Not just pandal-hopping, an eagerly awaited attraction of the Pujas in both blocks and housing complexes of Salt Lake and New Town is the cultural programmes. Children take great pride in putting up group dances, ladies enjoy weeks of rehearsals before presenting dance dramas and revellers from across neighbouring blocks pour in for musical shows, starring reality show singers.
But this year, confusion reins supreme with the administration yet to clarify its stand on whether puja pandals would again be treated as containment zones.
Some blocks are going ahead with plans of stage shows, without any clarity on whether they will finally be allowed to hold them. Others have announced online shows, while conceding that social media fatigue has set in among viewers. Some blocks have called off cultural shows altogether, even after starting rehearsals.
Lack of clarity
“The guidelines this year are not clear even after attending the police briefing for puja committees,” says joint secretary of CA Block’s puja, Souradip Basu. “They said no crowding would be allowed. How vague is that! Can we or can we not hold cultural programmes?”
Since the police itself is awaiting clearer guidelines from the state, the block has not planned anything formal. “We may organise impromptu events but as of now, we have decided only to play All India Radio’s Mahishasuramardini live over loudspeakers at dawn on Mahalaya.”
Shreyashi Banerjee, an organiser from Millennium Tower, says calling off the entire show would have been the easy way out. “But people need live shows for their emotional well-being this year. Think of children who are fed up of online classes. A recitation would give them something to look forward to. Elderly couples, who are suffering from empty nest syndrome, would also get a change of setting with a show,” Banerjee says.
So instead of a full length stage, they are erecting a small raised platform to felicitate the chief guest on. “We shall informally allow people to perform solo there,” she says.
Preparing for offline
Residents of Mallika Malancha had started rehearsing for shows long back but it is only on Tuesday that puja secretary Moutushi Chakraborty got a confirmation to hold a show from the police. “In the worst case scenario, we would have had to hold it online,” she says.
AA Block is going ahead with stage events including quiz and antakshari. “Everyone will be asked to sit at a distance and performances will be solo,” says Saheli Choudhury Bhattacharya, of the committee. “Last year, we had asked children to draw at home and send their entries for judging and pasting on the walls of the pandal. It was mostly their parents who came to see them.”
They had a guest artiste last year too but only block residents went to watch, unlike in other years when people poured in from other blocks too. “No one was in the mood to enjoy last year,” says Choudhury Bhattacharya.
AD Block shall have an audio drama and a solo music show or two on stage. “Crowd control has never been a problem at Salt Lake’s cultural programmes. Here people are only interested to watch performances of their own family members and leave afterwards. The crowd swells later at night when outsiders come for pandal-hopping,” says block secretary Arya Ganguly.
EC Block has announced a brief agomoni song and dance ritual during inauguration but on the rest of the puja days it’s open mic. “If anyone wishes, he may perform. But we are not announcing anything beforehand to avoid creating a hype,” says block secretary Mouli Nath Maji.
At Sanjeeva Town Bungalow Estate, Susmita Bhaduri is busy directing residents for Manoj Mitra’s Kenaram Becharam. “God knows people could do with a hearty laugh now so we have chosen a comedy to enact,” says Bhaduri, who is also on the puja committee. “We have several doctors living with us and we consulted them before deciding to put up stage shows. Since no one has Covid in the complex and no outsiders will be coming in, it should be safe.”
But organisers have their fingers crossed. “We are planning for a stage show but if a last-minute government order is issued against it, we’ll have to go online,” says Choudhury Bhattacharya of AA Block. “Watching online shows is like having rosogolla without the rosh. But what choice will we have?”
No budget for shows
Offline shows also mean a hike in budget, which in itself is a hurdle in a pandemic-hit year. “Many residents were hospitalised with Covid in the second wave and many could not return to work for months while recovering afterwards. Our neighbours have lost jobs, their businesses have shut down… how much can they spare for puja subscription after a series of such nightmares?” asks another member of CA Block’s committee.
The fees charged by many technicians providing light and sound at shows have shot up too as their equipment are malfunctioning after a year and half of lying idle. “They are having to buying equipment afresh and the price will obviously be passed on to us,” adds the committee member.
Even if they go online, a professional video recording of the show doesn’t come cheap. “Last year, we pre-recorded the cultural programmes at the community hall at a cost of Rs 30,000,” says a member of the CK-CL’s committee, Onkar Banerjee . This year they have called the cultural show off.
CJ Block will be going virtual, like it did last year. “It’s true that many senior citizens do not have Facebook accounts or cannot stare at the phone screen long enough to watch all the shows but it’s better than nothing. Also many NRIs of the block get to submit their entries too,” says a member of the cultural committee, Sangita Saha.
“Many senior citizens are off to bed by 8pm and they would never come for stage shows before the pandemic either. Now with online shows they can at least tune in the next day and watch,” says Arunabha Hazra, puja secretary of CD Block. “However, they are choosing YouTube and Facebook over the Zoom platform this year as the latter proved too complex for many.”
At New Town’s CC Block, there will be no stage but solo performances will be allowed on the ground in the pandal. “And people are free to share their recorded performances on our virtual platforms,” says puja secretary Biman Samaddar. “But it will be difficult to engage residents – especially kids – in the evening without shows or pandal-hopping so we shall screen world classic films on a big screen next to the mandap. It’s been long since people visited movie halls so they’ll enjoy the experience.”
You can hear the disappointment in Sonali Sen’s voice as she shares that CK-CL Block’s cultural programmes have been called off altogether. “Ladies had started rehearsing for Valmiki Pratibha, I had decided on an audio drama, assigned roles and formed a WhatsApp group of performers but then the police denied us permission for a stage show,” says the lady who usually manages the show.
Last year, the twin blocks had done online shows, “but the response wasn’t worth the effort we put in,” she says. “People only see their own performance and move on so there is no point in doing online shows. I don’t understand why offline shows are being crucified when people are free to come to the puja for anjali. Even the movie halls have opened!”
AE (Part 1) has decided it will be all or nothing. “We had organised online shows for Rabindra- Nazrul jayanti but participation was low. Children, who love to take part in cultural events, are not vaccinated yet, so stage events are out of bounds. The elderly, who love watching these, are not tech savvy so online shows are out of bounds,” says Sujata Maitra. “Instead of cultural shows, we shall sit and enjoy our adda at the pandal this year.”
Partha Pratim Gupta of New Town’s BA Block would be a busy man in the pre-Puja weeks before the pandemic. “I would direct plays for my own puja — Action Area 1’s B blocks — and for neighbours but these shows have all been cancelled. Online shows are not happening either as after a year and a half, people couldn’t care less about watching them.”
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