A newspaper advertisement featuring the Hindu goddess Durga at a Jawed Habib salon, in which she appears to be preparing for the impending Durga Puja festivities in Bengal, has landed hair stylist Jawed Habib in trouble. Habib, owner of the Jawed Habib multi-city salon chain, has been accused of hurting religious sentiments and mocking Hindu deities.

The outrage appears to be somewhat misplaced because Habib’s intended audience – Bengalis and more specifically Kolkatans, who are preparing for Durga Puja – is far from offended. The people who called out the advertisement on social media appear mainly to be from outside Bengal. Shortly after the advertisement appeared on Twitter, a complaint was lodged against Habib in Hyderabad, and a Jawed Habib salon was vandalised in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh.

In Kolkata, as people prepare for madness on the streets with a Durga Puja pandal in every lane and confusing traffic diversions, the biggest controversy in recent times has been caused by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee referring to government servants as dogs.

An advertisement for Sylvan Plywood.
An advertisement for Sylvan Plywood.

Personal gods

In a recent article Catch News, Ashis Nandy writes about how India once had a robust tradition of Isht Devtas or personal gods. These were not distant and formal deities but ones who were batting for the devotee, caring for his special concerns, doing little things for him. This is the sort of relationship that Bengalis have always shared with Durga – in Bengal, Durga is more than a goddess, she is the daughter of the house. She is Uma, the reincarnation of Sati, married to Lord Shiva. Every year, when she returns to her paternal abode with her children for a period of five days, the feeling in the air is rather like when a beloved aunt or a married elder sister comes home for a visit.

Bengali children grow up with stories of Durga slaying Mahishasur, the demon who took the form of a buffalo. Durga’s children are treated more like distant cousins than distant gods – each has a distinct character. Ganesh is the plump, obedient, occasionally mischievous, child who is bullied by others. Kartik is always nattily dressed, and perhaps a little vain. Lakshmi is the naughty one and Saraswati the studious, serious one. If one were to think of gods as family, it would logically follow that one could sometimes josh with them, the way Bengalis are known to do.

Out of context

Times Group’s Bengali publication, Ei Samay, recently quoted artist Gautam Benegal, who grew up in Kolkata, on the controversy surrounding Habib’s advertisement. Benegal said that it would be difficult for anyone who wasn’t Bengali or wasn’t brought up in Bengal, to see the advertisement in its correct context – Bengalis who have read Parashuram (the pen name of author Rajsekhar Basu) and Sukumar Ray, understand humour and satire, and are therefore able to take such cartoons in the right spirit.

Bengal has a long tradition of creating satire and advertisements using Hindu deities. The Anandabazar Patrika Group’s Bengali television channel releases an animated short film called Mahishasur Pala or The Mahishasura Affair every year on the occasion of Durga Puja. The animated skit, which is scripted and voiced by some of Bengal’s best-known comics, contains sarcastic references to current affairs and politics and even hilarious situations such as Durga and Mahishasura temporarily pausing mid-battle so that they can answer their mobile phones.

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It is common to see restaurant billboards advertising their Puja special menus with each of Durga’s ten hands holding a different dish. Since this is Bengal, most of the dishes are meat and fish.

An advertisement for Air Costa airlines.
An advertisement for Air Costa airlines.

In a surprising coincidence, eight years ago, on September 27, 2009, ABP’s Sunday English supplement Graphiti had published a cartoon that featured Saraswati saying: “We can’t get our hair styled at Habib’s, we have to wear it long and loose for four days.”

So what has everyone so riled up about Habib’s advertisement in 2017?

Tradition of satire

Bengali culture has seen much worse when it comes to mocking the gods. The popular song Menoka Mathae De Lo Ghomta urges Menoka, Uma’s mother, to cover her head in shame because her daughter has chosen Shiva for a husband – and the ash-smeared, chillum-smoking Shiva, known to hang out in cremation ghats, is no ideal son-in-law.

Another folk song, Kalankini Radha, refers to Krishna using the word that was infamously used by Union Minister of State, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, in her election campaign. Veteran actor Kamal Mitra, as Reverend Krishnamohan Bandopadhyay in a scene from the film Vidyasagar (1950), takes Hinduism apart – Bandopadhyay questions the caste system and untouchability, accuses Hindus of persecuting freethinkers and even says that it is no sin to eat beef.

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In the celebrated 1977 comedy film Jamalaye Jibanta Manush, the famous Bengali comedian Bhanu Bandopadhyay literally raises hell when he is taken to heaven by mistake, that too while he is still alive. Bandopadhyay starts a revolution in heaven, to fix what he says are outdated rules and norms that Hindu Gods such as Yama, the God of Death, are following. A mention must also be made of Bengal’s famous “Kabi Gaan” tradition, which has many examples of the Gods being mocked and even abused.

Template response

In the week following Habib’s advertisement, everyone who claimed to have been offended or hurt had only one thing to say – “Would [Habib] have dared do this with Prophet Mohammed?” This uncanny similarity raises the suspicion that this may actually be a template response from the online troll armies organised to create communal disharmony, of which there have been multiple examples on social media.

In the film Hirak Rajar Deshey, a political satire craftily disguised as a children’s film, director Satyajit Ray shows a machine used for “mogoj dholai” or brainwashing. Workers, farmers and intellectuals who disagree with the autocratic king are shoved into a chamber and come out reciting rhyming couplets in praise of the king. If the attack on Jawed Habib is not a coordinated hate campaign, then it is a sign that a multitude of such campaigns in the past have had their effect. The people, it seems, have already drunk the Kool-Aid.

Tata Docomo
Tata Docomo