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Cultural fraternity worried over strict Durga Puja restrictions, "Hundreds will go bankrupt"

The election commission of India has notified that Assembly Elections in Bihar will take place in three phases in October and November this year. More than 7 crore voters will participate in the celebration of democracy to elect a chief minister. Just a thousand kilometers away in the East of Bihar is Assam. While lakhs of people will be on the roads in Bihar, in Assam, not more than five will be allowed to walk with the idol of Goddess Durga during immersion.

In fact, the guidelines issued by the state make it clear that the roadside pandals won’t be allowed and the Puja needs to be a low-key affair considering the outbreak of Coronavirus in the country. The same country, where an election and election campaigns are allowed, Durga Puja has been restricted.

The Puja is not just a religious activity. The four-day annual event opens up avenues for income for thousands of skilled labourers. The idol-makers from different parts of the country collaborate with local artisans to set up makeshift workstations and then exhibit their skills. In return, they get paid by the Puja committee for idols they make. Pandal decorators do the same, light and sound engineers get contracts, and every day, daily wagers sell various items around busy Puja pandals. Sharod Utsav is Bengali’s biggest festival and is widely celebrated in Assam.

On one side, when the Prime Minister of India is talking about opening up economic opportunities by remaining cautious, high profile ministers in Assam are equating Durga puja with “Rong Tamasha.” Minister of Health Himanta Biswa Sarma after inaugurating the 40-bedded-ICU said the deputy commissioners will meet in the first week of October and roll out a standard operating procedure that needs to be followed during Durga Puja.

Thousands will wait with anticipation for that SOP. However, if cultural activities are considered as Rong Tamasha and a complete ban is imposed then it is going to be a dark cold winter for the ones associated with the cultural fraternity.

Bikramjit Bauliya, a singer who has his own band said that the entire fraternity is on the verge of collapsing. “For us, who have bands and earn a living by performing on stage, Durga Puja is an important festival and with it, we get called for shows. It continues till March. 2019 – 20 was subdued, there was Citizenship Amendment Bill, and the uproar around it. Clubs weren’t given permission to organise events. Then came Corona and now if performances are not allowed during Puja, how will this fraternity survive,” questioned Bikramjit.

He adds, “Not only singers but musicians who play instruments, the sound engineers, light decorators, people who make stages, we all are without income since the beginning of this year. Neither the government nor the elected representatives in the valley; nobody is bothered about our plight and dire situation. In Guwahati, representatives of the cultural fraternity are rewarded on stage but in Silchar, we are sleeping hungry.”

He points out how in West Bengali stage shows are allowed, albeit the attendants need to follow the protocols laid down. In Assam, no such decision has been made yet. “To lay the foundation stone, 150 people can gather. For a political rally 500 people can gather, but during immersion, only five persons can walk together and that too without a sound system. Coronavirus behaves differently in different situations, it is just laughable,” adds Bikramjit.

The Sound and Light Owners association fears it might lose skilled workers, “Many have left and many are on the verge of leaving this field. There is no work and the rumour is that it is going to be very strict during the Durga Puja. Families depend on this business and so far, there is a cloud of uncertainty looming large over Durga Puja Committees and we have got no order for lighting or sound,” asserts Deepjoy Roy, secretary of Sound and Light Owners’ association.

Roy questions if similar restrictions would be followed in the upcoming elections too. “The Prime Minister spoke about ‘atma nirbharta’, we are all exhibiting our skills and creating employment opportunities. Forget well being, why is the administration not even thinking about our survival. All I will say is that at stakes are hundreds of lives,” added Roy.

He also shared that there is a cost of maintenance associated with the sound and light equipment. While they are not earning any money, they are losing plenty in the interim.

Emerging performer Anindita Chakraborty feels the administration should chalk a plan that enables performers to perform in a safe environment. “Roads are busy, shops are open, everything is functioning by following the protocols. It is my request to the administration to allow stage acts as the entire industry is going through an economic crisis. No events since March, the situation is unprecedented, if everything else can operate we should be allowed too,” opined Chakraborty.

All eyes will be on the local district administrations and the standard operating procedure they chalk out. The fraternity, however, is certain that if stage shows are not allowed, hundreds will go bankrupt.

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