If there is one Indian festival that unanimously tugs at the heartstrings of a community with its effervescent spirit, bonhomie, unadulterated celebration and deep reverence, it is undoubtedly the ‘Pujo’ or Durga Puja celebrated by Bengalis across India and abroad. Durga Puja is an annual 10-day festival that celebrates the homecoming of Goddess Durga and starts with Mahalaya and ends on Dussehra. It celebrates the victory of good over evil by Goddess Durga and honours the powerful female force (shakti) in the universe. Ask any Bengali what Pujo means to them and you will most often be stumped to hear that it is the most “awaited” time in the calendar that they look forward to, probably even more than their own birthdays!
According to me, Pujo is an emotion, a sense of nostalgia that takes over with Goddess Durga entering our homes and hearts, every autumn. It is about the deep love for culture, the warmth of celebrating together and revelling in the celebration of the cult of the goddess. If you still wake up to the chant of Yaa Devi Sarvabhuteshu or even listen to the record sometime in the day, you will know the feeling I am describing. While the experience of being in Kolkata and soaking up the pujo euphoria and energy can make you giddy with its scale and pace, the celebrations in Mumbai are not far behind.
Glittering Pujo celebrations of Mumbai
In 2018, we visited the North Bombay Sarbojanin Durga Puja Samiti, the biggest and the most star-studded pujo in Mumbai on Maha Saptami to find out more about this legendary puja.
Founded in 1947 by Padmashri Sasadhar Mukerjee and Shrimati Mukherjee of Bombay Talkies, 2018 marked 71 glorious years of the North Bombay Sarbojanin Durga Puja Samiti, being organised by one of Bollywood’s most prominent Bengali families. Every year, the entire Mukherjee clan, including sisters Kajol and Tanishaa and cousins Rani Mukherji, director Ayan Mukherji, Sharbani Mukherjee and their family elders like Tanuja, take an active part in the puja celebrations and welcome thousands of devotees to their family-run puja.
With a brand-new venue at Golden Tobacco Limited in Vile Parle, the 17.5 ft impressive idol of Ma Durga has been sculpted by Shri Amit Pal and his team of artisans from Kolkata and is possibly the biggest eco-friendly Durga idol in the city. Made from materials such as straw (khor), wood, bamboo, nails, shulki (rope made from jute), clay and sand from the banks of river Ganges, cloth, and chalk, the life-size idol draws you with her captivating gaze.
“The theme of the pandal this year is ‘Fort’ which symbolises strength. Around 8,000 plus people are served the pujo bhog every year and the numbers keep increasing every year. With newer technologies coming into play each day, the celebrations are getting better with each passing year, but the service and devotion remains the same," says Debu Mukherjee, veteran actor and organiser of North Bombay Sarbojanin Durga Puja Samiti.
The pujo-bhog connection
The five days of pujo are a whirlwind ride for Bengalis with a mix of festive finery, festive bingeing, and the ritualistic eating of Mayer bhog. Starting from Shasthi to Dashami, the kitchens at North Bombay Sarbojanin Puja Samiti are busy cooking the quintessential bhog for the devotees. No pujo is complete without relishing the khichuri, labra, and payesh at the pujo pandal.
“Keeping our tradition in mind, we serve bhog to all the devotees who come to visit Ma Durga. What makes our puja unique from the others in the city is that we invite people from all walks of life to come to seek blessings from Ma Durga and relish the delicious bhog that is made and served with utmost affection by the Mukherjee family. Everyone—from children to teenagers to adults and even our beloved Kajol and Rani—serve bhog at the pandal. It is a gesture to extend our warmth and hospitality to all those who come to our pujo,” says Samrat Mukherjee, committee member and grandson of Sashadhar Mukherjee.
Meena Chattopadhya, daughter of legendary actor Pradeep Kumar informs us that there is a close group of women in charge of cooking the Maha bhog for the Goddess. “We have seen our mothers and grandmothers cook bhog and we have learnt these recipes from them. These recipes are handed down to us from generation after generation and we have been cooking for the last 30-40 years. The maha bhog made for the goddess is then mixed with the bhog served to all the devotees so that everyone receives her blessings.”
Making of a legendary bhog
Elaborating on the making of bhog, Sharmila Mukherjee, who is also part of the integral team that cooks bhog for the goddess, throws some more light, “While the menu varies a little every day—from khichuri to pulao or payesh to gulab jamun—we make sure that we make niramish (vegetarian) bhog on all days. This is cooked without onion-garlic as per the tradition of Durga pujo.”
With a focus on service and devotion that reflects in the way this pujo is organised year after year, eating bhog here is also a personal favourite, as it brings together the familiar smell, sight, taste and much more. The inimitable taste of khichuri, labra, and payesh remains etched in your memory as you relish these since your childhood is hard to forget. When asked about the secret recipe that makes bhog so very special during pujo, Sharbani Mukherjee explains, “It is nothing but the blessings of Ma Durga that makes the bhog so special. No matter how much you try to recreate the same recipe of khichuri and payesh at home, it will never taste the same.” We agree!
A star-studded family affair
Amidst all the grandeur and glitterati—this pujo is well-known for its celeb quotient with several Bollywood regulars such as Shreya Ghosal, Bappi Lahiri, Sonu Nigam, Alka Yagnik, Shaan, Sumona Chakravarti and more in attendance every year—what strikes you is how the entire Mukherjee family comes together to put together this festive extravaganza. The sons and daughters of yesteryears Bollywood celebrities and their grandchildren—some of who are even modern-day superstars—are involved in some or the other aspect of the puja.
You can spot the grandchildren, great-grandchildren, cousins and other relatives of the family busy doing big and small jobs—from sorting the flowers and petals for the pushpanjali (prayer offerings) to distributing flowers to the devotees on the stage to the adults taking charge of the massive bhog and prasad distribution during the five days to some taking charge of the aartis every morning and evening and then some even swinging to the beats of the dhaakis and dhunuchis that complete the entire experience of Durga pujo. And the brilliant line-up of cultural programmes that are scheduled every evening makes sure that all five days of pujo are spent in the good company of friends, food and music.
Carrying on their family tradition year after year, the journey of this ‘gharua’ (homely) puja is reflected in the growing numbers and its growing popularity. For foodies, the North Bombay Sarbojanin Durga Puja Samiti, like all others, offers a plethora of Bengali delights such as lucchi and alu dum, mutton kosha, rolls, koraishutir kochuri and other typical fare at the stalls inside the pandal.
So, the next time you visit this pujo, don’t be star-struck if you find your favourite Bollywood celebrity serving you a bowl of payesh or some crispy begunis.