Culture Wars

In Bengal, why is Kali Pujo being wrapped under the banner of Diwali?

A mainstream and homogeneous conception of India is crowding out the indigenous cultures of many of the regions of India, including Bengal.

The importance accorded to people by governments is often revealed by official calendars. The Central government doesn't recognise a holiday (neither compulsory nor optional) on  November 10 on account of Kali Pujo. The next day, however, is a compulsory “national” holiday for Diwali. The government of Bangladesh recognises November 10 as an optional holiday for Hindus on account of Kali Pujo. There's no Diwali. There's no Diwali in the West Bengal government's official holiday either, although it lists both the November 10 and 11 as holidays – the first as Kali Pujo and second as day for  immersion of goddess Kali.

In West Bengal's post-Durga Pujo festivity calendar, Kali Pujo's prime importance was underlined by tweets recently put out by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.



In the end, she also subsumed Diwali within the ambit of Kali Pujo

There will be customary Diwali greetings from her but the priorities and hierarchies are clear. Her Congress background also makes it natural for her to patronise Ma Kali politically. From Bengal's pre-partition Swadeshi political terrorists and their physical culture associations to neighbourhood Congressite dadas and their local youth clubs, all of these have been part of a continuous tradition of patronising Kali Pujos.

Kali pujo : only show in town

I share with Mamata Banerjee our extended residential neighbourhood, the Kalighat-Chetla area, the world capital of Kali Pujo in terms of variety, with scores of manifestations of the goddess. The roughly 3 square kilometre Chetla-Kalighat area has  several hundred Kali pujos pandals. Here, on the only Shaktipeeth in metropolitan Kolkata, stands  the famous Kali temple at Kalighat. For me, being a Shakto and a Chetla resident, Kali Pujo has always been special. The prasad of curried goat meat, preferably sacrificed and offered to our holy mother beforehand, is one of the high notes of Kali Pujo for millions in Bengal.

Till only a couple of decades ago, in the period after Durga Pujo period, Kali Pujo was the only show in town – Diwali was minuscule. But that’s not the case any more. Now Diwali jostles with Kali Pujo in Kolkata’s public spaces. In fact, if anything the situation is being reversed: Ma Kali Pujo is mostly absent from the marketing pitches of large commercial entities in Bengal.

Kolkata is bombarded by huge advertisements of “Diwali Dhamaka” offers in Bangla and English newspapers, by corporations headquartered in Delhi or Mumbai. Driven by this commercial pressure, some Bengal-based entities are also joining the fray. There are relentless text messages for Diwali-themed sales pitches. One Bangla paper also carried an advertisement on “Diwali fashion” for Bengalis, whatever that means. If one picked up the leading Bangla and English newspapers of Bengal, the glitzy and colourful advertisements in it would’nt give anyone a clue that this is Bengal and one of this region’s greatest festivals, Kali Pujo is around the corner. So then, whom are these ads for?

Kali Pujo has traditionally been one of those festivals where the so-called lower castes have dominated much of the happenings. While the upper-castes also celebrate Kali Pujo with vigour, a small but well-off section of the new generation of Bengalis has grown alienated from a celebration so rooted in Bengal. This is the section that these Diwali ads and sales are targeted at.

The commercial culture of Diwali

Moreover, this new commercial culture is working. Economic elites influence the aspirational tastes of those lower down the rung. Pan-India corporations, which would hate things like tariff barriers between states, inundate us with “Diwali” and not Kali Pujo around this time of the year. Kali Pujo is something that commercial entities that cater largely to the aspirational urban classes cannot easily negotiate.  It’s too democratic and suffused with actual religiousity and culture – unlike the range of “pan-Indian” religious festivals, which can be sold commercially to the aspirational rootless urban class of India.

Unfortunately, the commercial forces behind this smothering of local culture are strong: the Diwali-Dhanteras combination is here to stay in Bengal and even to spread. Kali Pujo will, in the end, become Diwali, or rather, Diwali with Bengali characteristics – the only kind of “diversity” that the “unity in diversity” ideology tolerates. And this isn’t the first time this subsumation will happen. In Bengal, Doljatra is already turning into Holi with Bengali characteristics (never mind that they don’t even fall on the same date). The Navratri-isation of Durga Pujo has also started.

Diwali is perfect  for the self identity of the small but increasing bloc of urban Bengalis whose non-rooted Hinduness also makes them Indian without qualifications of ethnicity and culture. They are only Indians, without hyphenations. and nothing but Indians ­– their Bengaliness is but a footnote in their identity. They are ideal citizens – the “Indian” for whom a centralised Union was dreamt up in the first place.  Except that such Indians are still a small minority, even if they are the elite. Most people don’t measure up to such a non-hyphenated and flat version of Indianness.

Let me make it clear that this isn’t a xenophobic argument: cultural exchange and spread has happened throughout human history and will continue to happen. The problem arises when certain forms of culture are spread via cultural dominance and with the active connivance of government, media and business – and all of this behind the fig-leaf of “unity in diversity”. With deracinated elites of vernacular origin as collaborators, their project has started acquiring the qualities that the US conservative political strategist Karl Rove had in mind when he said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

Ostensibly national

This reality is created when ostensibly national TV channels carry a Diwali icon on their screen on Diwali day but never on Kali Pujo or Onam, hence signalling not so subtly what it means to be “Indian”. A North-Indian savarna’s domestic culture is “Indian” without qualifications but a Bengali''s Kali Pujo is not similarly “Indian” in a mainstream sense but a variant or a quirk. A one-way cultural flow on the strength of money, media and political power is not exchange but cultural aggression. Since 1947, I cannot think of any religious spread from Kali Pujo-land or Onam-land into Diwali-land but the opposite is progressively true. In this particular scheme of unidirectional entry, Diwali is not alone. It comes with things as disparate as CBSE exams, Holi and Hindi, with the pace quickening in the post-liberalisation period.

Join those apparently disparate dots and the contours of the post-1990 Bharatmata is revealed. Whose “local” culture is fashioned into a   “national” culture and whose “local” culture disappears altogether when ideas such as “all India” and “mainstream” are evoked? Why is the direction of traffic in this supposedly two-way street so predictable? Why does the ruling party and its leading star, Narendra Modi, focus most of his political energy and reap maximal benefits in areas where Diwali is the uncontested name for the festival of lights? In all of this, what is the lesson for us, the non-Diwali people?

While Kali Pujo has a non-vegetarian overtone, Diwali signifies quite the opposite. Around Kali Pujo time, why are there no “Diwali Dhamaka” deals for a wholesome biryani in the non-vegetarian land of Bengal, something that's common during Durga Pujo? These are subtle undercurrents with far-reaching consequences for Bengal's social fabric. Kali Pujo is primarily a religious festival, around which other rituals like Bhoot Chaturdashi are woven. All of these entail generationally handed down customs of eating, behaving and being.

Bengal, in the face of this state and capital-sponsored cultural aggression, is undergoing a hollowing out of its rich and ancient ways of life. The resultant Anglo-Hindiisation of public culture is a poor replacement. Interestingly, Chhat Puja of Biharis hasn't encroached in the Bengali cultural space in the way Diwali has, even while the ethnic observers of Chhat Puja far outnumber Diwali's ethnic celebrators in Kolkata. So the Diwali effect isn't due to the cultural mixing that occurs due to mere physical presence of cultural “others”, but is the expansion of an external ideology wedded to power. Will this encroaching front invoke a wall of resistance from Mother Kali, the protector of her earthly children, whose cultures and identities are under siege?

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