When the ‘City of Joy’ is decorated with lights, the city is covered with advertisement hoardings and long queues outside pandals and restaurants exercise unparalleled patience, it goes without saying that Kolkata is celebrating Durga Puja, the largest biggest festival for the Bengalis. The pomp and grandeur with which this festival is celebrated for five days transforms the people into a make-believe Disney World. The artistic exhibition of idols, pandals, lighting and decorations arguably set Durga Puja apart from all the other festivities in the country. According to a report by The Times of India, it is also one of the largest employment generators in West Bengal, providing jobs to more than one lakh people for nearly six months of the year. In recent years, the festival has emerged as a hub of activity with more than 10,000 pujas in West Bengal and 1,000 more in different parts of the country, as well as overseas.
Festivities with restrictions
This year due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the familiar sights during the Durga Puja may not be visible. The festival will be a restrained affair this time in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus during the Durga Puja. The West Bengal government has issued several guidelines to ensure social distancing from the beginning of the pujas till the immersion. The government has asked to put a stop to the cultural programmes which are an important part of the puja this year in order to avoid a large gathering.
The government has also directed all puja organisers that this year, the pandals should be spacious and open from all sides with a separate entry and exit point for the visitors. Moreover, the organisers must ensure that all visitors wear masks and use hand santisers before entering the puja pandal. The organisers will have to distribute masks and santisers in the close vicinity of the pandal for people who might have come without one.
The state government has also advised the puja organisers to reach out to the devotees through electronic and social media to avoid large gatherings in the pandals. The puja carnival this year has also been put to a stop. The state government also suggested that the immersion ceremony this year has to be done without any grandeur. The puja organisers will have to reach the ghats with the idols without any stoppage in between at pre-allotted timings.
This year, even rival puja committees have even joined hands for displaying a common theme so they can perfect the drive-in concept in order to avoid a large crowd. According to a report by The Times of India, with the exception of a few big pujas, most organisers have reduced the size of the idols to 10 feet from 14-16 feet for logistical reasons and budget restrictions. Kajal Sarkar, Secretary, Bosepukur Sitala Mandir Durgotsab Committee told BE, “Nowadays, pujas are dependent on sponsors. This year there has been negligible business for the companies because of the pandemic situation, so we have not received any kind of assurance from them. So, we had to slash our budget and have to organise the puja devoid of the familiar grandeur.” He also stated that the height of the pandal will be reduced this year so that there can be proper sanitation for the whole structure and there will be minimum lighting this year.
The reduced size of the idols maybe convenient for the puja organisers, however, this has raised concerns among the artisans in Kumartuli as reduced height means reduced price as well. In an interaction with The Times of India, Shankar Pal, an artisan in the potters’ enclave in Kumartuli informed that last year a 12 feet Durga idol along with the idols of her children was sold for `15 lakh. This year, the same organisation wanted to purchase a much smaller idol for `40,000.
Centering around the pujas, a micro-economy runs in the state of West Bengal and help different communities to boost their income during the festive season - from those erecting pandals to the decorators, idol-makers to craftsmen, electricians to security persons, priests to dhakis. In an earlier interaction with BE, Sumanta Roy, Secretary, Jodhpur Park Puja Committee told BE, “This year, the Durga Puja is more of a social responsibility for the puja committees rather than festivity. We could have performed the puja just for formality which would have been restricted to the family members of the puja committee. However, many families earn their livelihoods from our puja and so we are organising the puja which will be very low-profile and devoid of any overindulgence.” Roy also admitted that they had to slash the budget this year and in this tough time they wish to support the distressed sections.
How the businesses will be affected?
A 2019 The Times of India report suggested that the budget for more traditional and low-key pujas revolve around `15 lakh. In case of the big ones, the budget goes up to around `1 crore depending on the location, size and execution. Corporate funding and outdoor advertising account for about 90% of the cost. However, the pandemic situation has also made corporate sponsorships uncertain.
Reacting to the advertising during the pujas, a representative of Shi Jewellers told BE, “Traditional outdoor advertising may not be as popular as yesteryears specially on account of Covid and reduced outdoor events. I personally believe that a major chunk of marketing spends will be diverted towards digital and social media platforms. Local and national OTT platforms have also become a viable option for many jewellery brands.”
Generally, during the festive season of Durga Puja, Diwali and Christmas, businesses witness a better income than the rest of the year. For instance, the restaurants in Kolkata look forward to the festive season for a good business. According to industry insiders, usually the period from October to January is traditionally the best time of year in terms of sales that generates as much as 45% of the annual restaurant business. However, this year things are no looking too bright for the restaurants as well.
Abhijit Ghosh, Marketing Supervisor, Spice Kraft, a popular restaurant in south Kolkata told BE, “There will be 30-40% less business this year during the pujas because of the pandemic situation. As a precautionary measure, we also had to reduce our seating arrangements by 50%.” Ghosh also informed that they are anticipating that there will be an increase in the takeaway facilities of the restaurant during the pujas as people are refraining from waiting in long queues for food, a popular sight in Kolkata, during the pujas. Spice Kraft will also introduce a special puja menu to attract customers and are highlighting the precautionary measures undertaken by the restaurant in social media to attract customers.
Regarding the textile sector, in an interaction with BE, Naina Jain, Founder, Naina Jain Store, said, “Covid-19 had initially slowed down the market but thanks to the upcoming wedding and festive season, the market has picked up its pace. On the whole, the market situation of textiles is slowly and gradually recovering. People are more conscious about what they consume and definitely there is a shift into more easy simple clothing and into more sustainable and evergreen pieces.”
As far as the jewellery sector is concerned, the prices of gold have plummeted in the last few days. As a result, there has been a significant improvement in the jewellery business. Abhishek Kajaria, Owner/ Founder, Avama Jewellers told BE, “With the festive season around the corner, the gem and jewellery industry has started resuming operations gradually and with caution.” Regarding Dhanteras, Kajaria said, “Dhanteras is one of the busiest gold buying days in India, when demand peaks as buying bullion is considered auspicious, we aim to dole out a wide array of offers to attract buyers. We certainly expect an uptrend in the market sentiment and sales from Dhanteras this year.” He informed that like each year, we are stocking up on gold in anticipation of this festive season demand. This reflects that demand is unlikely to cool off despite the pandemic, and high demand will likely push up sales this year too. The Shi Jewellers representative said, “People are looking at this Dhanteras from an investment point of view. Corporates and big business houses too, are looking at silver as a customised gifting solution.”
To facilitate puja in a Covid restricted environment, the West Bengal government has offered several benefits for the puja committees as well. These benefits include free fire brigade services, tax rebate to corporations and panchayats, 50% concessions on electricity for puja organisers in Kolkata and West Bengal and years of puja permissions for some organisers. Hopefully, this year with all the restrictions, the pujas will be organised smoothly without a massive spike in the number of Covid-19 cases.