Durga Puja is the most visible annual event in West Bengal; the modern version of the puja eclipses many other observanceses including even the important pujas of Lakshmi, Kali, and Jagaddhatri that follow. The spectacular modern Durga Puja was the product of a modern Bengali public that created voluntary organizations. This enthrographic account shows that Durga Puja in the independence landlords, was a very different event, one that symbolized legitimacy and counterposed generous redistribution against the ruthless collection of revenuesm defining a system here called he "sacrificial polity." The offerings and sacrifices mirrored the slaying of the enemies of the gods as told in the Sanskrit Chandi.
Durga puja is celebrated throughout India often as Dassehra, Always in the authomn season. Among the many features of the Puja that are peculiar to Bengal is the notion that autumn season. Among the many features of the puja that are peculiar to Bengal is the notion that autumn is the night of he gods when worship is "untimely" that spring is the proper time for the observance. The contest to dominate the spring season, which has for centuries been the time of the non-Brahmanical Gajan or Charak Puja. The Hindu religious year in Bengal is poised like the needle of a compass, pointing at the "Night of the Gods" in the autumn, opposite end, at the daylight of the spring and the vernacular Gajan ceremony.
About the Author
Ralph W. Nicholas is the William Rainey Harper professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he received his post-graduate education. He began anthropology research in Bengal in 1960 under the supervision of the late Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose and has remained engaged in the study of Bengali society and culture throughout his professional career. He has been active for many years in the American Institute of Indian Studies, an educational and research organization that has advanced Indian studies in the U.S. over the last fifty years. From 2002 until 2010 he served as President of the Institute and subsequently he has been Chair of its Board of Trustees.
His research in Kelomal, East Medinipur District of West Bengal, focused on the religious life of all of the people who live in this large rural community. Previous books that resulted from this research are Fruits of Worship: Practical Religion in Bengal (2003), for which he was awarded the Rabindra Puraskar in 2006, and Rites of Spiring: Gajan in Village Bengal (2008).
Durga Puja is a subject of intense interest to Bengalis, which perhaps justifies yet another book on the subject. As will be apparent, I have not stopped with Durga Puja, but continue through the month following, which concludes the period when the gods are said to be sleeping. Although Durga Puja is by far the most important ritual during the night of the gods, the observances that follow are significant in their own right and also for the light they shed on the meaning and calendrical position of Durga Puja.
When I first went to Bengal for fieldwork in 1960 I was not prepared for the scale or excitement of Durga Puja. At that time I concentrated my attention on ecology, economy, and politics; and I found more than enough to satisfy my curiosity. However, toward the end of that stay in Bengal villages, in 1961, I saw first-hand how much care-and how much scarce time and money-people were prepared to expend in conducting a splendid ceremony. In planning the fieldwork on which the present book is based, I acknowledged that although people are terribly concerned about their very serious economic and political problems, the center of gravity of their culture is elsewhere. Worshiping deities, which goes on year-round, is an arena of expression and performance that elicits a passionate engagement seldom seen in the world of work.
When I went back to Bengal in 1968 I looked for a rural community that would provide a full cycle of Hindu religious activities. My partner in fieldwork in 1960 and 1961, Tarasish Mukhopadhyay, located Kelomal with the help of his father, the late Hrishikesh "Tunu Babu" Mukhopadhyay of Tamluk. T unu Babu was a class friend of the late Birendranath "Dasu Babu" Ghosh. Dasu Babu welcomed me and my wife Marta, together with Tarasish (who was known as "Patu Babu"), into the village, and, as will be apparent, into the Ghosh Bari, where we were able to participate in the activities of their extended family with a wonderful degree of acceptance. The Ghosh Bari was then and is now a highly educated and accomplished group of people, different from the artisans, cultivators, and fishermen whom I had worked with previously. Of course, the community of Kelomal also includes many artisans, cultivators, and fishermen; and we worked equally with them in the 1968-70 period. I have described important aspects of their ritual lives in two previous books. But the autumnal rites, of which Durga Puja is foremost, belong to the high castes that formerly dominated the villages.
Birendranath, and others of his generation, especially Rajanikanta and Binay, were unfailingly helpful and generous in welcoming us into their family and their pujas. These were people who had come of age during the 1930s and who had lived through the cyclone that devastated Medinipur District in October of 1942. The cyclone was followed in 1943 by the most devastating famine of modem times. These events were recalled as turning points, when the grandeur and generosity of previous pujas were curtailed under extreme duress. If we had not been able to work with people of their generation, we would have received a different picture of the tradition to which the Ghosh Bari still adheres in 2012. The changes that accompanied independence in 1947, and the reform of landholdings that followed, further eroded the splendor of the pujas. In the twenty, first century the Ghosh Bari Durga Puja is financed mostly by salaried professionals rather than landlords. In the rituals and context described in this book, I was able to see the skeleton of the sacrificial polity, the constitution of the rural society of Bengal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a class, the Bengal zamindars were not reputed for their generosity or genteel conduct, but Durga Puja and the rituals of the autumn season placed them in a benign and open-handed relationship to their dependents for at least a few very significant days each year.
Dasu Babu, Tunu Babu, and even Patu Babu are all gone now.
I did not mean to wait so long to write about fieldwork done 40 or more years ago. In 1968 I was a member of the faculty of Michigan State University. A Fulbright-Hays Fellowship for Research in India supported 1968-69 fieldwork. Perhaps because he too was an anthropologist, Professor William T. Ross, Director of the Asian Studies Center at Michigan State University, understood my need to complete observation of the annual cycle and generously supplied additional support for a three-month return to Bengal in autumn of 1970. I would like to acknowledge my debt to Bill Ross, though he is regrettably no longer in a position to receive my thanks. In 1971 I moved from Michigan State University to the University of Chicago, where I took up a series of responsibilities that occupied most of my time until I retired in 2000.
After retirement I was elected President of the American Institute of Indian Studies. While that position was in some measure a continuation of the administrative work that had occupied most of the previous thirty years, it also offered many welcome opportunities for me to re engage with India. The two books that have so far appeared from the research in Kelomal, Fruits of Worship (2003) and Rites of Spring (2008), were greatly facilitated by my work with the AIIS. For about 35 years the Indian operations of the Institute were overseen by Dr. Pradeep Mehendiratta. His "retirement" in 2005 was purely nominal; he has continued to serve the Institute as Vice President and has remained very active. However, at the same time, Purnima Mehta, representing the successor generation, has assumed the daily and demanding responsibility of Director General. I would not have been able to complete the present work or contemplate the next one without the continuing help and support of these two extraordinary people.
Among other things, thanks to my many visits over the last ten years, I have developed a warm friendship with Aloke Roy Chowdhury, my publisher under, now two different imprints. I am grateful to him for his continuing willingness to publish scholarly books, which are politely referred to in the book trade as "low- volume publications." Continuing conversations with colleagues in India have been particularly important in developing my views about Bengali society and culture: Since we first met in 1960, I have maintained a close friendship with Andre Beteille, now retired from a distinguished career in sociology at Delhi University; in the summer of 1965 we conducted a joint seminar on village politics at the University of Chicago, and we have been exchanging ideas ever since. Also important in developing my views about the shaping of Bengali culture have been discussions with Kunal Chakrabarti of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Jawhar Sircar, IAS, whose successful career as a bureaucrat has deprived us of years of devoted scholarship.
Marta Nicholas is an acute observer and diligent fieldworker.
She contributed a major portion of what is written here. She was in the thick of these rituals day and night. Marta's brother Daniel Weinstock joined us during Durga Puja in 1970 and, though Bengali culture and village life were new to him, he is an excellent photographer and added a great deal to the detailed photographic record of the pujas.
Tarasish taught me most of what I know. In 1960 Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose, who was our guru, said that I should teach Tarasish about anthropology and he should teach me about Bengal. Our exchange was far from symmetrical. Tarasish was a fieldworker whose quest for detailed knowledge of the lives and practices of people in the Bengal countryside carried him to the end of his life, which was sadly far too short. His work enriched mine in every way. I hope my publications can contribute to a further appreciation of his great contribution to the ethnography of Bengal.
Marta is also an exacting editor and clarifier. Evidence of her patience and persistence is that she has continued to deal with my writing for the last 46 years. Marta and I have learned a lot from our friendship with Akos Ostbr and Una Fruzzetti: our fieldwork was close to theirs in time, place, and subject; and we have shared a great deal over the years since. I have had invaluable help and guidance from Aditi Nath Sarkar, who has helped me clarify much of what follows here. Rachel Fell McDermott generously shared with me her detailed investigation of the history, evolution, meanings, social settings, and worldwide dispersal of Durga Puja, which will have been published by the time this book appears. David Curley's study of Middle Period Bengali literature has contributed a great deal to this and other studies. Tarun Mitra and Subir Sarkar added to my stock of knowledge every time I raised a question or offered an interpretation. As a result of the stimulation these colleagues and friends provided, this book unfolded from ethnography into history and a study of the multiplex layering of the myths and rituals.
I was educated in the conviction that anthropology is an empirical science that pursues objective explanations of human phenomena, whether cultural, evolutionary, or psychological. Obtaining correct explanations is rarely a simple matter, whether it is the interpretation of a fossil, a piece of statuary from an archaeological excavation, or ethnographic observation of customary practices such as those I describe here. Interpreters of such facts sometimes have commitments to particular perspectives that predispose them to particular interpretations, which may be biased or incorrect. Bias does not mean that there is no objective truth; the constant exercise of critical faculties is an obligation of a scientist. Close observation and questioning can make interpretive anthropology empirical. I do not think that all intellectual work is necessarily prejudiced by personal, class, or political interest. Objectivity may be difficult to obtain but it is not impossible. Studying religion-whatever we choose to mean by that word-in a scientific way is challenging because it touches on the fundamental intellectual framework, the cosmology, and meaning of life of some human community, and these need to be treated with caution. In the absence of religious bigotry or destructiveness, I do not see any reason to attack or attempt to undermine a structure that gives people meaning and a means of comprehending what might otherwise be senseless. Objective does not necessarily mean disinterested; scientific does not necessarily mean unsympathetic.
Durga Puja looms so large in Bengali consciousness that it is usually treated as an independent event. It will be apparent that I have not done so, but rather placed it in the context of the calendar and the annual cycle of Hindu rituals in Bengal. The connection linking Durga Puja, Kojagari Laksrni Puja, Kali Puja, and Jagaddhatri Puja-s-which follow one another in quick succession-is based on dominance, subordination, and legitimate rule. However, the relationship between Durga Puja in the autumn and the Gajan in the spring is not so immediately obvious. Treating the entire ritual year as a total structure has illuminated my thinking and provided a perspective that I hope others will find as revealing as I have.
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