From a traditional garland-and-lamp welcome at the airport, with dhakis drumming up the tempo, to pandal-hopping by the necklaced night; Kumari Puja at Belur Math to a retro ride back to the Raj days; sindoor khela to a grandstand view of the immersion. Our own Durga Puja is finally being parcelled for promotion, ages after concerted hardsell has popularised festivals beyond Bengal’s boundaries.
Happenings, a non-government initiative of a motley dozen — mostly Calcuttans — has taken the first concrete step to wrap-sell the Pujas to the West, targeting both foreigners and NRIs. In conjunction with the state tourism department, the police, the surface transport corporation and the consular corps, puja packages have already been sold to 70-odd enthusiasts in the US, UK, Belgium and Germany.
“Unlike the Rio carnival, the Mardi Gras of New Orleans or the beerfest of Germany, which are organised by identifiable groups and with large doses of government help, the Durga puja is an absolutely spontaneous panorama that unfolds like clockwork every year,” says A.V. Iyengar of Happenings.
Iyengar, who was recently in the US to push the puja package, feels it is the sheer inventiveness of the countless ways the festival is celebrated, organised and enjoyed, that would appeal to the West. The aim is to present the festival as “a holistic manifestation of essential Calcutta”. So, while a visit to the Sovabazar Rajbari and a brush with the Kumartuli idol-makers have been built into the Mahotsav itinerary, a cultural show by challenged children will showcase the city's “inherent inclusiveness and ability to accept odds”. The grandeur of the past will be recreated during the Night of the Raj at Tollygunge Club through theatre, dance and music.
An audio-visual presentation of the pujas in Calcutta, followed by a classical dance recital to explain the phenomenon, will serve as orientation for the holiday-makers. The tourists will visit 12 select pandals by AC coach, accompanied by specially-trained guides.
Besides Bengal cuisine, the various folk dance forms of different districts will be highlighted during a cultural evening on the second day of the Pujas at the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre in Salt Lake. Also on the carnival cards is an exposition of traditional handicrafts at Swabhumi, in association with the Crafts Council.
“On the last day of the Pujas, we want to show the tourists how the festival is celebrated by other communities, from different backgrounds, in their own distinctive manner,” says Khokan Mookerji of Happenings. Thus, tie-ups with organisations like South India Club, Punjabee Bradree and the Bhawanipur Gujarati Education Society are being arranged. The grand finale — the bhashan — can be viewed from launches provided by the state tourism department.
All this, for either an all-inclusive US$ 425, or for Rs 2,000 to enjoy the events only. Late off the blocks this time, the organisers are looking at 200 ‘package’ tourists for Durga Puja 2003. But next year, the target could be “300 per cent higher”.