To Be or Not-To-Be: The Rise of Durga in Bengal

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Dr Susmita Chatterjee
Date: November 25, 2010
Time: 15:00 to 16:00

According to popular belief, the celebration of Durga Puja in Bengal, as the great festival of Bengalis, started roughly from the late medieval period onwards. This paper shows that the celebration of the great festival of goddesses in autumn had been prevalent in the region for more than fifteen hundred centuries, and that the practice itself was pluralistic. It looks into four Upapuranas of early medieval Bengal and delineates the politics of the appropriation of local goddesses by brahmanism. The paper argues that the process of emergence of Durga as the brahmanical Great goddess of the region was essentially linked with the loss of the local goddess matrix, and the meanings and symbolisms related to it. Brahmanical patriarchy in early medieval Bengal retained the local goddesses as the primary symbol of the Ultimate, but played down their earlier subjectivities and the cultural ethos which had sustained them. The paper focuses on four brahmanical strategies through which the making of Durga was achieved: ‘identification’, ‘hyphenated- disjuncture’, ‘disembodiment’, and ‘circumscription of the goddesses within family relationships’. It explores traits and trails of other local goddesses that were either wiped off or modified in the process and locates various levels of changes in the mythic and ritual content of the goddesses in the Upapuranas.

Susmita Chatterjee is a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, the University of Edinburgh. Currently, she is working on the the ritual of Kumari Puja in contemporary Bengal and exploring discursive modalities of treating the female as divine. She has completed her Ph.D. at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Her Ph.D. thesis, entitled, “The Politics of Subordination: Transformations of the goddess and worship of Durga in Bengal” focused on the making of Durga as the brahmanical Great Goddess of the region at the cost of the local goddess matrix and its cultural ethos. It looked into the changing mythic and ritual content of the worship of the goddesses in four Sakta Upapuranas of Bengal and historicized the transformations in the phenomenological and gender roles of the goddesses in the context of early medieval Bengal.