Monday, 30th October 2017

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Saraswati invoked by lady, worshipped by communities

Dhruba Mukherjee has been performing Saraswati puja of of AD Block’s AIWC Salt Lake Constituent Branch for almost 30 years

  • Published 7.02.20, 1:48 AM
  • Updated 7.02.20, 1:48 AM
  • 2 mins read
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Dhruba Mukherjee, the priest, reads out anjali mantra.

It was a puja like any other. The idol was decked up with flowers, the devotees sat with folded hands encircling the priest and the priest himself performed rituals with utmost diligence. Only, the priest wasn’t a he.

At the Saraswati puja of AD Block’s AIWC Salt Lake Constituent Branch, it was a lady performing the rituals. “And why not,” asked the priest, Dhruba Mukherjee. “AIWC stands for All India Women’s Conference so the puja should certainly be conducted by a woman.”

The priest’s role is not new for Mukherjee. She has been performing Saraswati puja here for almost 30 years. “Initially we had a male purohit but one year he did not turn up. So I took up the mantle,” she recalled.

Back then, there were murmurs and she was only accepted after verifying that she was a Brahmin and was dikshito. But once she began, it became the custom.

For three years in between, Mukherjee was away tending to her ailing husband but the puja was performed by another lady — Srita Banerjee. “They talk of women priests today like it’s a novel concept but I broke the taboo decades ago,” Mukherjee laughs. “Now my husband has passed away but I’m still performing puja. Surely, that must be another taboo broken!”

She performs hathey khori for a two-year-old at the AD Block centre.
She performs hathey khori for a two-year-old at the AD Block centre. Pictures by Basudeb Behera

Now a senior citizen, Mukherjee has had both her knees replaced. Unable to sit on the floor she performs puja sitting on a chair. “In church one sits on chairs and prays, isn’t it? So why not here?” reasons the AD Block resident.

Purohits openly get hijacked during Saraswati puja but the group’s secretary Bubu Basu gives Mukherjee a tight hug and says: “I will never let you get kidnapped!”

“We are so proud of having a woman priest,” says vice-president Mita Mitra. “We can’t ignore the fact that it’s a male-dominated society that did not let women enter this field. Dhrubadi is highly educated, fluent in Sanskrit and particular about rituals. There is no reason for her not to perform puja.”

The centre holds courses in stitching and computers, beautician courses, school tuitions etc and they have over 160 beneficiaries. Many of them came on the day, decked up in saris and kurta pyjamas.

“I’ve never seen a lady priest anywhere else,” said Rumki Pradhan, whose two-year-old son Aditya attends the creche here. “I liked the concept so much that I asked her to perform hathey khori for my son. I want Aditya to be educated and cultured like the ladies here.”

Lined up for anjali were students, regardless of religion. “We shall ask God to show us the right path,” smiled Momin Ali and Tushar Mahanayak, Class X students who learn English, Bengali and computers here.

“I’ve grown up under the care of these ma’ams and have imbibed their progressive outlook,” said Reshmi Khatoon, now a psychology student. “I’m broad-minded and come for anjali here every year.”

The priest was as welcoming as the devotees. “I’ve been to churches and mosques. If I’m welcome there, everyone is welcome here,” Mukherjee smiled. “God is one and He will bless anyone who prays to him — Hindu or Muslim. Man or woman.”