It is a time for new clothes, new relationships and new resolutions; for dance, music, delicious food and adda (loosely translated as gossiping – that favourite pastime of the Bengalis). It is as much a social event as a religious one: an occasion to catch up with friends and family; an occasion that celebrates togetherness far better than what can be achieved, for instance, through Facebook or Skype.
The energy with which it is celebrated is something one has to see to believe. The priest performing an aarti of the goddess and dancing himself into a trance to the heady beats of the dhaak (traditional drums), with smoke from a thousand incense sticks creating a veil around the place is one of the most abiding images of the Durga Puja that you can have.
It is surreal. It gives you goosebumps. It also, importantly, marks the victory of good over evil, with the ten-armed warrior-goddess riding a majestic lion vanquishing the vicious buffalo demon (Mahishasur). It is all about symbolism and it calls on us mortals to have faith in god to dispel all our troubles, and all misfortune the way she destroyed the evil demon. The Durga Puja, therefore, is special indeed.Or, is it really so? Is the Durga Puja all good and glorious, or does it have a darker side to it? Does it have a diabolical agenda, that is expertly concealed? Let’s put the “goodness” of this popular festival – an unmistakable element of dominant culture – to test.
To understand the politics of the Durga Puja, we may start from the idol itself. The goddess is fair-skinned (and hence, beautiful) and embodies all the virtues of life and is shown as slaying a demonic half-man-half-animal creature who is placed at her feet.
The demon Mahishasur is dark-skinned, has a naked upper body and is attributed all “dark” (tamasik) characteristics. More than signifying the victory of good over evil, this very powerfully symbolises the subjugation of the dark-skinned indigenous inhabitants of the region, the adivasis, by the fairer Aryans.
The goddess impales Mahishasur with her trident and that is what the adivasis have always had to suffer, metaphorically speaking. It is almost taken for granted that they would submit to this physical, cultural and psychological disruption in their lives without much ado. They are expected to surrender to the onslaught of the dominant culture without much of a fight.
So their lands are taken away from them, they are displaced from their forest abodes and their cultures undergo forced transformation. A recent study showed that in the last 50 years or so over 200 indigenous languages have become extinct in India.