Blocking traffic, a procession headed off with a large idol of the elephant god Ganesh for immersion, with crowds vigorously shouting, “Ganpati Bappa Morya." Nothing could be a more typical sight for the city of Mumbai, as the monsoon tapered off.

Except that this was not Mumbai. The procession was making its way down Upper Circular Road in North Kolkata, marking the entry of a new festival into the city’s calendar.

Kolkata is known for its festivals celebrating the goddesses Durga, Kali, Saraswati and Lakkhi. Ganesh was worshipped privately, and, of course, had a small role to play in Durga Pujo, as a son of the goddess.

Now, however, the elephant lord has come into his own. This year, Kolkatans woke up to Ganesh Pujo being a major festival in its own right, with pandals set up by neighbourhood clubs dotting the city. The reasons for choosing Ganesh seem obvious. The biggest festival in Mumbai, the worship of Ganesh, is disseminated by the film and television industry based out of that city.

Catching on

Kumartuli in northern Kolkata is the traditional potters' quarter, and the source of most of the idols seen during Kolkata’s various festivals.

There, the owner of Annapurna Shilpalaya was pleased with the business Kumartuli had done during Ganesh Pujo. “The entire street sold around 500 idols this year,” he said. “That’s a good increase. It was only 200 in 2015.”

He explained why. “Earlier only non-Bengalis of Kolkata celebrated the pujo publicly,” he said. “Some Bengalis did a home or shop pujo in the month of Baishak [April]. Now they’re doing a public pujo in Bhadro [September] like the Marathis.”

In Sealdah’s Gomesh Lane, the neighbourhood club started the pujo to “help businessmen do better at their work,” claimed Bablu Chakrabarty, 53, one of the event’s organisers.

Initial teething problems were taken care of after a few non-Bengalis in the para, or neighbourhood, were consulted. “A few non-Bengalis who had been to Mumbai helped the purohit with how the pujo is done,” said Chakrabarty.

Unlike most places in Mumbai, however, the Gomesh Lane pujo only lasts three days. “We are just starting out so we can’t do the 11-day ritual that people in Mumbai do,” said Chakrabarty.

He added, grinning: “But don’t worry. Anything Kolkata does, it does big. Within a few years, we’ll beat Mumbai.”

Ganesh Chaturthi, Bengali-style

Cinema and industry

In Shyambazar, a neighbourhood in North Kolkata, the Gopi Mohan Club traces its history to 1954 and organises a well-known Durga Pujo in its neighbourhood park. This time, it organised a Ganesh Pujo too.

Beside the Ganesh idol was a stage for cultural events such as dramas and singing – a vital part of a public pujo in Kolkata.

“Our kids and grandkids see so much of this on TV and in the movies that they wanted us to organise one too, so we did,” said Abhijeet Bhattacharya, one of the organisers, who sat in a room in the club under the portraits of Subhas Chandra Bose, Vivekananda and the poets Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore.

Another organiser, Subrata Bhattacharya, smiled and said: “Ganesh brought so much luck and money to Mumbai; maybe he will also bring some shilpo [industry] to Kolkata.”

In Gauri Shankar Lane, off the arterial CR Avenue, the local club downgraded the Saraswati Pujo, dedicated to the goddess of learning, to make way for the Ganesh Pujo. “We can’t do every pujo so this year we decided to do Ganesh in a big way,” said organiser Probir Pal. “Saraswati we will do in the club.”

Why Ganesh?

The proximate reason for choosing Ganesh is obvious. His popularity in Mumbai means the Ganesh Chaturthi festival has received the attention of both the Hindi film industry as well as the television industry. In much the same way, Bengali weddings now often have sangeet ceremonies in imitation of the Punjabi weddings usually shown in Hindi films.

However the proliferation of a new pujo has also to do with the peculiar dynamics of a public festival in Kolkata.

Mass pujos in the city are money spinners for the clubs that organise them.

At the Gopi Mohan Club, a genteel North Kolkata gentleman’s affair, organiser Abhijeet Bhattacharya pointed out that his club’s local subscription rate is Rs 5 a month. “We do so much for the para, but we would not be able to survive at this rate,” he said. “So at least part of the reason behind organising this pujo is to keep the club going.”

Local clubs are also highly political in Kolkata, and the Ganesh Pujo has received the support of the ruling Trinamool Congress. Outside the Gauri Shankar Lane Pujo, a large poster of chief minister Mamata Banerjee greets visitors along with the light works – cut-outs of clowns as well as an animatronic tiger facing a demon.

“We have the full backing of the Trinamool,” said Prabir Pal, proudly. “In fact, a state minister Shashi Panja inaugurated the Gauri Shankar pandal.”

A lane leading up to a Ganesh Pujo pandal in North Kolkata. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

Parallels and divergence

Maharashtrian Congress leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw that the Ganesh festival had the potential to unite people and started publicly celebrating the festival in 1893. Interestingly, this isn’t the first Tilak creation to make its way from Maharashtra to Bengal. In 1895, he also started a Shivaji festival to celebrate the 17th century Maratha king. At that time, a small section of the Hindu Bengali elite had picked up the celebration. However, it never caught on and faded out in a few years.

The Ganesh Pujo, however, looks like it is on a much stronger wicket given its religious roots.

However, some Bengalis are unhappy with what they feel is an unnecessary import into Bengali Hinduism.

On Facebook, Arijit Chakrabarty, a student at Presidency College, pointed out that while Bengali literature is replete with images of Kali and Durga as well as other sorts of worship, Ganesh Pujo is conspicuously absent. Argued Chakrabarty, “This was a celebration started in Maharashtra by businessmen and upper caste Marathi Brahmins.”