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Sunday October 24, 2021

Durga Puja in the US : How it All Began

When I came to the United States as a student in the mid-1960s, I joined a rather sparse community of Indians and (naturally enough) an even sparser community of Hindu Bengalis. As we tried to recreate the homey atmosphere with cuisine and culture, celebrating Durga Puja was far from our minds.

Those were the days when the supermarkets stocked only the most basic Indian spices – ground turmeric, cumin, coriander, and the versatile curry powder. The search for more exotic spices or various kinds of pulses (dal) and pickles (achaar) involved long drives to specialty stores in large cities. As for nurturing our culture, it consisted mostly of post-dinner Rabindrasangeet sung to the accompaniment of the trusted harmonium, which musical instrument had the uncanny habit of popping up at the right place at the right time.

Durga Puja at Ananda Mandir, New Jersey (2016)

Things began to change rapidly after the enactment, in 1968, of the “Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.” There was an influx of professionals from India (and West Bengal) who were older and more mature than us students. They were often married, and sometimes even had children. Unlike the transient students on F-1 visa, these newly arrived immigrants planned to build their careers in the US and live most, if not all, of their lives here.

Their arrival changed the demographics as well as the attitude and perspective of the immigrant Indian community. As their population, at least in big cities, began to reach a critical mass, there was a manifest yearning for recreating slices of life from back home. For the Hindu Bengali immigrants, the yearning focused on celebrating the most important annual festival of the community, the Durga Puja.

I sensed the first murmuring of this in 1969, when I drove with some friends to Los Angeles from San Diego to attend the Bijoya Sammelani. A group of us gathered in the spacious living room of the host family and ceremonially embraced each other, even though we were all strangers. There was a palpable feeling of warmth and nostalgia as we partook of sweets and wished each other well.

Nineteen-seventy was the year when the first community Durga Puja was organized in several big cities in the US and Canada. The community response was overwhelming; people came from hundreds of miles away to bask in the back-home feel and soak in the ambience.

I do not recall any Durga Puja ritual per se that year. That changed the next year, in 1970, when I drove with some friends from Champaign-Urbana to a Chicago suburb to attend a full-blown, ritualistic Durga Puja. I am not very religious by nature, nor am I given to an excess of emotion, but I must say I felt a strange sensation of pleasant familiarity akin to homecoming as I stood in front of the small deity surrounded by flower petals, incense sticks, and intricate alpana (floral and abstract motifs drawn on the floor with rice flour.

Nineteen-seventy was the year when the first community Durga Puja was organized in several big cities in the US and Canada. The community response was overwhelming; people came from hundreds of miles away to bask in the back-home feel and soak in the ambience. There has been no turning back ever since. Durga Puja has continued to be celebrated without interruption — first in the major US cities and later proliferating to suburbs and smaller towns as well. In recounting this history, it is useful to recall the many challenges that the leaders of the Bengali immigrant community faced in those early years. They overcame the challenges with creative thinking and group cohesion, laying in the process the building blocks for the structure currently prevailing to celebrate the Durga Puja.

The first of the early challenges concerned the religious calendar associated with the festivities. The Durga Puja festival follows the lunar calendar and spans four days in the fall. Given that the immigrant community had just started to work in America and had not accumulated enough vacation days, it was clearly unrealistic to transplant India’s tithi– (or lunar phase) based four-day festival on their exact dates in the US. As an obvious compromise, Durga Puja became a weekend event, spanning one, two or three days, depending on the size and capability of the organizing group.

Durga Puja organised by Kallol, New Jersey (2016)

The second challenge was to find a venue to hold the ritual. One early choice was space in the universities. Such low-cost rentals were possible because of the presence within the community of a large number of graduate students and others affiliated with academia. Thus the first Durga Puja in New York City, in 1970, was held in Columbia University. It was (and continues to be) organized by the East Coast Durga Puja Association (ECDPA), although the locale has since shifted to the Gujarati Samaj Hall. The Chicago Durga Puja moved in 1971 to the International House of the University of Chicago. The New Jersey Durga Puja of Kallol was held for many years after its inception at the Scott Hall of Rutgers University.

In the 50+ years since it all began, there have been changes to both of the above solutions. Spaces in universities soon proved inadequate for the festival crowd, and the celebration was moved to other locations – mostly high schools or community buildings with large auditoria. More recently, over the past 15-20 years, the Bengali community in many US cities has been able to establish their own temples and/or secular community centers. These temples, in particular, have their own priests and hold independent Durga Pujas on the correct, religiously sanctioned days. The temple pujas have no impact, however, on the older “weekend” pujas that continue to be organized by social clubs and associations.

Things began to change rapidly after the enactment, in 1968, of the “Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.” There was an influx of professionals from India (and West Bengal) who were older and more mature than us students.

The third challenge was to find a suitable idol (or group of idols) for worship. The earliest images were built by artistically gifted members of the immigrant community, using modeling clay or its equivalent. Very soon, organizations in the larger cities became wealthy enough to import images from India. The initial import of large single-frame images of the Goddess Durga and her companions, made of clay with wooden backing (scaffolding), were very heavy and difficult to handle.

This created a special difficulty in the USA. Because of pollution considerations, the Durga image could not be immersed in a river or lake after a year’s ceremony. It had to be stored, and the movement and storage of the image was proving to be difficult. So the attention shifted to lighter images made of shola (pith). After the initial earthen image was worshipped for a number of years, it was either handed off to a smaller, sister organization for their use, or else donated to a museum. More recently, since shola is far too delicate (brittle) and requires careful repairs or replacement, the preference has shifted to fiberglass images.

Durga Puja at the Adyapeath, USA

The fourth and final early challenge was to find the officiating priest. There being precious few trained Hindu priests in the US at that time, amateurs having the right (read Brahminical) caste background had to be cajoled and pressed into service. And the ritual had to be modified and abridged to fit into the shortened time span. This was done independently by each group for its puja, based presumably on the priest’s opinion and some consensus. One fact that clearly helped in the abridgement on the fly is that the worship ritual is largely the same on the three principal days of the Durga Puja.

Aside from the needs pertaining to the religious rituals, the early leaders of the Bengali immigrant community had to tackle three other issues: financial, social, and cultural. They experimented with different models before settling on the optimum ones that have largely prevailed to this day.

The financial model went through several iterations. Some places instituted a flat fee for the entire festival, while others experimented with daily entry fees or even a voluntary-donation based approach without a mandatory minimum. Over time, the latter approaches were found to be either unwieldy or unworkable. So most organizations gravitated to a flat-rate plan with a suggested minimum based on the family size. (There were occasionally discounts for students.) The Indian barwari puja model of raising funds ahead of the festivities was simply impractical for the widely dispersed Bengali community in the US.

Durga Puja celebration at Greater Atlanta, USA

The social aspect built on its Indian roots with significant expansion. It primarily consisted of distributing prasad (food offered to and symbolically blessed by the goddess) followed by dinner to one and all attendees. Such an expansive obligation was necessary in the US to facilitate a wide participation, because most attendees did not live close enough to the place of worship to go back home periodically for food and return. Local food vendors and fast-food joints were not equipped to handle and serve expeditiously a huge rush of many hundreds of hungry people.

The cultural model was a clear Americanization of what is popularly known in Bengal as jalsa. A jalsa in connection with a barwari Durga Puja is typically held on a make-shift, largely open-air stage a week or two after the puja days. The fare includes songs, dances, and sometimes theatre and the program is free and open to the public. In its American incarnation, jalsa gets absorbed into one or more evenings of cultural entertainment held concurrently with the Durga Puja itself. It began in the early years as mainly a musical program by the local artists. Over the years, it expanded to include invited singers and occasionally drama troupes from India. As the expatriate Bengali community has grown wealthier, the cultural program has grown huge and multi-dimensional – to include full-scale bands on the one hand and celebrated classical musicians (both vocal and instrumental) from India on the other.

the first Durga Puja in New York City, in 1970, was held in Columbia University. It was (and continues to be) organized by the East Coast Durga Puja Association (ECDPA), although the locale has since shifted to the Gujarati Samaj Hall.

Let me conclude with two final comments. First, I have described in this write-up the Durga Puja celebration in the American Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. That is simply because I am most familiar with them, having been in these regions for the past half century. But the situation I have described applies to the other parts of the country as well. Second, the biggest change in the last two decades has been the emergence of temples and places of worship for the Bengali immigrant community. Sure, the Vedanta Society centres managed by the Ramakrishna Mission have been around for over a hundred years and they perform their own small-scale Durga and Kali Pujas within their premises. However, they have limited interaction with the post-1969 influx of immigrants from Bengal.

There is closer interaction of the latter group with newly established independent temples (e.g., Ananda Mandir in New Jersey, Houston Durgabari in Texas, Washington Kali Temple of Maryland) as well as religious establishments with Indian affiliation (Bharat Sevashram Sangha in New Jersey and Southern California, Adyapeath of New Jersey, etc.). The devout among the Bengali diaspora can go to those places, with their experienced priests, for an exact replication of the rituals and activities the memories of which they have carried within them from India.

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