Discover the transformative journey of Durga Puja from Bengal to America, a story highlighting the Bengali diaspora's cultural resilience and unity through adaptation and celebration.
Durga Puja, a traditional and culturally significant festival for Bengalis, has long been a beacon of unity and identity for the Bengali diaspora. Rooted in West Bengal, India, this festival pays homage to the goddess Durga's victory over the buffalo demon, Mahishasura, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. Yet, as the winds of migration carried many Bengalis to the distant shores of America, the quintessential Durga Puja has been celebrated with undying fervor, though with some adaptations.
The Beginnings of Durga Puja in the USA and Subsequent Adaptations
The initial waves of Indian migrants, particularly Hindu Bengalis, in the mid-1960s were students. They yearned for the comforting embrace of their culture and traditions, trying to recreate facets of home from food to music. Still, Durga Puja celebrations were initially modest and sometimes just a distant dream.
However, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 catalyzed a shift. The ensuing migration of professionals from West Bengal saw people with a vision of a more permanent life in the US. With them grew the need and desire to recreate the vibrant Durga Puja festivities.
By 1969, a sense of community formed, with events like Bijoya Sammelani in Los Angeles becoming a communal gathering point. The following year saw a full-scale Durga Puja in a Chicago suburb, marking the inception of an enduring tradition.
The challenges were many: limited vacation days led to the compression of the usually extensive celebrations into weekends. Finding venues that catered to the growing Bengali community was another hurdle. Initially, university spaces such as Columbia University and Rutgers University became the venues of choice. With time, these spaces proved insufficient, giving way to high schools and community centers.
Cultural practices like the “dhunuchi” (an incense-burning ceremony) and “bhog” (food offerings) were incorporated, albeit in modified forms. These adaptations, along with events like Devi Bodhon, pushpanjali, and sandhya aarti, brought nostalgia to homesick Bengalis.
The Pioneers: Sanskriti and Kallol
Among the earliest and most prominent Durga Puja celebrations in the USA are those organized by Sanskriti in Maryland and Kallol in New Jersey.
Sanskriti, over its 50-year legacy, has been a torchbearer of Bengali culture and heritage in Maryland. Their celebrations encompass the vibrant "bodhon" (invoking of the deity), live "Chandipath" (recitations), rhythmic "dhunuchi nach" (dance with incense), and other cultural events. With renowned music bands like Bhoomi performing this year at the Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Sanskriti ensured an immersive experience blending the traditional with the contemporary for attendees.
Caption: Renowned Bengali music band, Bhoomi performing at Sanskriti Durga Puja, Watkins Mill High School, Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Conversely, Kallol of New Jersey, established in 1975, remains one of the most significant Durga Puja hosts in the United States. It is a three-day event which attracts over 4,000 attendees annually and is a testament to it’s the prominence of the Bengali community. From modest beginnings, Kallol has grown to host artists like Kumar Sanu, Bappi Lahiri, and Pandit Jasraj. This year, Kallol hosted renowned Bengali artists, such as the Indian playback singer - Shaan, Bengali rock band – Prithibi, the famous Bengali singer in Kolkata, India – Lopamudra Mitra, and more at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Somerset, New Jersey. Their Puja isn't just a religious event; it's a cultural extravaganza. Bhawani Mukherjee, a founder, captures the sentiment perfectly, "I haven't seen a Durga Puja in Kolkata in 50 years, but I don't miss it since I can't imagine living without Kallol's Puja."
Furthermore, Kallol's philanthropic sub team established in 2006, Medha, focuses on aiding the underprivileged in both India and the United States and ensures that the younger generation remains connected to their cultural roots.
The celebration of Durga Puja in the United States is a testament to the indomitable spirit of the Bengali community. While they have had to adjust to new norms and constraints, their unwavering commitment to preserving this cherished tradition is evident. These celebrations showcase the community's resilience and the universal nature of cultural and community bonds. As Durga Puja festivities light up various corners of the U.S., they echo a sentiment: traditions, no matter how far from home, have the power to unite, resonate, and thrive.
Mrittika Guha Sarkar is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service. She is further an Associated Research Fellow at the Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden.