Bengalis in Victoria celebrate Durga Puja online with gusto

By Indira laisram
Bengali women in Melbourne celebrating Durga Puja two years ago Pic supplied.

Sitting in her Bayswater home, Pallavi Dasgupta has been scouting every Bangla channel to get a glimpse of the Durga Puja celebrations in India. After all, this is one festival every living Bengali in the world looks forward to in an entire year. With two consecutive puja celebrations in Victoria under complete lockdown, like her, many members of the community are missing the shared physical experience of this great festival.

“I am also missing wearing those colourful sarees along with the jewellery, you see the best collection during this time,” says Dasgupta with a laugh. On a serious note, she adds,  “Every Bengali waits for this festival, it’s about the emotions we have grown up with—there is a part where you celebrate with your elders, then with your friends, the full five days we forget everything and come together.”

However, Zoom and online prayer sessions have been an important leveller for Bengalis in Victoria currently under lockdown. Cultural events with repertory at home are shared online and have played a newly prominent role in this time of confinement.

BAV Durga Puja celebrations. Blast fom the past. Pic supplied

“We are doing anjalis (divine offering) online and presenting recorded cultural events such as dance and songs and having an eminent artist to perform—the same as we did last year,” says Pritom Dutta, ex-general secretary and a key member of the Bengali Association of Victoria (BAV), one of the oldest organisations.

This year’s celebration started with a panel discussion on Mahalaya (October 3) on the life and works of renowned actor and pioneer of Bengali cinema Soumitra Chatterjee, who passed away last November.

As with every year, Durga Puja celebrations in Victoria are held during the weekends to allow everyone to participate. And with collective spaces closed for now, the online events have become important and a reminder of the desire to cherish and keep the cultural connectedness intact, believes Dutta.

Durga Puja BAV (2005-2007). Pic supplied

Maha Ashtami Puja and Pushpanjali will be re-telecast for those who have missed on Saturday, October 16, from 10 am to 12:30 pm. A cultural evening on the same evening include ‘Reminiscing Kolkata’ by local events. The highlight this year is also a live online performance by well-known singer Subhamita Banerjee and other musicians on Sunday, October 17.

Through the years, the Bengali Association of Victoria, founded in 1983, has made significant efforts to upkeep a culture and a fraternity through their many activities, of which the Durga Puja is one of the most important.

Recalling the birth of the Durga Puja celebrations in Melbourne, Dr Asim K Das, one of the founding members of BAV, says the first puja took place in 1989 at Mt. Waverley Secondary College with the arrival of the first Durga Protima (idol) from India. Prior to 1989, a fledging community then, BAV only celebrated Sarashwati puja and Vijaya Dashami.

“In early 1989, the community decided that it was time to celebrate the most important event in the Bengali calendar. It was not an easy task as one had to be physically present in Kolkata to organise the making of the idol and shipping it to Melbourne,” says Das. He acknowledges the help of a certain Naresh Chandra Roy from Kolkata, without whose assistance this would not have been possible.

Naresh Chandra Roy had come to Melbourne in 1989 to have his daughter treated for an acute medical condition. The Bengali community rallied behind him by providing in-kind support and financial assistance when and where required, says Das. And when he told Chandra Roy about plans to bring a Protima from Kolkata, the latter kept his promise of organising one for BAV.

So Das went to India. To cut a long story short, Das, who had trouble getting the Protima to the Kolkata airport, found that Chandra Roy had, the next day, arranged for a VIP treatment at the airport. When Das entered the Customs section the following day, he saw the box containing the idol being loaded with  officials, security personnel and other staff standing in a line with folded hands and chanting, “Maa Melbourne e Jachchho, Bhalo Kore Ghure Esho (Mother is going to Melbourne, come back safely). The story even made it to the local press.

Dr Asim K Das, one of the founding members of BAV, with wife Anu. Pic supplied

In Melbourne, Dr Pratish Bandopadhyay performed the first Puja in 1989 and he has been doing it every year since then, later assisted by Tarun Bhattacharya for some time and then Mouli Ganguly, says Das.

It was also the first time that the community celebrated elaborate lunch and dinner with the quintessential Khichuri and Panchmisheli or Labra served for lunch while Aloo Dum and Luchi were cooked for dinner.

Das recalls with fondness how the women toiled in the kitchen while the men cleaned the big utensils as they couldn’t afford cleaners those days. “I must say that the camaraderie shown by the community members was exceptional and everyone enjoyed getting involved in the activities.” It is a camaraderie that has since flourished.

Pritom Dutta and Pallavi Dasgupta. Pic supplied

Since 2004, other Durga pujas have taken place around Melbourne. But that is more due to geographical reasons and demographic change, notes Das.

Interestingly, BAV got a new Durga Protima early last year but with the celebrations stalled for two years in a row, the Protima is still in the box. While that is a bit of a dampener, the community is at least happy that the next year will, hopefully, be an even joyous celebration with a new Protima to worship.

Others like Dasgupta and Dutta too believe the best is yet to come. For now, they are keeping the cultural spirit alive online—keeping at bay the isolation of the pandemic.

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