Mother Durga Idol at Hazra Park Durga Puja 2015. Photo: Probashionline.com
Amidst the pomp and splendor of various Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata, one Puja stands tall. It stands apart not because it is backed by marketing blitz, or its creative pandal decoration or that it is graced by high profile dignitaries . Its claim of pride is its social conviction that all men are born equal, for this is the first community Durga Puja in the city which is exclusively organised for the Dalits. This indeed is a powerful statement on social justice which each Kolkata resident should be proud of. Hazra Park Durga puja dared to do something which was thought to be impossible 70 years ago when this Puja started. Probashionline.com visited this Durga Puja pandal and we salute the founding fathers and the present generation for doing their bit in making India egalitarian for her down trodden.
The Kolkata Pouro Karmachari Sarbojanin Durgotsab Committee (Hazra Park Durga Puja), started the Puja in 1943 exclusively organized for the scavengers (dalits popularly known as Mathar) who were employed by the Kolkata Municipal Corporations to clean open pit latrines (khata paikhana) and the city‚Äôs sewer system. Cleaning of these open pit latrines was an especially daunting task, where the night soil was scrapped manually and carried as head loads from each house by the Mathars /Scavengers in employ with¬†the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC).
The caste disposition of those days considered the Dalits/Mathars to be unclean and therefore they were restricted from entering the Durga Puja pandals to offer prayer to the Goddess . The dalits would line up along the streets to have a glimpse of Durga when she was being transported for immersion or was being brought to the pandals from Kumartuli where the idols were crafted. The Dalits from afar would fold their arms in obeisance and would wonder why even the Mother discriminates.
Late 1930s and early 1940s was seeing sweeping social movement in the country. Mahatma Gandhi led the crusade of providing equal rights to the Dalits whom he addressed as Harijan. CR Das who took over as Mayor of KMC and subsequently Subhash Chandra Bose assumed the office of CEO, ¬†brought in sea change in the way Kolkata and the KMC looked at its Dalit employees. The root of the Hazra Park Durga Puja has its origin in these winds of change.
During the early 1940s the scavenger colony and the KMC coal depot was located at Sirodh Ghosh market close to the present Hazra Park. One of the Cooli Sardar (Labour Gang Leader) brought a small Durga idol with the intent of organizing a Durga puja for the Scavengers /Dalits. This was indeed a brave move. Unfortunately history forgot to document the name and credentials of this brave man. This was seen as a defiance of the existing caste norms and Coolie Sardar was threatened by the traditionalists. So severe was the threat that the Collie Sardar fled from the coal depot. A step of social reform from within the Dalit community was successfully stifled for the time being.
The coal depot time keeper reported this incident to the then conservancy officer of the KMC , Shri Iahwar Chandra Gupta. Shri Gupta along ¬†with a few ¬†like minded upper caste staff and officers of the KMC took on the onus of celebrating the Durga Puja for the Dalit employees of the KMC. The first Puja was a modest affair and was organized at Kadamtala in 1944. Since 1945 the Puja shifted to its current location at Hazra Park. This was indeed a very big step in emancipation of the Dalits in the city.
Hazra Park Puja Pandal 2015, Photo: Probashionline.com
The Puja came to be known as the Kormochari Samiti Prochalito Sarbajanin Durga Utshob. This Puja continues to be organized with lots of care and the President of the Pouro Karmachari Samiti ( Municipal Employee Union) sits as tantadharak (pujo custodian) in the rituals. As a tradition financial surplus from the Puja is donated to Bharat Sevak Sangha and Ramakrishna Mission.
It is to the credit of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) that it extended its patronage to this Durga Puja during the hey days . ¬†KMC store would supply bamboo, rope, tin sheets etc for the pandal, CESC would provide free electricity , Saraswati press ( government press) would print the souvenir free of cost, the Calcutta Improvement Trust (now KMDA) would provide its personnel and material for the pandal decoration and the Johnstone Company provided the fountain. This tradition continues with a number of Government Departments setting up their stalls at Hazra Park Puja.
Passing on the baton of an illustrious tradition : Shovan Deb Chatterjee , respected trade Union leader and currently MLA of the West Bengal legislative assembly has been associated with the Hazra Park Puja for a long time. His son Shri Sayan Deb Chatterjee has recently been elected as the joint secretary to the Durga Puja Committee. Photo: Probashionline.com
The KMC ¬†maintains its association with this Durga Puja. Shri Shovan Chattopadhyay , Mayor is the Chief Patron and Shri Khalil Ahmed , IAS, Municipal Commissioner of Kolkata is the President of the Puja Committee. Shri Shovan Deb Chatterjee , respected trade union leader and currently MLA of the West Bengal Legislative assembly is the Advisor. Shri Sayan Deb Chatterjee leads the young brigade in maintaining the hallowed tradition of this Puja and is the joint secretary.
As part of the tradition, roughly one thousand Harijans are seated and personally served with bhog and prasad by the upper caste committee members. This is symbolic of respect and dignity accorded to the people who for generations have kept the city clean. It is also a powerful statement that despite ones vocation or birth, every man is created equal.
Probashi would urge its readers in Kolkata to make it a point to visit the Hazra Park Durga Puja and stand for the social cause that this Durga Puja espouses.
West Bengal is the only state in the country which has been able to completely abolish manual scavenging . The initiatives like the Hazra Park Durga Puja have helped create respect for people who delve in our filth so that we can feel clean.