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The Durga Puja challenge in days of the epidemic

Just before last year’s Durga Puja, three renowned community pujas of Kolkata tied up with a private company to allow one to offer puja ‘virtually’.

Atanu Biswas | New Delhi |

Just before last year’s Durga Puja, three renowned community pujas of Kolkata tied up with a private company to allow one to offer puja ‘virtually’. The arrangement was all about setting up a website where darshan and pushpanjali were free by logging in, however both pronami and daala with sweets, fruits, sari, aalta and sindoor could be offered by online payment.

Such services are already available in big temples like Tirumala-Tirupati or Siddhivinayak Ganapati. Apparently, such a service during Durga Puja might have been targeted at those unable to attend puja physically. Honestly speaking, I never thought that we might need such arrangements and much more, en masse, in the following year. For a Bengali and a resident of Kolkata, Durga Puja is central to one’s yearlong survival.

However, amid the fear of spread of the pandemic, major sporting events such as the Tokyo Olympics, IPL, Wimbledon, French Open, Euro cup, Champions League, Tour de France, and important sociocultural festivals having tremendous economic impact on society such as the Chinese New Year celebration in January, the annual cherry blossom festival ‘Hanami’ of Japan in March, the San Fermín festival in July at the Spanish town of Pamplona, and Munich’s famed Oktoberfest folk and beer festival scheduled between September 19 to October 4 were either cancelled/postponed or turned colourless.

Munich’s mayor, for example, while calling the decision of cancelling this year’s Oktoberfest a “bitter pill”, admitted that for businesses that take part in the festival it was a heavy financial blow. “But one can simply not take a decision other than this,” he said. Religious festivals across the globe and across religions have also been severely hit by coronavirus. This year’s Easter at Vatican was almost a solo performance by the Pope with an empty St. Peter’s Square, Eid prayers were held at the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah “without worshippers”, and Puri’s famous Rath Yatra was organised without devotees in a historic first. What would happen to the festivity of Durga Puja of Bengal then?

Certainly, Puja is not just a religious or a social event. Its economic importance in this part of the world is simply too big to ignore. ‘Hanami’ contributes about 2.25 per cent to the economy of Japan, the ‘Mardi Gras’ festival in New Orleans contributes slightly more than 1.5 per cent of the city’s GDP, and ‘Oktoberfest’ contributes slightly more than 1.35 per cent of the Bavarian capital’s economy. In contrast, ASSOCHAM had, in a 2013 report, estimated the size of the Durga Puja industry at ? 25,000 crore at an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 35 per cent. With that CAGR, the estimated size of the economy of Durga Puja in 2019 was nearly Rs 1.5 lakh crore, and that could be about Rs 2 lakh crore in 2020 under normal circumstances.

And that’s more than 10 per cent of West Bengal’s GDP! Let’s first look at the possible consequences of some of the festivals that took place amid the pandemic. New Orleans in the US pushed ahead with the Mardi Gras festival in April. And, thereafter, Louisiana has seen coronavirus cases skyrocket, particularly in New Orleans, the city at the centre of the state’s outbreak. Mardi Gras is believed to have fuelled the Louisiana coronavirus outbreak. According to Fiocruz, Brazil’s leading public health institute, this new coronavirus was circulating in Brazil in early February, weeks before the Rio Carnival during February 21- 25. Thus, one would keep on wondering about the role of the carnival in turning Brazil into one of the epicentres of Covid-19.

Consequently, it must be a very delicate call to decide on the festivity of Puja in this pandemic year – one needs to balance the trade-off between economy and public health judiciously. Should the festivity officially be suspended for this year? Certainly, there are idol-makers, craftsmen, dhakis, small shopkeepers, and many others who earn major parts of their yearly income out of this festivity. And these people would prefer the festivity to roll on, even if it’s restricted. Historically, Bengal’s Durga Puja has adoped its present shape through a continuous process of socio-economic evolutions over a century. A massive transformation in its style took place during 1939-47. The outbreak of World War II, Bengal’s Famine of 1943, and partition of India in 1947 resulted in deteriorating economic conditions in Bengal, and, as a consequence, this period had experienced a growing popularity of Sarbajanin (open to all) Durga Pujas. Puja in post-independence period went through further transformations due to the changed social structure in a partitioned country.

A 1954 article in ‘Economic and Political Weekly’ portrayed the enthusiasm regarding Puja in the backdrop of floods in North Bengal and drought in South Bengal. The 1978 floods also ravaged Bengal on the eve of the Puja, but the festivity went on, although at a smaller scale. However, during the last few years, the dynamics of the Sarbajanin Puja have changed dramatically – the expenses for organising Pujas ranges from a few hundred thousand to tens of millions rupees, and corporate funding and outdoor advertising account for about 90- 95 per cent of the funding. About 28,000 Durga Pujas take place in Bengal at present, out of which nearly 3,000, including 400 big pandals, are located in Kolkata. Thus, Puja provides a great opportunity for advertising and publicity, amid the spectacle of artistry and craftsmanship. With businesses severely hit, millions of job losses and increasing poverty and hunger, and the economy reaching the bottom due to the most severe pandemic in living memory, it’s almost clear that the organizers of various Pujas will struggle hard to get adequate corporate funding this year. And, common people would also find it extremely difficult to spend on food, apparel, electronic goods, and travel during the festival season.

Thus, the Puja economy is bound to shrink considerably this year – it’s hard to estimate the extent at the moment though. Can a ‘toned down’ Durga Puja festival be organised this year? However, what would happen to ‘social distancing’ if millions of people are out for pandal-hopping? With no possibility of a vaccine by October, and coronavirus remaining within the system, the ‘usual’ festivity in Durga Puja might trigger another big outbreak of the epidemic. Thus, with the spectre of coronavirus looming over the world, the urgent need of maintaining social distancing will keep on haunting us for the time being.

Or, will the history of the evolution of Durga Puja experience another big transformation in this era of contagion? Can a widespread and innovative arrangement of virtual participation and pandal- hopping – by television and through internet – be a solution for this year? Pandals being the heart of the celebrations, Puja has the rare scope of offering virtually ‘at least something’ which Oktoberfest or Mardi Gras, for example, can’t afford to. And our Puja has got sudden scope of a huge technological transformation in its ever-changing style. Zooming the Pujas seems a reasonable compromise during an era of virtual teaching, webinars, and virtual political rallies. The pill might be less “bitter” this way.

(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)