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Durga Puja pandals in Bengal highlight the plight of migrant workers

As West Bengal gears up for its biggest festival, the Durga Puja, which starts next week, some organising committees have decided to portray in their pandals (temporary sheds), the travails of millions of migrant workers in the wake of the lockdown imposed on March 25 to fight the coronavirus disease — keeping with the trend of pandals reflecting contemporary themes.

At least 10 million migrant workers left cities — many lost jobs because of the lockdown — and returned to their homes in the hinterland. With special trains for them being launched only on May 1, many ended up walking home in April, and even later. Some hired trucks and buses. A few cycled back home. West Bengal alone is estimated to have seen the return of at least a million such workers.

“Not only are we installing statues of migrant workers on the move to portray one of the biggest human migrations the country witnessed after Partition, but we are also coming up with a statue of actor Sonu Sood, who booked chartered flights, trains and buses to help migrant workers return home. A real bus will be parked in our pandal and there will be statues of migrant workers seated inside the bus,” said Ranjit Chakraborty, secretary of Keshtopur Prafulla Kanan (Pashim) Adhibasi Prinda puja committee in north Kolkata.

The puja will be inaugurated by migrant workers on October 19 and residents in the area will switch off their lights at homes, light diyas and maintain a minute’s silence to mourn the passing of migrant workers who died on the way back home.

Artisans at a puja pandal in Salt Lake’s AK block have made life-sized statues, and painted murals to depict scenes of the massive exodus the country witnessed during the 68-day lockdown.

Bedraggled migrant workers — men and women, young and old – carrying belongings and children on their head and shoulders, walking hundreds of miles down national and state highways to reach their homes became a common sight during the pandemic. A few died, even though the centre said in the parliament that it has no data on migrant deaths.

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“More than a dozen statues, depicting people from various walks of life, are being installed in the pandal. They would represent the local press-wala, the panipuri wala, the tea stall owner who basically work as migrants workers in cities. Even the idol of Goddess Durga has been made in such a way that she resembles a simple village woman,” said Raja Banik, one of the organisers of the 33-year-old Salt Lake’s AK Block Puja.

In another puja pandal in west Kolkata, organisers have selected relief as their theme, replacing the idol of Goddess Durga with a statute of a migrant woman carrying her child. Her children, including a son with an elephant-head walk behind her.

“The family represents Goddess Durga and her children, including Ganesha and Kartikeya. The woman is a migrant worker and a mother who is searching for food and water for her children,” said Rintu Das, the artisan.

In West Bengal, puja pandals in and around Kolkata are built around a current theme — from a socio-economic problem to the Indian Premier League to cyclone Amphan.

“We are portraying the devastation caused by cyclone Amphan through jute work — collapsed huts, uprooted trees and dead cattle. The suffering of the people will also be depicted through these jute artworks, which are being deisgned on the pandal walls,” said Gautam Biswas, secretary of Simla Vivekananda Sporting Club.

Cyclone Amphan, which hit the West Bengal coast on May 20, killed 98 people and affected around 100 million people in 10 districts of south Bengal leaving a trail of destruction.

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“In our pandal we are depicting this destruction. The moment people enter, they will be able to see the destruction the cyclone has inflicted in rural Bengal and the plight of the people,” said Timir Sarkar, joint secretary of Chakraberia Sarbajanin Durgotsab which is in its 75th year.

Durga Puja will be celebrated for four days starting October 23. This year, at least 37,000 pujas are being organized across the state, including at least 2500 in Kolkata. Around 1700 pujas are organized by women across Bengal. The list doesn’t include those organized inside housing societies and houses.

The festivities continue for at least a week. The big-theme pujas parade down the road to participate in a carnival during immersion where thousands gather every year. The carnival has been cancelled this year because of the restrictions on account of Covid-19

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