As the setting sun streaks brilliant vermillion across the sky and twilight beckons, the ‘dhaak*’ beats feverishly and church bells toll. They ring through the air. Together. Swisspuja is underway.
Nestled within the Albis range and the Sihltahl Valley’s quintessentially ‘Swiss’ landscape, for a full five days in Autumn, the Shwerzisaal in Langnau Am Albis becomes home-away-from-home for Switzerland’s Bengali diaspora. Indeed, it paints a perfect picture of inter-community harmony as both the greater South-Asian community, along with the local Swiss community throng its halls.
Durga Puja, as it is celebrated in Switzerland, is a landmark event in Switzerland’s South Asian calendar. Managing to be both grand and intimate at the same time, it takes its inspiration from the ‘barowari’ pujos which originated in Bengal. ‘Baro’ or twelve, ‘yaars’ or friends came together in the very early years of the 20th century and organised the first community celebration of Durga Puja. Barowari pujos now thrive across the world. Swisspuja itself is now 14-years-old and, like the rest of its ilk, it has humble roots.
Shyama Pada Coomar, President of Swisspuja 2017, remembers bringing the Protima of Maa Durga and her family as accompanying luggage from Kumartuli to Switzerland for the first time in 2004. “Today, she says, “over 140 families have joined our growing Swisspuja community and we continue to grow every year”.
During this journey, it would be easy to imagine that some of the intimacy that it began with would have been lost along the way. But no. Award-winning photographer and scientist, Dr. Sandip De, whose photographic work has been published in the National Geographic, says, “ I began to click the Swiss Puja in 2009 when I first came to Switzerland for my Ph.D.” He returned to the Puja this year with the specific purpose of capturing the intimate nature behind the cultural spectacle that is the ‘dhunuchi naach’. Sandip describes the ‘dhunachi naach’ as “a dance with the censer, to the accompaniment of ‘dhaak’ rolls”.
The scent of coconut-husk is intoxicating in the cultural sense and at once manages to both transport and root; i.e., it roots one in cultural traditions passed down over time, within families and communities. It transports one to a land one has only physically left behind. The custom is steeped in nostalgia. According to Sandip, Swisspuja’s iteration of the ‘dhunachi naach’ retains both the familial and community spirit that this dance is known for. He compares Swisspuja to “the traditional homely Durga puja of Bengal with lots of warmth, passion and dedication.”
Children dance along with parents and those who have known each other for decades dance alongside those who have just stepped off at Zurich Flughafen. As Sandip’s photographs magnificently illustrate, it is as if everyone present, from the organisers to the visitors, to the community at large, is connected by one common thread.
Swisspuja has also integrated well into Switzerland’s own socio-cultural landscape. In keeping with the ‘barowari’ tradition of ‘themed’ pandals, Swisspuja’s theme this year was ‘Recycling’ – a subject close to the life experience of all those who reside in this beautiful country. In the words of Sandipan Chakraborty, CEO of Sonect and the brains behind this year’s Swisspuja ‘theme’ says “We throw away thousands of things every day without realising their hidden value and their potential for reuse. This year we wanted to show how simple, daily, objects can be combined together to manifest art”.
The decorations attributing to the theme were bright, bold and beautiful and on closer inspection, one could see each piece had been crafted painstakingly from items such as paper cups or old CDs. We were gently reminded of our collective responsibility to the earth and through this, to the very ‘mother goddess’ figure that we sought to celebrate. We were prompted to dwell on how we can each do our bit to live a more sustainable lifestyle and recognise value where we might not expect to find it.
But, of course, all good things must come to an end. The celebrations drew to a close on ‘Dashami’, or the 10th day of the Navratri. Celebrants of Durga Puja often describe the feeling of saying goodbye to the ‘protima’ of Durga and her family as akin to saying goodbye to a loved one because at the heart of this grand festival lies a very secular concept: for Bengalis, Durga is not only a goddess, but also a daughter who returns home to her parents once every year returning to her own household, four (grand)children in tow. On ‘Dashami’, after having spent a blissful five days with her family, it is time for her and us to bid farewell.
Everyone hugs and wishes each other a ‘Shubho Bijoya’ and married women play with vermillion and wish each other a ‘happy, married life’ after having wished the goddess the same. The tradition, known as sindoor khela, is, however, a free-for-all because nobody ever shies away from playing with colour if one can possibly help it.
IT consultant, dancer and mother of one, Jhilam Mukherjee says “ For me, ‘sindoor khela’ at Swisspuja is reliving the village pujas I used to enjoy, where I assisted my mother throughout my life. Here, I have to satisfy myself by touching and feeding the ‘ghot’ instead of the ‘protima’, but then we dance and play with ‘sindoor’ like crazy while the husbands take photos religiously. This is always followed by a lunch of mouthwatering Bengali cuisine”.
Swisspuja has evolved over time but it remains a very human event which is an accurate reflection of the community-family it seeks to entertain, inspire and celebrate. In the words of Shamik Das, secretary of Swisspuja 2017, it is not only an “occasion to come together to celebrate the victory of good over evil while breaking down all the barriers which might ostensibly keep us separate, it is also a joyous occasion to wear new clothes, eat good food, engage in lots of ‘addas’ (discussions), embrace friends, groove to the beat of the ‘dhaak’ and of course, take group pictures and selfies”.
For five days in Autumn, the Shwerzisaal resembles a family-puja, of the kind that is truly difficult to come by these days. It is in fact a community-puja created by friends who have become family. Indira Acharya (17-years-old) says, “During those days when we celebrate the homecoming of the goddess Durga as she visits her parents on Earth, bag and baggage and children in tow, we too get to go home”. Home is a hypnotic, spellbinding confection of nostalgia and reality.
*Dhaak is a traditional drum-like musical instrument
Photo credits: Sandip De and Santanu Chakroborty
(To see more photographs by Sandip, visit www.sandipde.com, for more pictures of the Swisspuja, visit www.swisspuja.org)