Adelaide’s Bengali community celebrates Durga puja

By Indira Laisram
Adelaide Bengalis ready to welcome Durga pujas

In 1998, the Bengali community in Adelaide celebrated Durga pujas for the first time with two idols which were brought all the way from West Bengal in India. Bikramjit Sen, the person instrumental for bringing this fresh depth to the way Durga pujas are celebrated in this Australian city, passed away last year but he left behind a tradition to be cherished and upheld.

Mitu Choudhury, current President of the Bengali Cultural Association of South Australia (BCASA), who arrived in Adelaide that same year, considers herself lucky. Coming straight from Kolkata to Adelaide with her husband and then two-year old son, she was able to celebrate the pujas as she would have intended back home.

Recalling the 1998 celebration, Choudhury says there were around 100 Bengalis in attendance and Sen or Bulbul Da, as he was fondly called, did not leave any stone unturned to make the Durga pujas truly traditional. He started the ‘sindoor khela’, an important ritual on Vijaya Dashami, the last day of the pujas. He also served the Durga Puja bhog meal, which is the most traditional of Bengali food and also an auspicious and integral part of the celebrations, to all present. All this, without any public funding.

BCASA secretary Rima Rakshit (extreme right) and President Mitu Choudhury (centre)

Over the years, the number of Bengalis in Adelaide have trebled and the Durga pujas, one of the biggest three-day festivals for Bengalis worldwide, is a much-awaited iconic event in the city’s annual calendar. Last year’s Durga puja celebration by BCASA drew around 1,000 people.

This year, with COVID-19, while many cities are celebrating the pujas online, Adelaide is lucky enough to have the puja celebrations but with new norms of social distancing and a cap on the number of people that can attend the events.

For Rima Rakshit, secretary of BCASA, it has been hectic few weeks as everything had to be re-envisioned this time. “We have to keep in mind the numbers, so we are issuing RSVPs to members, collecting phone numbers and other details for contact tracing, and we are having Covid marshals to ensure everybody enjoys a safe Durga puja.”

Adelaide Durga Puja

With current BCASA members sitting above 140 and growing, Rakshit says it has been challenging trying to maintain head count and accommodate new members. And with this year being a difficult one, Rakshit says, “Our budget is tight”. The association is also donating 500 dollars towards unemployed migrant students as well as those unable to get a job during this pandemic.

However, that is not a dampener. Beginning this Saturday, October 24, the puja celebration will run into three days—Saptami, Ashtami and Navami. As always, BCASA, is following the puja calendar of Kolkata.

Choudhury is of the opinion that as a Bengali it is culturally sustainable to take a day off for pujas and follow the auspicious dates of the calendar. “We have come to this country, we earn so much, why can’t we take a few days’ leave? I do understand it could be hard for the youngsters and those with new jobs, but others can still take leave and come,” she says.

Kumari Puja. A special attraction of Durga Puja festival in Bengal is held to realise the potential divinity in every human being, mostly female

It has long been a ritual to have the first day of puja at the Ganesh Temple in Oakland Parks where devotees will perform puja, says Rakshit. The next two days, the pujas will be held at the premises of the Indian Australian Association of South Australia (IAASA) at Blamey Ave in Broadview. Rolling out will be food, cultural activities and other rituals.

“For the past 10-12 years, we had a small idol. In 2018, we requested members to donate some funds through which we were able to get a big idol that we got shipped from Kolkata. Since we can’t immerse the idol in the river, we preserve it with utmost care for the next year,” informs Rakshit, who, apart from holding an important office with BCASA, is also a mental health professional.

Since 1984, Bengalis in Adelaide have been celebrating Durga pujas but at the Ganesh Temple and without an idol. It was in 1998 that Sen brought two idols from Kolkata by plane that gave the festival a new hue.

Snapshot of last year’s event

In 2005, with the community growing, the BCASA was formed with Sen as its first president and Choudhury as its cultural secretary. “It was important to have an organisation as we celebrate a few events such as Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday, Sarashwati Puja, Bengali New Year or Pôhela Boishakh, to name a few. That was how BCASA’s journey started,” says Choudhury.

And, perhaps most importantly, it is BCASA’s Durga puja festival that would give the community a level of pride and respect on Adelaide’s multicultural landscape.

“You have to come to Adelaide during the pujas to believe it,” says Choudhury, adding, that many people who have left the city have come back to attend the pujas.

There is a special joy that puja emanates. The BCASA deserves a pat for the hard work put in to share culture, experience and catalysing change. For Bengalis and all others celebrating Durga puja in Adelaide, this year has to be a rarefied experience in the time of COVID-19.

But, as Choudhury says, “We are just like Kolkata.”

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