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American Durga Puja: Big Money, Class and Caste Corrupt an Inclusive Community Festival

American Durga Puja: Big Money, Class and Caste Corrupt an Inclusive Community Festival

  • Hefty registration fees, color-coded bands denoting higher donations and other classist representations defile what was meant to be a sarbojonin festival.

My earliest memories of Durga Puja go back to Calcutta, West Bengal, a city that transforms itself every year amidst relentless humidity and trickling heat into a heady onslaught of artistry, grandeur, lights, and frenzy to welcome goddess Durga into people’s lives. Durga represents the ultimate feminist symbol ushering strength, empowerment, and good over evil. When I began to read and write Bengali as a child, I often pronounced the words, “barowari” and “sarbojonin,” rolling the syllables carefully on my tongue to make sure the gravity of the words was maintained. In those days, I had little idea what the words really meant, but I was sure they were important enough for every Durga Puja festival to have them imprinted in big bold font near the pandals, the stunning decorative tents which housed Durga and her godly entourage for a week. 

Later, as I grew up, I learned that the words democratized the Bengali Hindu festival and welcomed people from all backdrops, class, caste and creed, literally under the same tent, celebrating together, donning new clothes, eating Bengali delicacies and doing the famous “pandal hopping” to see as many Durgas as possible in her splendid glory and new avatars—sometimes it was a Durga on a rocket ship, sometimes the goddess came in a boat and sometimes, there were subversive formations of Durga enacting resistance in myriad ways. 

The Bengali word “barowari” refers to public community puja or worship, and it is said that its origins came from 12 friends (“baro” means 12 in Bengali) who collaborated to organize a community Durga Puja worship in the late 18th century in a village in West Bengal. Soon after, the community style of worship for local residents seeped into Calcutta in the 19th century. From barowari, the celebrations turned into sarbojonin public events— “for all people” inclusive Durga Puja festivities became a norm in which a feeling of solidarity, unity and inclusiveness was the dominant ethos. Durga Pujas have always meant that—a time to cross boundaries towards inclusivity and a reminder of feminist strength.

Emerging from the harsh pandemic of the last two years, we have been acutely reminded of the precarity and disparities that plague us, and our interdependence with each other in such crises and disasters to overcome them.

Cut to 2022. After having moved through many migrant and diasporic spaces in Europe and the U.S., I wanted to take a few professor colleagues of mine to the local Durga Puja festival for an evening in Orlando, Florida. Durga Pujas celebrated by local diasporic Bengali associations in the United States are not a new phenomenon. Every year, more than four hundred people congregate in just one such local Durga Puja festivals organized by the local Bengali organizations promising a taste of ‘home’ and auspiciousness celebrated in togetherness. 

And yet, these festivals beg us to question whose celebration this is and what has become of the “inclusive” all-embracing pujas in the Indian American diasporas? Hefty registration fees running over hundreds of dollars are mandatory. When asked if we professors could just visit one evening of the weekend and glance at the goddess without registering for dinner or cultural fare, we were reminded that people often ask such favors but then proceed to sneak in dinner. We were then, offered a special price to enter the premises and register for a hundred dollars per person for one evening! 

I am not new to this diasporic Durga Puja scene, and the point is not whether I should have paid the entry fee. Decades in New Jersey had already exposed me to the glitzy class and status dynamics of the traditional and cultural events there. Family packages, single-person rates, doctoral student rates all come with outrageous price tags, often setting the bar so high that the spectacle of wealth becomes the underscoring element in such events. The exorbitant entry fee syndrome for something that began as a free-flowing “all-embracing” religious and cultural festival tragically holds exclusionary boundaries and a reminder that not all are welcome here in these public spaces. 

To be sure, these organizations in local chapters of cities far away from the Indian context pull off an extraordinary job in commemorating such traditions and festivals—indeed, thousands of Bengali people get to celebrate Durga Puja in the United States alone. Sadly, they also flourish as exclusive pockets of classist representations of the once sarbojonin festival that are now mired in tacky maintenance of class. In many of these celebrations that occur in enclosed spaces of schools or auditoriums, people must wear color-coded bands, denoting higher registration fees than others that would enable them access to a lavish dinner and secure a seat to the entertainment program for the evening. 

Literally, a spiritually auspicious occasion is turned into a fetishistic bodily marker of status and wealth! Not just limiting access and hierarchizing Bengali circles, the way these diasporic Durga Pujas are organized, they also bar possibilities of any intercultural/faith dialogue and interaction beyond a certain class of Bengalis in America. While in India, Durga Puja means feasting and celebration for all, caste bias is implicit in diaspora celebrations also as it is a well-known fact that it is primarily upper caste Indians who have ‘made it’ abroad. 

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The alternative is possible. An exemplary model is Northeast England’s Bengali association which has been celebrating Durga Puja since 1999 and opens its doors to everyone, even beyond the Bengali community. Research Fellow from Newcastle in England, Dr. Samraghni Bonnerjee, explains that the organization is run by a committee whose goals are to welcome everyone. More than two hundred people are offered food twice a day to anyone who visits, and that number increases on special days of the celebration. There is no chasing of money or gatekeeping, and people offer whatever donations they wish to contribute to run the festival. 

Emerging from the harsh pandemic of the last two years, we have been acutely reminded of the precarity and disparities that plague us, and our interdependence with each other in such crises and disasters to overcome them. Just last week in Florida, thousands of people are making a fragile recovery from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian and striving towards normalcy. As the Bengali diaspora gathers in different parts of the United States thronging in a celebration of life, perhaps it is an apt time to question what exactly we might be celebrating and how might such a celebration build and sustain a true sense of community.

We ended up not going to the Durga Puja this year. We decided to celebrate with each other. 


Amrita Ghosh is an Assistant Professor of South Asian literatures at the University of Florida, Department of English. She has published widely in the field of postcolonial literatures and is the Co-Founder Editor of Cerebration and an occasional podcaster at Borderland-Beats.com

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  • What a thought-provoking piece! Unfortunately, Hindu Americans “quarantine” themselves in a bubble without regard to the larger American community or even outside their own subset (in this case, Bengali).

    Having grown up in the States in the late 70’s and 80’s, my Hindu heritage incited ignorant Caucasians to bully me. “You worship cows,” they would taunt.” To further exasperate this, textbooks taught that Hindus burn widows into the funeral pyre.

    These experiences compelled me to work toward dispelling stereotypes about Hindus and today, I lead Hindu temple tours for curious Americans.

    Sadly, the Trump and CRT era has once again ignited a prejudice towards Hindus. So, whenever I hear of large-scale events or the groundbreaking of new temples in U.S. cities, I first ask: what are you doing to protect our children and grandchildren from potential attacks? What are you doing to reach out to non-Hindus and educate them about Hinduism?

    I hope most of the money collected for these poojas and temples are advancing Hinduism in a deeper way and not in making golden idols of mythical gods and goddesses.

  • There is a cost to celebrate such large scale socio-religious events, cost of renting venue to arrange for food, programs and everything. The cost is ever increasing and is inflated almost 40% over last year.
    Someone has to pay for it. So paying a subscription is unavoidable. What’s avoidable and sensible is to request individuals to contribute according to their ability so that a student or a new comer with limited earning is not charged at the same rate as someone who is well established in the country over the last 30 years.
    In any civilized society, it’s not strange to expect that the rich and the financially able will partially subsidize the expenses of the not so financially able folks so that no one is deprived of the enjoyment.
    Therefore, while tier system of classism based on contribution of subscription is despicable, it’s also unavoidable at the same time that everyone contribute according to their capabilities.

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