| The Jagaddhatri image at the home of Butto Kristo Paul on Sovabazar Street. Picture by Pabitra Das
It is not Chandernagore. Nor is it one of those new-fangled barowaris. But Jagaddhatri puja is still being celebrated with fervour in certain stately homes of north Calcutta in spite of declining fortunes. Once they used to be huge joint families. Splintered and riven though they may be with disputes over property, yet on the day of the puja, which falls on Wednesday this year, all members get together to worship the goddess.
Till a couple of years ago, the scions of Butto Kristo Paul, of drug stores and Edwards Tonic (cure for malaria and fevers of all kind) fame, celebrated Jagaddhatri puja at their thakurdalan in Beniatola. The ancestral house, with its ornate portal on Sovabazar Street, extends to Beniatola. But now two brothers, Anup and Ashok, who are descendants of Butto Kristo’s third son, Harishankar, celebrate it separately at their Sovabazar Street address.
Their home is also the quaintest drugstore imaginable where thanks to Anup’s zeal, everything from the ornate clocks in the hall of mirrors to the gleaming tiles and handpainted bronze sheet ceiling are kept perfectly preserved.
Anup, a bustling, cheerful, almost rotund man in his 50s, proudly shows the Specimen issue of The Cyclopaedia of India, Biographical, Historical, Administrative, Commercial, brought out in 1906 by Thacker, Spink & Co. The entry on their firm goes thus: “There is hardly another Bengali firm which has attained the same eminence or enjoys the same reputation and popularity as the firm of Butto Kristo Paul & Co.”
It had a London office at St Helens Place. It was liquidated in 1960 and decades later, it was revived with a new licence.
For want of a thakurdalan, the goddess is worshipped in a large room. She sits crosslegged in Padmasana on a lion and is surrounded by female attendants. The chalchitra, or panel behind the image, is substituted by a gilt frame that resembles a huge laurel wreath. The lion has a pelt of cottonwool that makes it look a little like a giant soft toy.
But if the special akanda cottonwool is used, as it was earlier, and if executed by expert artisans, the lion would get a silken coat that paint can never create. However, at a time when few families can afford to celebrate this elaborate and expensive puja, using akanda cottonwool is out of the question. The goddess and her mount are placed on a platform surrounded by gas lamps and Anup makes sure the contraption still works. The light it sheds has the softness of glowworms, which looks very dramatic during bhashan.
Seven other branches of this family unitedly organise the puja in a thakurdalan in Beniatola. This section of the house is older and is evidently rented out for holding weddings. Anath, a senior member of this group, says this puja is 102 years old. Once all eight branches celebrated it together. Even now, about 600-700 family members turn up.
Animal sacrifice is still a must at Shibpur, in Howrah, where Butto Kristo hailed from. There, Durga is worshipped as the two-armed Abhaya. But recently, family members put a stop to butchering goats before the goddess at Butto Kristo’s Calcutta home with three courtyards.
The Daw family of Din Rakshit Lane, a few lanes away, is known for their strategically-positioned petrol stations at Dunlop Bridge, Jorasanko, Ballygunge Phari and Bally. These belong to just one branch of the family whose paterfamilias was Amritalal Daw. Amritalal had the monopoly of the petrol-diesel-kerosene business in Bengal. Not all his descendants wield the same money power. There are 14 sevaits who take turns to organise pujas of deities as diverse Kali, Durga, Annapurna, Saraswati and not to forget the folk pantheon. Each sevait is supposed to do so for a year. Many of them are unable to do so, as was the case this year. The debuttar estate, too, cannot bear the expenses. Family pride came to the rescue and some kinsfolk volunteered to do so.
As a result, it is a no-frills puja this year. To cut corners, the family feast itself has been stopped. The same holds for the immersion procession with gas lights. That the debuttar estate is in a bad way is evident from the state of the thakurdalan. It is badly in need of repairs and whitewash. The landed property hardly yields any income and is entangled in legal wrangles any way.
The Jagaddhatri image, however, remains quaint as ever. It a testimony to the hold that Queen Victoria had on the contemporary Bengali psyche. Only one of the goddess’s legs is folded and the lion holding a ball in one paw could have belonged to any royal coat of arms. Apart from the female attendants, she is accompanied by armoured equestrians of obviously European descent. Just another way of currying favour with sahibs.