for all of recorded history, Durga seems to be practically absent from the pantheon before the 18th century. Yet, by the end of the 1700s, Bhaduri informs us, the sharad or autumn Durga Puja, in a form very similar to the one we see today, had become the “most important festival of the Hindu Bengalis”.

The establishment of British rule was the single most important event in the history of Bengal since the Delhi Sultanate captured the Bengal capital of Gaur in 1203. As such, it had a massive effect on Bengali society. One of those changes was the rise of a powerful zamindari class, whom you might call compradors, if you’ve read one Marxist historian too many. Since they owed their position to the British, the zamindars were keen supporters of Company Raj.  It was in this historical crucible that Kolkata’s modern Durga Pujo was forged. The pujo was an event used by the zamindars to show off their wealth and power, to each other as well as the Raj (this is why Nabakrishna was so keen to claim the first Durga Pujo for himself). The Raj, in turn, patronised the pujo in order to gain popular legitimacy for themselves as the rulers of Bengal.

Historian Tapan Raychaudhuri writes:
For the nouveau riche, the products of the East India Company’s trade and their tenurial system, Durga Puja became a grand occasion for the display of wealth and for hobnobbing with the sahibs. Initially, the tendency was to celebrate in one’s village home and thereby acquire a reputation for wealth and generosity in the eyes of the local community. But soon one had higher aspirations: wealth was not worth acquiring if it was not used to impress the elite of Calcutta and the sahibs who were the ultimate source of that wealth as well as status. This is how the rural elite of Bengal began to sever the umbilical cord which had bound them to the villages and their people for centuries. Conspicuous consumption rather than display of bhakti was the central motif of these urban festivals. Bhakti, such as it was, was directed as much to the English masters as to the mother of the universe.

The trump card was to have the governor-general as the chief guest at the puja. The compliment was duly repaid when the governor-general, Lord Wellesley, ordered a nine-gun salute in honour of Kali on appropriate occasions, much to the chagrin of believing Christians. The sahibs were entertained in great style. There were performances by the ubiquitous nautch girls. Karan bari, the sacred liquid, i.e. alcohol, was of course de rigueur in Sakta ritual. So whisky, champagne and lesser wines flowed freely and the feasts were truly fit for the gods.

Syncretic creation 

The creation of this autumnal Durga Pujo was an amazingly syncretic process and, in many ways, would act as a precursor to the Bengal Renaissance of the next century.  Durga is usually worshipped as a warrior but in Bengal she is also imagined as a family figure. Some of this reimagining of the Bengali Durga involved bits that were at odds with Puranic scripture.  Saraswati, for example, is the daughter of Brahma everywhere else but in a Kolkata pujo pandal, where Shiv and Durga are her parents. And nowhere else is Durga worshipped along with her children.

A number of mantras and rituals are Puranic but, then again, many are not, being borrowed from Tantric, adivasi or folk culture. Some rituals, such as the sindur khela, are secular and have nothing to do with worship at all. Even Bengal’s subaltern Muslim cultivator class seemed to have had an effect: the kolakuli – or triple hug – Bhaduri says is taken from the Islamic practice on Eid.

Durga and Bengali nationalism

Given its popularity as well as the Pujo’s use in statecraft, as nationalist feelings started to develop in Bengal amongst the bhadralok class, it was almost natural that the Goddess Durga would act as an icon for this new type of imagined community. Historian Raychaudhuri writes:
In Bengal, the link between the mother cult and nationalist perceptions was first projected by the writer Bhudev Mukhopadhyay. Responding to the comments of an English Professor of Hindu College who asserted that Indians never had a sense of nationhood, Bhudev wrote that the story of the pithasthanas, the legend that the parts of the goddesses’ body was scattered all over India, was really an allegory: the divine body was the same as the motherland. His younger and better-known contemporary Bankim Chatterji carried the idea much further in his novel Anandamath (Abbey of Bliss). The novel, based on a highly fictionalised version of a popular rebellion in the days of Warren Hastings, the Faqir or Sanyasi Rebellion, has for its protagonists a group of patriotic monks who worshipped Vishnu in his role of a very well-armed God the Preserver. But their monastery also contained three images of the Mother: as she had been, as she had become and as she would be in the future. These images, more of the Motherland than the Mother Goddess, projected the increasingly popular belief in a glorious and prosperous past, impoverishment under colonial rule and the hopes of a great future in which at least some were beginning to believe, The patriotic monks are described by the novelist as the santans, the children of the Mother, i.e., both the Divine Mother and the Motherland. The two are in fact the same. The Motherland is conceived as Durga with ten arms and the song to celebrate her glory, Bandemataram, which became India’s first national anthem, pays homage to a land that is prosperous, beautiful and endowed with the potentialities of great power.

Some twenty-five years after the song was written, Bandemataram (‘Hail Mother’) became the battle-cry of the first popular movement of resistance to colonial rule in which the middle class Bengalis participated. The action was intended to annul the decision to partition the Bengal Presidency into two provinces, a decision seen to be an attempt to divide the politically-conscious Bengali people. Bandemataram was the name adopted for a patriotic periodical with extreme views. The revolutionary movement first born of the anti-partition agitation treated Anandamath as its Bible. Aurobindo Ghosh, the Cambridge-educated Bengali revolutionary, projected the vision of a Bhavani Mandir, a temple dedicated to the goddess, as the centre of revolutionary activity. His Mandir was closely modelled on Anandamath.


To the masses

The growth of a Bengali identity meant that more myths were added to the imagining of Durga. To her worship as a mother and warrior was added the beautiful backstory of her returning back to her parent’s house – which, in this case, was Bengal – for an autumnal holiday, thus also worshipping her as a daughter. Forces similar to those that imagined her as a nationalistic icon pushed Durga out of the courtyard of the zamindari mansion and made the pujo a truly mass event. A popular origin tale of the collective pujo dates to 1790, where 12 friends are supposed to have got together and organised a baro-yari (12 comrades) pujo. However, breaking free of the zamindar mansion, the Durga Pujo in its modern sense, as a sarbajanin, community event dates to 1910, where the Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha held a collectively funded pujo in Kolkata's Baghbazar.

The 20th century establishment of a fully developed modern Bengali identity and the simultaneous decline of the institution of zamindari meant that the sarbajanin pujo slowly took over from the rajbari or mansion pujo. Today, the traditional zamindar pujo, as held since the 18th century, is mostly dead. In Rituparno Ghosh’s fantastic movie, Utsab, for example, a family gathers for what could be their last Durga pujo as their ancestral mansion is to be sold to realtors, even as the youngest family member, a young boy, threatens to run off to the “club-er pujo” (public pujo) given how boring and slow he finds this one.

Still maintains its original core

Even as Kolkata’s Durga Pujo has changed immensely since it first took modern shape in the 18th century, its core has been preserved.  Its social, cultural and political role still holds, in a manner rather similar to how it was imagined three centuries back. It might, for example, seem ironic that the Communists would inaugurate pujos. However, it could simply be looked at as the continuation of a tradition where British officials, non-believers in the Pujo just like the Communists, would act as chief guests for zamindari pujos. And, of course, the trend continues till today, with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee patronising pandals across the city and even, as it turns out, writing a song for the autumn festival.

Earlier zamindars would compete to show who was boss; today pujo committees do, their finances coming not out of land revenue but from modern capitalism in the form of corporate endorsements. The relatively small role of worship ­­– ironic in a religious festival ­– has also been preserved. Durga pujo in Kolkata is more about community, art and culture than any strict observance of religion. Pandals and idols are meant to be seen by the masses as public works of art and only a small minority end up going through any ritualistic form of faith. Very often idols even convey a political point ­– most famously, in 2001, one pujo had Durga slaying a demon in the likeness of Osama bin Laden.

In this way, Durga worship as imagined in Bengal and, specifically, Kolkata is unique. In Delhi, for example, the simultaneous autumn worship of Durga by Punjabis – the navratri – is a sombre event and, amongst other things, involves intense food taboos even as, in contrast, Durga Pujo in Kolkata is fixated on eating out, extravagant meals being a crucial part of the celebration. Such is the benediction and magic of Durga pujo that, for four days in a year, it renders even the Kolkata Bengali more fun and less pretentious than the Delhi Punjabi.