Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal: The Fortunes of Hindu Festivals

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Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal: The Fortunes of Hindu Festivals. By RACHEL FELL MCDERMOTT. New York: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. xviii + 372, illus. $29.50 (paper), $89.50 (cloth).

How does one review a book that, page after page, is as enlightening as it is engaging, timeless and steeped in history, analytical and colorful, scholarly and funny, and in every respect representative of the phenomenon it dissects and brings to life as distinctly as any act of collective enthusiasm and exuberance can be captured between two covers? After--or rather while--writing two books of exegesis and translations of devotional poetry to Kali and Uma. Rachel Fell McDermott has stepped out into the teeming streets which the great Sakta festivals render impassable every autumn in Bengal. One might be tempted to shrink back and abide by the advice "Come back after the Puja." which is dispensed to all who may attempt to achieve anything in Kolkata at that time.

McDermott has distilled two decades of observations in Bengal and in diasporic communities in America, and extensive readings of foundational texts and historical accounts into a structured, yet flexible, volume, much of which is written in the first person, and which is thick with 74 pages of notes. The first five chapters focus on the dominant Durga Puja, the next two on Kali Puja.

Chapters 1 and 2 are most explicity historical. They explore the origins of Durga Puja and the impact of the pre-colonial aristocratic families that celebrated it at great expense for their relatives and invited guests. Follows a history of the Puja in colonial times, when, consistently with the progressive alienation of rulers and ruled, the British ceased to attend the festivities and increasingly cast them as warped and decadent. Remarkably, the Pup remained little affected by communal strife during the trauma of partition. Chapter 3 looks at Durga Puja as an expression of, and vehicle for, nostalgic memories of ancestral home, childhood, family, and tradition. Chapter 4 surveys the evolution of the image of Durga and, to a much lesser extent, Jagaddhatri. Originally shown in static pose, with her children and with features that magnified awe-inspiring eyes to elicit darsan, a style that some old families strive to maintain, the goddess became portrayed in the 1920s as a dynamic, anatomically correct feminine figure slaying the demon, which became increasingly theatrical from the 1960s and sexualized in the 2000s. McDermott sees in this transformation the influence of European realism, but does not draw a connection between a newer emphasis on the goddess as demon slayer and the struggle for Indian independence. In a delicately balanced section, however, she discusses the iconographic similarities and differences between the goddess of Bengal and the Bharat Mata of Hindu nationalists against the background of Bengali political leanings. …