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Monday, November 9, 2015

'Durga Puja' in the city of joy, Kolkata

After a decade I visited my home city Kolkata during the biggest festive season, the Durga Puja, held in October.  Although I have lived for 15 years outside of Kolkata, the essence of the city and the Puja thrive within – emotion, culture, love of life, joy of celebration, warmth of relationship, power of intellect and, yes, the cult of the Goddess Shakti.

Visiting Kolkata in this age of ideas – where one idea can change the world – made me nostalgic for those times when Bengalis were the source of big ideas. One hundred years ago, Gokhale, a prominent Indian leader, said about Bengalis, "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow." Westerners who see India as great potential think first about Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad but would do well to include Kolkata in that bracket because as Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Wise men put their trust in ideas and not in circumstances.”

This year a group of journalists, travel writers and travel agents from France, Spain, Canada and Switzerland visited Kolkata during the Puja and they are calling it the world's biggest open air exhibition of art.

Spending on Durga Puja touched around $8 billion this year with an estimated growth of around 30 per cent. Spending is on temporary construction (pandal) idol making, food industry, clothing, tourism and many other areas for four days of the festival. Corporate sponsorship, engagement of celebrity brand ambassadors are new ways of marketing, making the experience more engaging to Bengalis around the world.
Five Nobel Prize winners have been associated with Kolkata: Sir Ronald Ross (1902, Medicine), Rabindranath Tagore (1913, Literature; first Asian to win the Nobel Prize), C V Raman (1930, Physics), Mother Teresa (1979, Peace), Amartya Sen (1998, Economics).

Other great names from my home town include Satyajit Roy (film director Oscar winner), Satyendra Bose (Bose–Einstein theory), Purnendu Chaterjee (TCG group), business leaders Lakshmi Mittal and Vijay Mallya, cricketer Saurabh Ganguly (Cricket legend), Ravi Shankar (musician and composer).

Most modern Indian cities take pride in rising above ethnicity - Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai will tell you that people from all over the country have gone there for careers and personal aspirations. But Kolkata remains Bengali. It therefore continues with the Bengali love of culture, the triumph of intellectuals over greed, a transparency of emotions, a disdain for hypocrisy and warmth of humanity. If a city is more than bricks and mortar, Kolkata is a shining light as the sum of its people.

Kolkata was nicknamed the ‘City of Joy’ after the 1985 novel by Dominique Lapierre. The city’s culture continues to inspire poets, writers and ordinary people all over the world. Cultural heritage can provide a sense of unity and belonging within a group and allows us to better understand previous generations and the history of where we come from.

Bengal had a glorious past and it is a pity that the state has slid into mediocrity and protesting has become a way of life. But search a little deeper and you will find the deep well of ideas, belongingness, collectiveness, openness, unity and culture are alive today, as shown in the Durga Puja.

In science, in literature, in patriotism, in every sphere of life, Bengal was at the forefront one hundred years ago and this still simmers today. The revolutionary fire that had spread across India, the fire that would eventually force the British to leave India, had originated in Bengal.

One hundred years ago, a young saint from Bengal went to America to spread the glory of Hinduism in the heartland of Christianity. By virtue of his vast knowledge and courage, he was able to spread the essence of Hinduism and won universal acclaim from the delegates of the Congress of Religion. He was our own Bengali Swami Vivekananda, and he told the congress: “I am proud to belong to a nation which has taught the world both toleration and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true”.  As I was able to reflect with friends on this return home, these heroes make us truly proud.

The leading Indian TV and print commentator, Vir Sanghvi, said: “Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your city clean and green, stick to Delhi. You want your city rich and impersonal, go to Bombay. You want them hi-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore’s your place. But if you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta”.

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