Festival of Humanity
The season of festivals in India has long ended. The hullaballoo around large-scale Brahminic festivals like Durga Puja, albeit less shrill this past year, was not dimmed by any means. Public money was splurged on celebrations of apathy amidst a raging pandemic and a grim economy. The feminine was conflated into the divine and put up on the pedestal as a smokescreen while the deluge of news of violence against marginalised women and trans people poured in. As always, we kept ourselves afloat, buoyed up by the state-sponsored orgy of religious and cultural pride.
Us Bengalis, are proud people. The Bengali bhodrolok claims to be ahead of the rest of the Indian population in terms of his intellectual acumen. We pat ourselves on our ability to secularize our religious festivals and make them inclusive. Though Durga Puja is an expensive affair and belongs to the savarna Bengali household, over time a state and corporate-sponsored pageantry has developed around it, making it accessible to everyone – but only everyone who can afford to be a part of it. The bhodrolok narrative around Durga Puja has shaped itself into a eulogy to the feminine power.
We never miss an opportunity to boast that Durga is the daughter of our households, the darling of our eyes. The festival is a celebration of a married daughter coming to visit her parents’ house for four days with her children. Agomoni songs (literally, the songs of arrival) in expressions of anticipation, anxiousness, grief, the joy of a mother's heart over the short-lived stay of her estranged daughter that tug at every listener's heartstrings abound. Menoka, Uma's mother, rebukes her husband for marrying her gem of a daughter off to a good-for-nothing loafer. However, despite all her reproaches, the mother does not have the power to keep her daughter beyond those four days prescribed by patriarchy. The daughter herself does not have much of a say in the matter.
Which feminine power is being cherished here? One may ask. It is one that works in tandem with Brahmanical patriarchy to maintain its sway over women's bodies and deny them agency. The one whose pain can be romanticized and then disposed of. One that does not threaten the status quo of a caste-laden patriarchal society. The compliant feminine is being placed at the centre to be adored, while dissenting voices are trampled on. The facile adoration serves to distract our gaze from the silencing of dissenting voices and to whitewash the violent erasure of the indigenous resistance against Brahminic intruders.
While savarna artists and writers flock to justify this mind-numbing expenditure of public money over a Brahminic festival with their discourse of pseudo-feminist resistance, they unsee the devious violence that is the cornerstone of Durga Puja. When they construct “Durga” out of marginalised women’s struggles, those voices get buried by their appropriation. These artistic representations feed off the fire from the burning muscles of the labourers and subdue the flame to ensure just enough heat to relieve the privileged of their guilt and make them feel self-righteous for appreciating such art. These representations remain futile as long as the idol at the centre of this revelry espouses violence against the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the ones whose history has been systematically written over for centuries, the ones displaced from their homeland to make space for ‘development’- the Adivasis.
Despite these efforts on the part of the Brahminic society and the state to write over the heroic history of Adivasi resistance to their invasion, the memory of resistance has survived. It has persisted through the folklore, songs, dance, and festivals of Santals in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, and Nepal. The merrymaking festive days of Durga puja for the dominant caste, liberal, ‘secular’ Bengalis are a period of mourning for indigenous people like the Asurs and Santhals. The Santhals mourn the murder of their great leader Hudud Durga by an Aryan woman, a pawn of the invaders, who was given shelter by the Santhals despite them being aware that she might be an impostor. She was not harmed because she was a woman. The 10 days long Dasain Parab used to be a joyous celebration of nature among the Santals. After the death of Hudud Durga, Dasain became a way to commemorate this history of usurpation by intruders and their displacement from their land. By performing the Dasain dance along with songs of laments they relive the time when their ancestors had to flee, disguised as women, from the violence wrecked by the assailants. Dasain Parab provides a window to the indigenous voices suppressed by Brahminic mythologies, rituals, and traditions.
Over time, the grief of the Asur tribe has been rendered silent. The Asurs identify themselves as descendants of the king Mahishasur. They believe that their ancestor was killed deceitfully and Durga Puja is a celebration of that murder. They lock themselves up inside their house for the nine days of the festivities common across Bengal to mourn for Mahishasura and to protect themselves from harm.
Many young people from the Asur community have been distancing themselves from their ancestral identity to escape harassment and discrimination. They are deliberately avoiding the usage of their Asur surname. The use of the Asur language has been declining. Apart from a few places in Jharkhand, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh, the tea gardens of North Bengal and Assam are a major site where the Asur people have lived and been exploited for generations. This particularly vulnerable tribal group was granted the Scheduled Tribe status in Jalpaiguri as late as 2014. Adivasi thinkers and activists are organizing a people’s resistance against the gradual erasure of the indigenous identity and their assimilation within the folds of Hinduism through the restoration of their cultural heritage and by making their people aware of the cultural and geographical invasion inflicted by the Hindu forces- the Brahminic state-exploitative big business nexus.
Durga puja was always a Brahminical savarna festival that dehumanized Adivasi, Dalit and Bahujan people, and it remains so. No amount of tokenistic art installation and sentimental literature around it can undo that. A festival that is built on casteist violence is not one of humanity, and certainly not one of feminist resistance. The dominant caste woman needs to stop falling for the allure of deification and realize that she is nothing but a disposable piece of clay for the patriarchy. She is a scarecrow, made to keep the outrage of the oppressed at bay.
The festival can become a joyous one only when the savarna woman at the center of it recognizes her instrumentality in perpetuating casteist violence, grabs at her freedom taintless of the Brahminical dictate of modesty, foregoes her privilege over Adivasi Dalit Bahujan’s bodies by refusing to be a gatekeeper for caste hegemony, and joins the chorus to dismantle the overbearing Brahminical patriarchy for any celebration of the feminine to be empowering.
Rituparna is a dancer/writer, navigating around the fault lines of gender and caste in the context of indian culture. She writes on culture, indian arts, gender, literature and environment.