|(From top) The classroom of priests at the training camp; the bhoomi puja at Haridevpur.
On August 15, when the rest of Calcutta was busy hoisting the Tricolour, residents in a corner of Haridevpur had gathered to pray along with the priest for the success of their neighbourhood puja, Vivekananda Sporting Club Sarbojanin. “This is the first time we are doing a bhoomi puja,” said secretary Apurba Chanda, visibly tense.
The stakes are high. In an area that has come up as the latest hotbed of theme-based puja, every alley springs up new surprises and competition is cut-throat. Vivekananda Sporting is investing in 12,000 turbans being stitched in far-away Jaipur where theme-maker Debashish Bhattacharya would soon be camping.
So the priest is going by the book — an hour-and-a-half of worship followed by three hours of hom. “The procedures are identical to that of bhit puja at the start of construction of a house,” says Ashok Bhattacharya, wiping the beads of sweat on his forehead with his holy thread. Bhit puja is the nearest approximation as the framers of the ritual rules could not foresee the need for bhoomi puja for a pandal.
Around the same time, elsewhere, off Rashbehari Avenue, priests are signing up for classes to perfect their trade. The training camp for priests worshipping Durga and Kali, organised by publishers of the Gupta Press almanac, has drawn a full house in its debut edition. “Their punctuations are wrong, their methodology faulty, and they do not have much idea about purification of the offerings and the objects to be used for worship,” Pranabeshwar Smrititirtha, professor at Shri Sitaram Vaidik Mahavidyalaya, bristles with indignation on being asked why it’s time for priests to enter the classroom.
A talk with the students revealed that though most had come on a self-improvement mission, some puja organisers in the city are actually getting suspicious. Some big-ticket pujas are even favouring priests carrying certificates.
The first batch of priests will get their certificate at a convocation in Kala Mandir on Monday.
| Pearls being set on Jamini Roy paintings in Dhakuria. (Left) Ganesha in buttons at Chaltabagan
Exactly a month later, on September 14, Abasar Sarbojanin, a little-known puja on Townshend Road, is trying to make it to the popularity charts. In its 56th year, it is hosting a press conference at The Saturday Club, where a short film is being screened to explain its focus this year — sand sculpture.
“Our secretary Shyamal Nath Das did the shoot on the Puri beach and at our pandal. A visual representation has an immediate impact,” says Chanchal Ghosh, a puja committee member, about the publicity ploy of the Rs 7-lakh puja.
Putiary Club, down deep south, is planning a similar screening on the making of its decorations, using reeds in Bankura, on a giant screen at its pandal.
Modern-day puja organisation needs such make-up tools to face up to the spotlight. Many pujas these days have done away with the sheaf of papers in a fat file tucked under the arm of an organiser hunting for sponsors. “A PowerPoint presentation looks slicker. It adds sheen to our image,” smiles Sumanta Roy, president of Jodhpur Park Sarbojanin.
The presentation must have the history, list of awards, details of earlier deals, contacts, as well as photographs of earlier pujas. All that becomes costly to print.
So, turning to technology works just fine. “It is easy to find a member with a scanner and a computer at home. While each colour printout costs at least Rs 5, burning it all on a CD costs barely Rs 10 for each extra copy. It is also easier to preserve,” Roy explains.
Piety today is easier to package on a portal. “A website does carry weight in the eyes of corporate sponsors. But the effort is aimed mainly at our former neighbours, now abroad, who want to stay involved,” says Partha Sarathi Pathak of 66 Palli Sarbojanin which floated its site three months ago and plans to update it every Puja night. These NRI neighbours also pitch in generously with donations.
Shibmandir launched its portal this Independence Day. “NRIs also help us with contacts for sponsorships,” says Partho Ghosh who has spent about Rs 8,000 so far on www.shibmandir.com. Big pujas on the other side of town, like Dum Dum Tarun Sangha, also have e-presence.
But technology, as always, is creating a divide in devotee ranks. “We could not afford the Rs 20,000 estimate that was handed to us when we went to get a website designed,” rues Rana Dasgupta of Lake Pally Sarbojanin, Santoshpur, adding that portal pages attract advertisers.
| The Shibmandir homepage. (Right) The Abasar Sarbojanin screening
Novelty is the calling card for pujas that use the unlikeliest of items to pull in the crowds. This year’s bizarre offerings include nails (Haridevpur Adarsha Samity), sweet corn (Dharmatala Netaji Sporting Club in Kasba), buttons (Kailash Bose Street, Chaltabagan) and pearls (Dhakuria Uttarpalli Kalupara).
“We went to Hyderabad in 2003. Since then, we have been trying to implement this idea,” said Rana Basu, an organiser of the pearl puja off Sarat Ghosh Garden Road. The pearls are coming from Puri, where they cost one-fifth of what they do here, reveals theme-maker Maichel Bose. His students are busy pasting the sparkling white gems on Jamini Roy works painted anew and then printed digitally. A private security agency is being employed to guard what visitors could want to pluck.
But they better stay off the pearly white sweet corns adorning pandal in neighbouring Kasba. Every part of the maize is being put to use after being treated with chemicals. While the raw corns are forming the Devi’s ornaments and sari border, the hairy coat is to be the hair. Burnt to a charcoal black, the skin is being used for a variation of colour on the decorative panels. “We have used up 8,500 bhuttas,” says club member Sanjoy Das.
At Chaltabagan up north, a crore of buttons will be sealing the Puja fate of Kailash Bose Street Sarbojanin. “We are using shirt buttons to depict the glory of Shiva. His tiger skin, for instance, has yellow buttons punctuated by black ones,” says joint secretary Gopal De.
If these seem outlandish, Sanjoy Das has an explanation: “We are small pujas with no sponsors to back us up for big themes or elaborate lighting. Rousing curiosity is our only means to attract people.”
Pictures by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya and Sudeshna Banerjee