From the Archives: These series of articles intend to create an archive of the queer movement in Bengal and India – not a chronological narrative of the movement, rather anecdotal histories capturing the little voices that are often lost in general historical accounts – voices from thousands of letters received by Counsel Club, one of India’s earliest queer support groups (1993 to 2002), the group’s house journal Naya Pravartak, and its assorted files and folders.

In the last three or four years, I gave in to demands and requests from friends and family to go pandal hopping during Durga Puja. Not that I don’t like doing so, but my threshold for enjoying art is rather short if it’s to be done in the middle of heaving and sweaty crowds. Even if the idols are awe inspiring, the festive lights and pandal art out of this world, and there’s plenty of eye candy around for distraction.

This year, the coronavirus visitation well ahead of the goddess’ arrival made things ‘easier’ for me. I stayed home or busied myself with usual work, and visited just a pandal or two and shot less than a dozen photographs. But this was a Pyrrhic victory so to speak. It was a sad feeling, and inadvertently turned my thoughts to remembering Durga Puja in the past.

This is a photograph of the inside of the same greeting card as shown in the main illustration of this article. The card is lying open on a file of letters received by Counsel Club. The sender of the card has written out the following message in red ink and bold lettering inside the card: “Happy Bijoya to All Friends and Members of Counsel Club – From Santanu, 11.10.98”. A few letters can be seen filed in the background, but the contents are not quite legible. Photo credit: Pawan DhallLeafing through the letters and greeting cards received by Counsel Club in the 1990s and my personal photo albums was like ‘memory hopping’. The main photograph above and the adjoining one show a ‘handmade’ Durga Puja card received by Counsel Club in October 1998. The stern-eyed goddess in the artwork appears to be wearing a mask and exhorting you to wear one as well!

The next card was received from Kolkata-based trans support group Pratyay in October 1999. Pratyay and Counsel Club were contemporaries for a few years and today Pratyay has grown into a registered trust (Pratyay Gender Trust).

This is a photograph of another Durga Puja greeting card received by Counsel Club in October 1999. In a long, vertically oriented card that seems to be made out of handmade paper, Goddess Durga is shown in a simple flowing dress and open hair standing atop a partially visible head of a buffalo. Five of her hands on the right side are holding a spear pointed downwards at the buffalo, while the other five hands on the left hold aloft a sword. The artistry is minimalist, presented with line drawings in maroon on a light gray background. There is a two-line ‘sholka’ written in Bengali above the illustration. Below the illustration, three people representing Pratyay, the sender of the card, have signed their first names. Pratyay is a Kolkata-based transgender support group and was a contemporary of Counsel Club in the 1990s. Today, it functions as the Pratyay Gender Trust. The card is lying on a partially visible email printout filed in one of Counsel Club’s files of letters. Photo credit: Pawan DhallThe card has minimal but beautiful artwork, somewhat like idols seen in some pandals that move away from a traditional representation of the goddess and her entourage. Looking at the card, I smiled – such a card had to come from Pratyay. Their artistic sensibility has always been praiseworthy, as so often seen in the community events they organize in Kolkata.

As for visiting pandals during the Counsel Club years with a bunch of other group members, it was a rarity. One or two of the years in the early 1990s, when I worked with a business daily published from Kolkata, there were no Durga Puja holidays. The media house that published the newspaper had started nursing national ambitions and the idea of a four or five-day holiday for the staff became unthinkable. So did the idea of braving the festive crowds after long hours of work.

This photograph shows two photographs from a personal album of the author. They are placed adjacent to each other on the front cover of the album. One of them shows a daytime shot of several graceful clusters of ‘kashful’ growing amid wild grass and shrubs next to a highway. In the far distance, one can see several trees and an expanse of the open sky. The second photograph shows a group of five ‘dhakis’ sitting on the ground in an open space and playing large drums and other instruments traditionally played during Durga Puja. The drummers are immersed in their music, quite oblivious of the camera and the photographer. Both photographs were taken by the author as also this photograph of the two photographs.After I left the newspaper to devote more time to Counsel Club and work with another NGO, holidaying outside Kolkata with a close friend and Counsel Club colleague, either in Digha or Santiniketan, became the ‘norm’ for me. In the period 1996-99, I had some of the most memorable holiday trips. But wherever we travelled to, Durga Puja was there everywhere. The adjoining photograph shows pictures from a personal album. The one of the dhakis was taken in Digha in 1997, and the other with kashphul was shot at Koilaghat, en route to Digha from Kolkata in the same year. These pictures are time capsules packed with memories of sights, sounds and smells. How the heart yearns for more such trips again!

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There’s one queer thing about Durga Puja in Kolkata that I’m yet to witness. I’ve been to Durga Puja celebrations organized by a transgender women’s support group five years ago. I’ve seen attempts to blend rainbow pride into Durga Puja observations. But I’m yet to witness the ‘queering of Maddox Square’ during Durga Puja. Hordes and hordes of the city’s queer population, dressed up as much as the pandals (if not more), are reported to descend on the Maddox Square grounds, especially on the last two or three days of the festival. There’s much festive bonhomie and all that, and I suppose people go there as much to be seen as to look around. The goddess, of course, blesses all her children.

According to the ‘universal queer bro in town’ Souvik Som, this festive hangout in South Kolkata became popular with the city’s queer communities around 2010 or 2011, when there was a shift away from the Nandan cinema complex in the central part of the city. Over the years, it’s supposed to have become a go-to place during Durga Puja, with word spreading even beyond the city about the gatherings. Next year, I’ll definitely be there (as I promise myself every year).

About the main illustration: Durga Puja greeting card received by Counsel Club in October 1998. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall