The recent Bengali movie, ‘Chander Pahar’ (Mountains of the Moon), probably the first Indian film shot extensively in South Africa was a hugely successful film. Actor Dev played the lead role as Shankar in this the story of a Bengali young man’s life and adventures in Africa, in the beginning years of the 1900s.
A 20-year-old graduate, Shankar, desperately seeking a job, ultimately lands in a job in Uganda Railways, which was then in the process of construction amid the treacherous forests and mountains. Later, he was elevated as the lone Station Master in a desolate station amidst the Veldts, in the company of lions and deadly black mamba.
While at this post, and badly seeking a replacement, he encounters and rescues a man named Diego Alvarez, a Portuguese gold explorer in Africa. Shankar’s life takes an abrupt turn thereafter. This story has inspired many Bengali youths to think fresh about Africa, and reportedly, this year the African Safari is a hit, among the Puja travellers in Kolkata!
Bengalis in Africa
Though Calcutta was the main port, through which labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were transported to far away British colonies, apart from a few low caste marginal farmers from Howrah and Hooghly districts, there were not many Bengalis migrated to these colonies as labours.
But Bengalis were successful in the spreading British Indian Empire as clerks, overseers, post masters, first generation engineers, teachers and accountants. Many of them went to these British colonies and in the course of time lost their identity through random mixed marriages. Railway, Telegraph and Postal Departments were the fields, where Bengalis went to Africa with the British colonialists.
Long before other Indian communities started migrating, Bengalis from Sylleht, of undivided Bengal, started taking jobs in globetrotting ships and settled all over the globe, but never through massive migration.
Some of these lost people are found with distorted names, in Freetown, Lusaka, Saint-Denis or in Guyana. In the eighties, Nicaragua sent its first Ambassador to India, Halima Sarkar Lopez, who is now a senior Diplomat in the Nicaraguan foreign ministry.
Banga Sangha in Tanzania
Banga Sangha is the Bengali association of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Formed by a handful of Bengali families forty years ago, it has grown in strength over the years, ethnically and culturally it’s very much active on the east coast of Africa along the vast Indian Ocean.
The present year (2014), it’s the 37th year of Durga Puja at Dar Es Salaam. And obviously, it is not easy to maintain the tradition, year after year, making such a big arrangement at such a far off country. The Bengali community, despite their jobs and other occupations, still finding time and days for the occasion.
Like the other places, here also the entire community turns into a single family from Mahalaya to Vijaya Dashmi.
It’s a do it yourself at every step. The known software engineer turns into priest, or a famous doctor turns into a book keeper. Apart from that, every lady of the community, turns into a ten handed ‘goddess’, for the festive days and even before.
Budget is made, subscriptions are raised and advertisements are collected for souvenirs. Members volunteer for sponsorship of various rituals and activities and extensive lunch sessions, for different days.
Though Durga Puja in Dar Es Salam is planned to the last detail, with all the rituals, there was one big absence so far, the Dhaaks. During Aarati, the Bengalis had to satisfy with the beats of African drums! But last year, the absence of Dhaak was overcome. Fresh new Dhaaks were imported from Kolkata.
It was not easy. Dhaaks were bought at Kolkata and boarded on an Africa bound ship. After three months, touching many ports of the world, when they landed at Dar Es Salaam, Durga Puja was over. But who can dominate the Bengali enthusiasm! After all the inspection and Custom check-up and paying of duties, when they got custody of their much awaited wishes, they played them with all gusto, on the Kali Puja night, followed thereafter.
Kenya’s Banedi Bengalis
In the neighbouring country of Kenya, Durga Puja is held at the capital of Nairobi and the port town Mombasa. It is organised by Kenyan Bengalis under the banner of ‘Kenya Bengali Cultural & Welfare Society’.
Kenya has more Bengalis than Tanzania, also the Nairobi Durga Puja is much bigger than Dar Es Salam, but everything is done here with a professional precision. Kenyan Bengalis are mostly professionals, so there was no priest specially for the community. The Kenyan Bengalis used to hire the priest from local Hindu Temple for Durga Puja.
But since 2012, they have brought a Bengali Priest in Nairobi, all the way from India. As usual, the Pratima (the idol) is flown from Kolkata. Durga puja in Kenya is a homely affair, where families come together to celebrate. The rituals are still elaborate. But even in this far off land, different ritual items are collected from different parts of Kenya.
Bilva Patras are from hotter region of Mombasa, the lotus are gathered from the lakes near Nairobi. The history of Bengalis in Kenya is old by centuries. During late 1800s and early 1900s, the Mittras and Ghoses had arrived at Kenya, to work for the British.
Basanta Kumar Mittra and wife Jagamaya Mittra, alongwith their three sons had arrived at the port of Mombasa, Kenya in the end of 19th century. He was appointed a Railway officer in Nairobi.
After his retirement Mittra had not returned to India. He had started a business under the name of ‘B K Mittra & Sons’ and had lived in the big house he had built. It was a landmark. In 1914, another prominent Bengali gentleman named Shri Brojo Madhav Ghose joined the Bengali group there from Burma. He was a railway officer too.
The original families that came with British railway project more than 200 years back started with Mittra, Ghoshe, but added with Bose, Sircar and Deys – they are the “Aadi Bengalees” of Kenya.
Their progenies have now scattered all over the world – in UK, in the USA, Canada, Australia and even in India. Later more Bengali families in Kenya followed, who ultimately settled in Kenya.
After Kenyan independence in 1963, they were given the choice on citizenship and they all had decided to stay in Kenya. Today Durga Puja at Nairobi is being performed by the fourth and fifth generation of Bengali families. Joined by the expatriate community.
The Bengalis in Kenya had brought with them, the Bengali culture with them to Kenya. The Kenyan Bengalis are continuing that Bengali heritage, culture and tradition on this far off land, generation after generation.
To imbibe the Bengali culture and teach the Bengali language to the younger generation, a school ‘Bani Mandir’ is running Bengali classes since 1952. The official Bengalee Overseas Association was formed in 1950.
The Kenyan Bengalis are well connected too. Kenyan dignitaries are often the guests at the annual Durga Puja, Every year the Durga Puja Souvenir of Nairobi carries the message from the High Commissioner of Bangladesh in Kenya, along with Kenyan notables.
A recent Bengali celebration in Nairobi even seen the attendance of the High Commissioner of Pakistan. The venue of Durga Puja in Nairobi is the Parklands area (a business hub of Nairobi). Last year (2013) Durga Puja was held in Nairobi was just after the terrorist attack at nearby Westgate Mall.
On Police advice, the cultural functions during Durga Puja were held during day time. No program or gathering was allowed at night, due to security reasons. There in the afternoon mostly ladies, kids and elderly gentlemen came in large numbers. It was a homely and friendly Pujo, as usual. Saris, specially red bordered Bengali saris were all around, fondly brought from India!
The Lagos Durga Puja
Last year, the Bengali Band Surojit O Bondhura performed in Lagos, at the invitation of the Bengali Association in Nigeria. Lagos was echoed with the rhythms of contemporary Bengali specials. It was a mixed bag. A few of Tagore songs apart from the latest numbers from the popular Band. Specially the hugely popular number: Barandaye Roddur!
Lagos Durga Puja is celebrating its 37th year. The venue is ‘New Castle Hotel’ premises. Due to some reasons, in Nigeria, the Bangladeshi Bengalis outnumber the Indian Bengalis. Also they are very much active.
So naturally, Durga Puja here is purely a Bengali celebration transcending the religious line. Many prominent Muslim gentlemen from the organisation, Bangladesh Community in Nigeria (BCN) are patrons and participants of this big annual celebration.
Durga in South Africa
‘Bengali Association of South Africa’ (BASA) the premier organization in Johannesburg that promotes the Bengali language, literature, culture and heritage in South Africa is the organiser of annual Durga Puja.
It’s a gala affair here at the George Lea Park. In the premises of Sandton Sports Club.
Around 500 Bengali families of Johannesburg and adjacent areas, celebrate this annual occasion with traditional Puja and Aarti, Community Lunch, Ananda Mela and various cultural programmes.
The Durga idol is generally flown from the potters’ colony ‘Kumartuli’ of Kolkata. The other Durga Puja is held in a solemn traditional way, at the Ram Krishna Mission Centre in Durban, since 1942. Durga Pujas are also held in Lusaka (Zambia) and Kampala (Uganda) in Africa.
Where There Are Bengalis, There is a Durga Puja Celebration.
London has the largest number of Durga Puja celebrations outside India.
There is virtually a Durga Puja at every Mohalla of London. The British Government now allows the immersion of Durga idols in the Thames River, since 2006. The Ealing Town Hall Puja, which is known as the London Sharad Utsav, perhaps one of grandest and oldest.
There is the London Durga Puja at Camden Centre. The Hampstead Puja, at London North West. South London Durga Puja at Bond Road. The Sanatan Association Durga Puja at Bethnal Green. Tooting Durga Puja at Upper Tooting Road. To name but a few!
Apart from London, there are scores of Durga Pujas in Birmingham, Berkshire, Leicester, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Glasgow, Grimsby, Cambridge, Cardiff, Liverpool and Dublin.
At 4,200 miles away from Kolkata, the members of the ‘Bengalis in Denmark’ in Copenhagen had already lifted their Durga idol from the potters’ quarters in Kumartuli. Guest performers from Germany and Sweden are to add attractions to the cultural evenings, along with the Danish group ‘Benodan.’
Helsinki and its neighbourhood in Finland has now two Durga Puja celebrations now.
Germany has two well-known Pujas, one at Berlin, the other at Cologne. Before 80’s Bengalis were the largest Indian community in Germany (West).
Moscow Bengalis has their Durga Puja celebration at Akademika Anokhina Street.
In China, the Hong Kong Durga Puja is two decades old. The recent addition is the Shanghai Durga Puja.
New York region in the USA has now almost two Dozen Durga Puja celebrations. After New York, the Houston and Dallas areas in Texas are the house of a thriving Bengali community, who have now many cultural, community and religious organistions celebrating Durga Puja in an ever growing number.
By: Deep Basu
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