India is well and truly a land of festivals. With so many different kinds of people celebrating occasions like birthdays of Gods or victory over demons, or just seeking blessings of the almighty in various forms, it is little wonder that we have a 5th season, completely dedicated to festivals and festivities. And while the economy graph dips perilously, the hopes and wishes of the faithful rise joyously, with more devotion pouring into prayers for good health, happiness and peace.
The Durga Puja, a festival of 5 days that sees Kolkata breed a completely new hyperactive sub-culture, is one such import into Mumbai that has grown in fervour and favour in recent years, both amongst the million plus Bengalis residing here as well as amongst those who are ‘Bongs by association’, quite simply, those who frequently binge on food with Bengali friends!
The reasons for this growing interest are not far to seek. A new breed of Bengali film makers, music directors, writers, actors and singers in mainstream Hindi cinema, as well as social dramas based on Bengali families beamed right into the living rooms through television, have created a kind of Bengali Renaissance. There is increased interest in, and awareness of, the culture, the rituals and, of course, the distinctive cuisine of this community, right from the traditional saree-draping like a Bengali Bodhu (bride) to idiosyncrasies in pronunciation (providing grist to many caricatures) to dual names of individuals (the ‘good’ name and the pet name, as seen in the recent Kolkata-based hugely successful thriller ‘Kahaani’) and unique rituals (like the alarmingly loud ululating!) at weddings and other auspicious occasions. Exclamations of ‘Eesh!’ and consumptions of ‘Eelish’ are now commonplace here, while having a Bengali as the country’s president acts as something of a fillip!
So from a single pandal (festive marquee) in 1930, we now have more than 100 across Mumbai this year. But apart from numbers, the scale and size of the celebrations at each well-organised and planned Puja has also increased exponentially. Preparations here are not unlike Kolkata, where the build up starts months before. Kolkata may trump Mumbai in ‘theme’ Pujas – ideas for pandals range from the very traditional thatched-roof, hand-painted, clay-washed, terracotta-infused interiors to the very bizarre button-studded, rubber-tyre encrusted, biscuit and even coin-crusted pandal walls, with fascinating replicas of world famous buildings shaping the marquees. But Mumbai comes up aces in the entertainment quotient on offer at its pandals. This year, the Badshaah of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan himself, will extend his Bong connection beyond Kolkata Knight Riders and go jiggy at the Vashi Puja. Not to be left behind, Abhijeet’s Lokhandawla Puja has roped in world famous musician George Brooks to play to the galleries, while Hema Malini will give an auspicious start to the Rani Mukherjee-fronted Juhu Durga Puja, now at Tulip Star Hotel.
So now that we have immersed ourselves into the glitzy and fun world of the Durga Puja celebrations in Mumbai, let’s get down to the most important part – THE FOOD AT THE PUJA PANDALS. Everyday for the next 5 days, I will fill you in on what to feast on and where to go, so loosen up those belt buckles and roll up your sleeves for a feisty, foodie, festive season!