The myth goes that Durga returns to her parental home for four days – this is Durga Puja. The mighty goddess created from the fire of the gods, armed with ten weapons in her hands, vanquisher of evil as she drives the trident into the demon Mahishasura. She is at once the powerful, multitasking goddess as well as the beautiful, benevolent, compassionate mother. She holds a special place in the heart of every Bengali. Hers is the mother of all festivals in the land.

 

This year in London, there is a festive air in Hampstead – Durga again returns to her old home in Belsize Park, where in Hampstead Town Hall she had been worshipped and celebrated annually for 37 years.

 

The first Durga puja in London started in 1963. A group of young Bengali students who met regularly for meals and adda, sharing their financial and emotional lives, had started celebrating Saraswati puja (the goddess of knowledge) at the Bengali Institute, 30 John Adam Street, India League Office. The stalwarts then were Amiya Bose, Ashalata Bhattacharya, Dr. Amiyaranjan Biswas, Biswanath Mukherjee. Among the young enthusiasts were Sunil Kar, Ashok Gupta, Romen Mukherjee, Dilip Chatterjee, Dilip Bhattacharya, Dipak Dhar, Amarnath Sadhu, Nabi Chatterjee, Bijon Chakraborty, and Manab Majumdar.

 

One evening, while an adda session was in full swing - the late Mana Datta (Manada) announced he wanted to celebrate Durga Puja that year. Durga Puja – a five day event – the scale of which is far bigger than a one day puja, requires finance, organisation and manpower. The others thought he was joking. But once decided it was a matter of making it happen. Amiya Bose’s Austin – the only car in the group – was seized on for transport. The directory pages were opened and every Indian household approached for a donation. The members pitched in with £10 each – which in those days was serious money for poor students.

 

Tushar Kanti Ghosh – the editor of the reputed newspaper Jugantar and publishing house Amrita Bazar Patrika – was in London and he was approached to donate the Durga Pratima (clay image which would have to be shipped in from Calcutta). Amiya Bose worked in a printing firm and he printed the leaflets. The young students distributed them at Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street. Two charming young ladies were the front of the fund raising exercise – Devika Biswas and Swasti Bhattacharya. Ambala, the sweet shop, had opened that year – the owner donated the fruit and sweet packets for Prasad offerings.

 

In the autum of 1963 Durga Puja was held in Maryward Centre, Russell Square. Dr. Kumria was President and Dr. Sondhi the vice president of the Durga Puja Dusserah Association. The puja attracted communities from Edinburgh, Glasgow and also from Germany and other countries in Europe. The community was growing – the young Bengali student organisers were now married and had children. The numbers grew and the festival moved to the Indian YMCA in 1965. The puja in Belsize Park started in 1966 and carried on for 37 years. When the surging crowds spilled on to the pavements – the event had to move to a larger venue – the Camden Town Hall.

 

Prosperous and prominent Asian community members gave their support and presence – Lord Swaraj Paul, Lord Bagri, Nirmal Sethia, Gaurisaria. Among the original organisers at Belsize Park were Nimai Ghosh Chowdhury, Satyen Barua, Subodh Burman, Rakhi Mukherjee, Priti Dutta, Ashok Basu, Sandhya Chatterjee, Shyamal Mukherjee. Dr. Sunit Ghatak, Sujit Sil and Ratna Sil are patrons.

 

It is charming to see the original Durga Puja return to its old venue at Belsize Park in Hampstead Town Hall. Some of the original members are here, guiding and planning and enthusing the young second generation youth to take ownership of the festival. This is part of the Bengali culture and heritage, it is about religious rites and rituals but also about collective spirit, myths, stories, music and fun days.

 

Manab Majumdar says, “This is a community puja with a community spirit. In Bengal, many pujas have run for 300-400 years – it is about passing on tradition. We want to hand our tradition to the next generation – to those kids who have taken initiative to do the puja and believe in the joys of celebrating together.”

 

The young committee understand those four days of puja in their own way and have enthusiastically planned cultural events every evening. Some will rise at 4 in the morning to trek to the flower markets, some will be there on the first day to carry the seven feet large image into the hall, others will help with light and design and crowd management. The girls learn about the detailed and colourful puja rituals from their mothers and aunts. The old pass on to the new – their knowledge and passion – the drums roll – the lamps are lit - conchshells blow and Durga arrives!