Durga puja’s colonial roots

The tradition of community Durga Puja in Kolkata was started by Nabakrishna Deb, a key conspirator against Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula, writes Sankar Ray.

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Imagine Calcutta in 1757, when it looked like a village with huge vacant spaces strewn haphazardly. A grandiloquent Durga puja was underway. The venue was a newly-built pucca house built upon a four-acre strip by the yet-to-be crowned Nabakrishna Deb, who named the palatial residence as Shobhabazar Rajbari.

There was a VVVIP at the centre of a podium, an Englishman, colonel Robert Clive of the English East India Company (EEIC), who had conquered Bengal by defeating Nawab Mirza Muhammad Siraj-ud-doula in the Battle of Plassey on June 23 that year.

Clive was the chief guest. Religious scruples were on the wayside and nautch girls, mostly from Muslim gharanas, entertained the Englishmen attending the dance-parties. For the new rulers, beef and ham were bought from Wilson’s Hotel, let alone unlimited drinks that inebriated them.

Unbelievable as it may seem, Deb had the nod from orthodox Sanskrit pundits in bringing Clive, a firinghee, to grace a Hindu religious event in those days. Literary historian and poet, Abanti Kumar Sanyal, throws light on the situation in a small book, Baboo. Clive’s Sanskrit tutor was Jagannath Tarkapanchanan, according to Sanyal, submitted to Clive for a handsome pension. As a result, there was no clamour from the erudite-but-conceited Sanskrit pundits of Bhatpara (now in the North 24 Parganas district).

Deb was conferred the title of ‘Maharaja’ by Warren Hastings in 1766 for his unflinching loyalty and services rendered to the company. This included the drafting of the infamous 1775 agreement between the EEIC and a group of ‘aggrieved’ royal officials, for dethroning  Siraj-ud-Doula, the last king of greater Bengal. The agreement was signed  at the palace of Jagat Seth, one of the signatories and the largest banker of Asia in those days (financially several times larger than the first ten bankers of Britain together). Other signatories included Siraj-ud-doula’s commander-in-chief, Mir Jaffar, Roy Durlabh and Umichand. Also present was the Maharaja of Krishnagar, portrayed as a patron of art and culture, whom social historian Benoy Ghosh described as the initiator of ‘dependent and colonial culture’, hybridised with feudal grandeur.

The conspirators alleged that the young Nawab had instituted an unbearable misrule and was atrociously lascivious, making beautiful damsels insecure, and was a drunkard. This canard was later refuted by Luke Scrafton, the director of the East India Company between 1765 and 1768, “The name of Siraj-ud-daula stands higher in the scale of honour than does the name of Clive. He was the only one of the principal actors who did not attempt to deceive.” He wrote that the young Siraj had taken an oath on the Quran at his father’s deathbed that he would thenceforth not touch liquor – and that he had kept his promise.

The conspirators gradually became a symbol of hatred when anti-colonial sentiment grew during the national freedom struggle. It is said that the land Deb’s house was built on belonged to Sobharam Basak, who was much wealthier, and that Deb pressurised Basak using his proximity to Clive. The new palace had a big dancing hall, an entrance where shehnai tunes used to welcome the guests, a large library of Sanskrit, Farsi, Arabic and English titles, and a mammoth dinner room, apart from scores of living rooms. Much of this is now on the pages of history textbooks.

Deb’s ceremony of 1757 might have set a pattern for the Durga puja, which became a fashion and  status symbol among the upcoming merchant class of Kolkata. Deb and his descendants, like Raja Radhakanta Deb, considered the aliens attending the family Durga Puja as an index of social prestige.

Over two centuries, the festival turned into a socio-religious celebration, more dispersive perhaps than Ganesha Chaturthi in Maharashtra or Dussera in northern India.

Deb, who started the trend, represented the moral degradation of the Bengali gentry. He had seven concubines. Belonging to a lower caste, he was proud of having raped a Brahmin widow, wrote Bhabanicharan Bandyopdhyay in a Bengali treatise, Kalikata Kamalalay. Ironically, in Kolkata, there is a street named after Deb. Never has any political party demanded that it be named after a freedom fighter instead.

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