Puja company - The old-world, chaanda-dependent festivity is passe. The sponsors are here

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By POULOMI BANERJEE
  • Published 14.09.08
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Branding rights are the key words this Durga puja. The Badamtala Ashar Sangha puja committee has sold “all branding rights” to the US-based media company Manhattan Communication India, run by a group of Calcutta boys.

“Three weeks are left for Puja and here I am, sitting in my shorts at the pandal, chatting. Would this have been possible if we were trying to get advertisers and sponsors on our own? Companies always make us wait till the end about banners and advertisements,” says Suvajit Sarkar of the Badamtala committee. All companies who want to advertise at the Badamtala puja now have to contact Manhattan.

And though the committee will not name the price they have got, they admit it is enough to cover their expenses. “Our budget is approximately Rs 12-13 lakh. Only one per cent of this comes from subscription (chaanda), the rest from sponsors,” says Sarkar.

This year will also see Zee Bangla pitch its tent outside Maddox Square and bring all the action live from the puja grounds. The action, of course, is believed to happen more outside the pandal than inside it, especially at the addas, which draw the best of the young and the hip from Calcutta.

Zee Bangla has “bought over the Maddox Square puja”, a phrase used by the channel spokesperson. Reportedly for Rs 12 lakh. Titled the Zee Bangla Mahapuja, the puja will be continuously aired by Zee Bangla, from anjali at the mandap to bhog distribution and arati, with the saturation coverage of reality television. You may end up seeing yourself telling the world why you like Maddox Square so much!

This is the second year of Zee’s tie-up with Maddox Square. The network is not alone in identifying the entertainment value of a popular puja. Among 15 big Calcutta pujas Metro spoke to, this year, seven are enjoying the patronage of “sole sponsors”. In the last few years, the figure was four.

“Our budget is Rs 16 lakh. Our title sponsor this year is Fever FM,” says Neelanjan Deb, the secretary of the Deshapriya Park puja committee. “Whoever wants to advertise or put up banners now at our puja will have to contact Fever.” Fever has reportedly paid Rs 12 lakh for the branding rights. The radio channel has bought sole sponsorship rights also of the FD Block puja in Salt Lake, Ahiritola Sarbojanin Durgotsav Samity, Telengabagan Sarbojanin Durgotsav and Sealdah Railway Athletic Club .

Sponsorship doesn’t mean money alone. A puja may be promoted with the same business acumen used by a television channel to promote a new show. “We have got Mithun Chakraborty (picture in box) to endorse the puja and shot a video with him. We will have an SMS contest related to the theme of the puja and lucky winners will get a free trip to Bangkok,” says Raj Banerjee of Manhattan.

A media sponsor means better and more planned publicity and extensive coverage. “It frees us from commercial worries and gives us time to concentrate on making the puja better,” says Sibsankar Basu, the treasurer of the Maddox Square puja committee.

More the merrier

Not everyone believes in one big patron. “The trend of title sponsors or sole sponsors started three to four years back. We had sole sponsors in the past,” says Suman Chatterjee, the president of the Babubagan puja committee.

“But the problem is that unless one has a long-term contract with these companies, it becomes difficult to find sponsors in the subsequent years.” Sometimes, the obligation to one sponsor may interfere with the committee’s plans.

“The para people had a problem when we had tie-ups. There were entry problems. When you tie up with a company you have to follow their diktat. So now we prefer to have multiple sponsors who pay us for advertising or banner rights,” says Sumit Chakraborty of the Jodhpur Park puja committee.

STAR Ananda is not into single sponsorship this year. The news channel is part sponsor at many pujas across the city, including Mudiali, Suruchi Sangha, Bagbazar Sarbojanin and others.

Friends FM has tied up with 18 pujas. “We will be talking about the themes, the men behind the pujas and inviting listeners to vote for the pujas. So your brand is noticed because you are doing something for the pujas,” says Jaideep Banerjee, the national programming head.

Ekdalia Evergreen Club, with which former mayor Subrata Mukherjee is associated, proudly says that they don’t have a budget. “We spend as much as is needed,” says joint secretary Goutam Basu.

But sponsors are a must. “Earlier it was the para puja, then it became the club’s puja, and now it seems like the sponsors’ puja. Yes, pujas are definitely becoming corporatised,” he agrees.

Once you depend on a sponsor, you are hooked. “We were doing fine on the basis of subscriptions, donations and ad banners. I had to be really persuaded the first year we went for a sole sponsorship. But once you have more funds, you get used to spending on that scale. After that you begin to think you need that money,” says Basu of Maddox Square.

Chaanda goes down

Corporate sponsors have also rendered chaanda, the old, and sometimes dreaded, tradition of subscription collection — puja organisers have been known to collect hefty amounts at gunpoint — almost redundant. Many feel the dissolution of the chaanda is a boon.

“There were many cases of collecting forced subscription. Such extortion is unfair,” says MLA Dinesh Bajaj, the chairman of the Md Ali Park puja, which has a budget of Rs 15 lakh and has Rupa garments and Priya Food Products as sponsors.

Subscriptions amount to only 10-25 per cent of the total budget in some cases, and sometimes even less. “Our budget is approximately Rs 25 lakh and most of it comes from sponsorships. Today, it is not possible to organise a big puja based on subscriptions,” says Bikash Majumdar, the general secretary of the College Square puja.

Not that there are enough young men who would volunteer to go out in groups every evening to collect chaanda. Most youngsters are glued to the television in the evening or are pursuing studies or are preparing for CAT.

“We get few youngsters to go ask for chaanda,” says Sujoy Ghosh of Mudiali Club, which has a budget of about Rs 12 lakh. Other young adults are busy with jobs. A common para peeve is that the number of dedicated workers for the puja is going down by the year.

So Deshapriya Park is set to do away with the chaanda from next year. “Conducting a puja now is like conducting a business. The Deshapriya Park puja committee has its own website. For sponsors we have the facility of electronic transfer of money to our account and from next year we will make it possible to donate through credit cards,” says Deb.

“The pujas today are an event for brand building. And the media and corporate houses are the face of the event. Even game shows or sit-and-draw competitions for kids at apartment blocks during the pujas are media driven, so you can’t have the community feeling without them,” says Tapati Guha-Thakurta, art historian, who has been researching Puja.

If this means less involvement on the part of residents, puja organisers aren’t complaining. And in small apartment block pujas, everyone is a puja organiser.

Commercialisation, says Guha-Thakurta, is no longer a dirty word. Today it means better organisation and fund management.

Banners go up

The stamps of the sponsors are visible, their banners and hoardings up there, right over the idols’ head. Putting up a banner requires money. The decorator is the creative director and the artist, the idol-maker.

And even small pujas draw in crowds. That may be because of the “themes”. “Many big pujas, like College Square, have refused to go the theme way. It is especially the small pujas that go in for themes. For them it is a matter of upgrading their image. Themes call for bigger budgets, because the materials used are more expensive and it requires professional artists and designers,” says Guha-Thakurta.

But themes are only one of the aspects of Puja that need big money, says Dulal Chand Seal of Ahiritola Sarbojanin Durgotsab Samity. “In 1981 when my father was involved with the puja, the budget was approximately Rs 70,000. Today, we have to give CESC Rs 95,000 for the electricity.”

Nowhere is the sponsors’ stamp so obvious as in the prizes. There is money involved, but what is even more addictive is the competition. Yes, there are awards for the best asura and best lion too.

Guha-Thakurta feels that awards have a positive side — they have made pujas more conscientious. “The first puja awards by Asian Paints were for best pandal, best lighting and best protima, but even then, the idea was to hunt out small pujas that may be as artistic. Now the focus of many awards have shifted to seeing that it is a safe, secure puja, where celebrations are in moderation and within legal bounds. Take for example, The Telegraph True Spirit awards,” says Guha-Thakurta.

Organisers feel that with money from the corporate houses, not only has the quality of Puja improved, but a lot of income is also generated. “Themes” give livelihood to many people and help bring artists to the limelight. Pujas are happy to give the business houses the publicity in return — they feel it’s well-deserved.

Culture connect

The companies stress that Puja is not only business, but also a relationship, with Bengali culture. “STAR Ananda is a brand built around the Bengali culture. So if there is something that is a big part of the cultural diaspora of Bengal then we have to be part of it,” says Neeraj Sanan, the vice-president (marketing).

The pujas fit in as the perfect Bengali brand. “We are a Bangla channel and the pujas are a must for us. We need a puja we can focus on and show all aspects of it. The profile of the Maddox Square puja suits us,” says Rajib Chatterjee, the senior vice-president and business head, Zee Bangla.

And Raj Banerjee of Manhattan evokes the fundamentals — that good business is at its core good relationship-building. “This is the time when people are having a good time and corporate houses want to share that spirit,” he says.

The old-world, chaanda-dependent, if a little chaotic, pujas are passe. The sponsors are here.