Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Puja Snippets

Another Durga Puja came and went by. Last year I did not write a post on the Puja here in New Jersey simply because I felt it was not worth the trouble. The Puja here is just another excuse for people to meet and party. A suitable weekend is chosen around the time of the real Puja and everything religious is completed within that weekend. Or to be precise, the mornings of that weekend. The evenings are for merry-making. The non-resident Bengalis arrive in their cars and run to the dinner queue from the parking lot. After dinner they enter the auditorium from a side door and fight over seats with other fellow "Bongs." Then someone suddenly remembers that they forgot to take a picture with the idol in the background this year, and they run to the goddess who stands neglected at one side of the hall. Sanitized. No dhak. No sandhya arati. No incense fumes for fear of setting off the fire alarms. A bare minimum of flowers lest the idol gets stained and rendered unusable for next year. They buy Bengali books, Puja issues of Bengali magazines, DVDs of Bengali movies, saris and jewelry from the stores put up on the premises. Then there is a lot of song and dance till midnight, and everyone goes home satisfied that they enjoyed another great Puja. So I had decided I didn't want to write about this kind of Puja on my blog. This year, however, I will describe a few things that happened during this weekend here.

House Full

Kallol of New Jersey organizes one of the larger Durga Pujas in the state and they were charging $65 per person ($40 for students) for participating in the celebrations this year. Participation means letting you see the idol (which they had kept stowed away somewhere since last year), feeding you dinner for three nights and letting you watch the cultural functions by famous and not-so-famous celebrities ("The famous Miss Xyz who won Zee TV's Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa in 2005"). This combination of goat meat and music seemed so irresistible to the local culture-deprived Bengalis that the number of registrations permitted by the New Jersey Fire Code was reached within seven days of opening the gates. I tried registering on the eighth day and found the "House Full" sign staring me in the face on their website. Of course, being an Indian and a Bong I knew that house full seldom meant house full and I managed to get a kind of back door registration due to the infinite resourcefulness of my sister-in-law and owing to the fact that my nephew was acting in a play there. Of course, when I walked into the hall and saw last year's idol, much of my enthusiasm ebbed away, but that is a tale of misplaced expectations and it's no use ranting about it here.

Unbroken Song

When Pundit Jas Raj took his seat on the stage at ten on Friday night, there was utter chaos in the auditorium. Men were discussing the economy, women other women and the kids were running around the place chasing each other. The mood was anything but suitable for a classical singer and I did not help remembering Tagore's lines about Baraj Lal, the old singer in the poem "Broken Song":
Old Baraj Lal, white-haired, white turban on his head,
Bows to the assembled courtiers and slowly takes his seat.
He takes the tanpura in his wasted, heavily veined hand
And with lowered head and closed eyes begins raag Yaman-kalyan.
His quavering voice is swallowed by the enormous hall,
Is like a tiny bird in a storm, unable to fly for all it tries.
Pratap Ray, sitting to the left, encourages him again and again:
"Superb, bravo!" he says in his ear, "sing out loud."

The courtiers are inattentive, some whisper amongst themselves,
Some of them yawn, some doze, some go off to their rooms;
Some of them call to servants, "Bring the hookah, bring some pan."
Some fan themselves furiously and complain of the heat.
They cannot keep still for a minute, they shuffle or walk about -
The hall was quiet before, but every sort of noise has grown.
The old man's singing is swamped, like a frail boat in a typhoon:
Only his shaky fingering of the tanpura shows it is there.
I hoped switching off the lights would probably quiet the crowd and help Punditji concentrate and was really surprised at the confidence of the man when he asked for the lights to be switched on. "I want to see my audience," he said in broken Bangla, "I want to see if my song is reaching you." When he started singing, I realized my mistake; I had been remembering the wrong Tagore lines about him. His singing could only be described as
The seven notes dance in his throat like seven tame birds.
His voice is a sharp sword slicing and thrusting everywhere,
It darts like lightening - no knowing where it will go when.
He sets deadly traps for himself, then cuts them away:
The courtiers listen in amazement, give frequent gasps of praise.
I am no connoisseur of Indian classical music, but it wasn't difficult to sense his mastery over his voice. Although there was a trickle of people leaving the hall at all times, it was more because it was late than because they did not like the music. The rest of the people sat spellbound throughout the performance as if stunned by the singing of Goopy Gyne.

A Timeless Masterpiece

A Bengali movie made forty years ago from a story written about a hundred years earlier. A group of non-resident Bengali kids who have grown up on Cartoon Network and can hardly speak Bengali clearly, let alone read. What happens when you bring them together? The result may not be as predictable as you think.

When Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was first chosen as the story for the children's play at Kallol this year, many of the actors did not know what it was all about. When they saw the movie for the first time, they did not understand many of the dialogues due to the dialect of Bengali used and the poorly placed subtitles. Yet, after a few days of practice, they loved it so much that they genuinely enjoyed acting in the play, and didn't have to be forced like they usually have to be. They learnt up all the dialogues, not only their own but everyone else's as well, and they learnt them up well enough to use them as quips in everyday conversation. They learnt up things not required of them for the play, like the songs being sung in the Shundi court, and used them to pass their time when they didn't have their Gameboy handy. And when the king of Shundi broke his arm fighting with the king of Halla after rehearsal five days before the act, he insisted that he will act despite that broken arm. The most comic moment of the whole play was witnessed by me (and probably only by me) - the children playing Goopy and Bagha had come down from the stage during the play. They needed to go back up and re-enter from the other side. As they approached the stairs, they were accosted by a smaller child from the spectators holding a pad and a pen. "May I have your autograph please?" was the sincere query from this little fan with genuine admiration in his eyes.

Such is the appeal of a timeless classic. We don't need learned critics to tell us why a classic is great. We don't need a scene-by-scene analysis of Ray's movies to understand his greatness. The reaction of an audience that was untrained, unbiased and culturally alien demonstrated beautifully what a timeless masterpiece looks like.

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