Theme Pujas versus traditional Pujas, or ‘adhunik’ vs ‘shabeki’, is a topic that dominates every time the festival of the year for Bengalis, Durga Puja, comes around. Nowadays, it is the former which dominates. Gradually more and more Pujas have turned the theme way. It draws in crowds in larger numbers, eager to see the artistic finesse of the idol and the pandal.
The term ‘theme Puja’ or ‘adhunik’ implies those Durga Pujas where the idols are constructed in a non-traditional way, and the pandals are constructed according to certain themes, say, literacy, protecting forests, some famous building, etc. It gives artists an opportunity to show off their skills. For the organisers, a well-made ‘theme’ Puja means a sure audience of lakhs of people. The atmosphere of competition between various Durga Puja pandals, which is nowadays almost as important as the Puja itself (and the number of competitions are only increasing by the day), has given the upper hand to theme pujas.
The whole getup, including the ‘pratimas’ or idols, the artistic decorations, and of course the pandals, often huge and stunning works of art, of theme Pujas is geared towards drawing in more people. And hordes of people come, drawn by the desire to see a work of art rather than simply as pandal. Nowadays, the big, and even the not-so-big, Pujas, through the holding of theme Pujas, have established themselves as brands. In these increasingly commercial times, branding and marketing counts. A bigger brand means more sponsorship, and of course, more prestige and bragging rights. These have come to be integral parts of a Durga Puja, and have come to be accepted. All benefit – people, organisers, artists. Nowadays, with the popularity of theme Pujas, many fine arts students have also taken up the creation of idols for Durga Puja. This has added a refreshingly new dimension to idols and pandals.
Badamtala Ashar Sangha, one of the most popular theme Pujas of Kolkata
However, this is not to say that people are no longer interested in Durga Pujas held in the traditional or 'shabeki' way. After all, ‘traditional’ here implies a practice stretching back a few centuries, times often referred to with great pride even today as the glorious past, and so they definitely hold a pride of place in people’s hearts. The presence of traditional Pujas, through the very fact of their being ‘traditional’, offers a sort of defining basis of our Bengali-ness, a calm assurance of stability to a proud race in these rapidly evolving times. To traditional Pujas is attached a lot of prestige. Also, for many decades, the celebration of Durga Puja had been intricately linked to the independence movement – defying the British by upholding native traditions – to which Bengal’s contribution is enormous. This also helped in embedding the greatness of Durga Puja into the very fabric of Bengali society.
However, all said and done, traditional Durga Pujas have been facing hard times for a few decades now. Earlier, the ones held at the houses of zamindars, and many of the traditional Pujas are the ones still held there, were financed by the collections of the zamindars’ estates. That is no longer the case, as the government is the tax collector now. This is a major reason for the decline in the pomp and splendour of traditional Durga Pujas.
Another reason is that the razzmatazz of the often flush-with-funds theme Pujas is a bigger draw for a marketing- and brand-conscious age. Some clubs and organisations which used to hold traditional Pujas have turned to theme Pujas to draw in the crowds, and have been successful.
To many old-timers, in the splendour of theme Pujas is implicit a disturbing disconnect with devotion, which is the very basis of Durga Puja. As writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen tellingly said in an interview, "When we were children, we went to see the goddess. Now we go to see the pandal. It's almost as if we're looking at the frame more than at the painting."
Sovabazar Rajbari. Started in 1757, this is as traditional as it can get.
However, co-existence is the need of the day. It should not be a case of ‘theme versus traditional,’ but rather as one of ‘theme and traditional’, each giving space to the other to exist in their own ways. Yes, theme Pujas are definitely more popular for various reasons, but traditional Pujas have their own importance and attractions too. More should be done to encourage them, especially in terms of financing.
Tradition and modernity can, and should, exist together as each has their own values. After all, it is the traditional Pujas which symbolise the Pujas of yore, the ones which established all the rites and rituals, which are followed by the modern theme Pujas as well. Religious devotion as the basis of Durga Puja remains, complemented now by the joie de vivre of the age.
Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv