Durga puja, or the worship of goddess Durga, is the single most important festival in Bengal’s rich and diverse religious calendar. It is not just that her temples are strewn all over this part of the world. In fact, goddess Kali, with whom she shares a complementary history, is easily more popular in this regard. But as a one-off festivity, Durga puja outstrips anything that happens in Bengali life in terms of pomp, glamour, and popularity. And with huge diasporic populations spread across the world, she is now also a squarely international phenomenon, with her puja being celebrated wherever there are even a score or so of Hindu Bengali families in one place. This is one Bengali festival that has people participating across religions and languages. In that sense, Durga puja has an unmistakable cosmopolitan hue about it. With more than 10 million people visiting the different pandals (the temporary, covered pavilions or marquees created for the goddess) in Kolkata alone on any one of the four days of festivity (now effectively extended to a whole week), Durga puja could well be the biggest carnival on earth. Kolkata’s image has become synonymous with this grand autumnal festival of the goddess. (Ray M, 2017)
Religion and market, as spaces, were never very far away from each other, but in recent times it’s quite interesting to see how both has changed its nature. The question that arises is whether it’s due to the process of secularization that the profit making agencies enter into the sphere which was so long being maintained as an exclusive space of “sacred”? The notions of ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ thus become issues of contestations where the capital becomes the new ‘religion’.
Religion is bound to lose its relevance in modern, differentiated society where ‘the authority of holy is gradually replaced by the authority of achieved consensus. As secularization marks a decline of the sacred, so does sacralization denote an increase in the sacred in one form or the other and at different levels. The rise of religious marketplace shows both the evidence of secularization and sacralization. For Berger, such a marketplace involved an increase in competition that was staged in increasingly secular terms and reflected the crumbling of religion’s prior structural monopolies and cultural hegemonies. The space of sacred is changing rather than fading away. Religion in modern India is both a product of modernity and also a process in producing modernity. The commodification of religion not only makes the festivities as a spectacle rather also the leaders into celebrities and their lives into a phenomenon.
Religious commodification is a complex historical and cultural construction, which are produced in specific cultural contexts and thus require an understanding of cultural framework in order to unlock their symbolic and socio-economic significance. Commodifying processes are highly inventive and specifically embedded in the local global trajectories of the market economy and post-modern religious explosions. This process however does not necessarily lead to religious malaise or produce new religious forms or movements that oppose the institutionalized beliefs and practices of the old religious institutions. It rather walks along the way to capture its essence giving it a new form. Diffusing religion via a commodity market and the intervention of the media coverage has redefined the ritual procedures which have affirmed the prosperity of the religious spaces in the everyday lives of the Asian people.
One cannot avoid but notice that Durga Puja has always been a function of extravagance and expenses. During the British period, the emerging ‘babu’ community always tried to showcase their wealth through the celebration of this puja as a “status symbol”. So a question again arises as to, why suddenly this botheration with the issue of “money” and expenditure in the pujas; it is because of the nature of the “money”. Earlier, it was more or less the wealthy class who used to celebrate this religious festival according to their affordability and showcased their private property to gain respect and status in front of other people and also the British officials. But now, consumption has become a compulsion. It has been turned into a necessity that we cannot avoid. We need to spend money on clothes, food, etc in order to make ourselves happy. It is not something which is done by a handful number of people rather it has become a practice of the mass-culture, which makes it a matter of concern. The process of globalization and modernity may not necessarily bring transformation in our lives but it does influence some aspects of our culture. And as Durga Puja has always been a festivity where there has been a reflection of other aspects of life in the celebration, it is noticed that though the change in time has brought a great deal of changes in the pattern and structure of puja celebration; the excitement and effervescence related to this festival has not really changed much among the Bengalis.
The ‘theme’ pujas have replaced the ‘sabeki’ pujas to a great extent but they too have their own importance. Each ‘theme’ puja puts up a new issue and portrays it through the pandals and ‘murti’ (idol). The religious space not only is kept limited with worshipping, praying rather it is also used as a space of learning where people becomes conscious about certain issues like global warming, women empowerment, different usages of jute etc. It portrays a different kind of art-form and also provides a platform to those artists who are otherwise not acknowledged or appreciated.
But this upcoming craze of coming up with new concepts, ideas, architecture, lightings and idol also makes ‘committees’ compete with each other. There comes the ‘rat-race’ in order to win the ‘best’ prize. The offering of ‘bhog’, a very basic ritual of any puja have also not been able to stay away from the clutch of the capitalist market.
The parameters of assessment have become diverse, ranging from safe traffic rules, arrangements for senior citizens, to security of the pandal hoppers, drinking water and many others. Extra points are also added to the puja committee who does social services throughout the year and it has been noticed that all the puja pandals do associate themselves with some sort of welfare activity, which in a way also enhances the wellbeing of the locality.
The previous ‘baroari’ pujas were organized with collections or ‘chanda’ that is subscriptions, where the people were engaged personally with the pujas. It is now being replaced by the corporate sponsored cultures where people stand in long queues for hours just to catch a glimpse of the well-known pujas. Another interesting thing that has been noticed is the presence of the political party leaders as the ‘sobhapati’ of different pujas. The budgets of many middle ranged pujas have soared high. Political propaganda is being done through the big hoardings and advertisements put up at the entrance of the pujas. Thus, it is clearly noticed that the power of ‘money’ and the capitalistic structures have come to control the entire process of this festivity, which may not strike as an issue if seen casually, but a deeper eye on this process would actually reveal that things have changed its nature to a great extent. The entering of the big powers of capital and corporate structures in the locales of our life and cultures have also changed the nature of ‘sacred’ to a great extent. (Garai S, 2017)
Companies have identified Durga puja festival in Kolkata as a great opportunity to grab the eyeballs of consumers. Due to steep buying behaviour of consumers, these companies generate high revenues from trade. Besides they also use this opportunity to make their brand popular among consumers. Firstly they offer huge sponsorships to the clubs who anyway spend millions every year on their pandal. Companies literally fight for space, stalls, gates, banners in key locations of famous Durga pujas. Sometimes the money offered to these clubs as sponsorships are so high that they even agree to prefix or suffix the brand name along with the club name. Brands like Times of India, Star Ananda, and Pepsi have done this very successfully in the past. Secondly companies also organize multiple events in which they choose the best puja pandal of Kolkata, best artist of Kolkata, best ambience etc. This not only provides a platform for the puja pandals and artists to get recognized, but also helps the brand to get consumers’ attention. One brand which has done this really well is Asian Paints.
Asian Paints has an important role in raising the standards of Durga Pujas in Kolkata. They started Asian Paints Sharad Samman in 1985 and have continued the tradition of identifying the best puja pandals of Kolkata every year. Asian Paints also involves celebrity jury for choosing the best puja pandals of Kolkata and continuously updates the people of Kolkata on shortlisted pujos through newspaper and television announcements. There are many similar Puja awards now in Kolkata like True Spirit Puja Awards, Pujo Perfect etc which choose the best pandals in Kolkata. These awards have proven to be very motivating to the puja organizers and artists and have raised the artistic creations of Kolkata Durga Pujas year after year. Finally companies along with co-branding with media (television channels, radio channels, newspapers) make live shows and promotional programs in the puja mandap premises where visitors participate and win prizes. In this way, not only the media gains their popularity, but also the companies who have co-sponsored the events with them.
“This time, more bullish to get the biggest bang for their bucks, they have homed in on the bhog or prasad to be offered to the Goddess Durga.Emami has tied up with more than 100 pujas pandals at housing societies in Kolkata where its Healthy & Tasty edible oil will be used in cooking the bhog. The company will also package bhog for another 30 pujas that will be home-delivered in their respective localities with the package flaunting the brand name in big and bold. These twin initiatives will see the company reach out to a target base of more than one lakh people and help build the brand, said Aditya Agarwal, director of the Kolkata-based FMCG major.” (Economic Times, 2013)
At the core of this are mega-competitions, where each Puja committee competes for awards — a rivalry that has transformed the festival into an “industry.”
But what attracts big brands to a cash-strapped market during the Puja?
“Two reasons,” explained Dipankar Chatterjee, National Council member of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). “Bengal may not be a manufacturing hub, but is a huge consumer base with a robust appetite for fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs). So, money may not be flowing-in to promote high-value products but for FMCGs.” The other factor is promotion of the Puja as the “Christmas of the East.” “People come from eastern India or Bangladesh. So, the best time to pitch or brand a product is during the Puja and also in the city to catch eyeballs,” Mr Chatterjee concluded. (The Hindu, 2015)