A homecoming for Durga… in London

October 8th, 2008 - 10:12 am ICT by IANS  

London, Oct 8 (IANS) Thousands of Bengalis are thronging a town hall in a leafy suburb this week as Durga Puja celebrations return to their traditional London venue after a gap of 18 years. The town hall in Belsize Park, a north London neighbourhood that is home to many Bengali settlers from India, has been visited by more than 700 people every day, organiser say.

The town hall, rubbing shoulders with the upmarket Hampstead neighbourhood, was where it all happened every year for London’s Bengalis - the venue that hosted the puja every year from 1966 to 1990.

But it became so crowded and crammed authorities stepped in to call a halt, forcing organisers to move their popular annual festival to the much larger Camden town hall in north-central London.

The Camden puja remains London’s largest, but Belsize Park organisers say theirs is something special.

“This is a homecoming. We have brought back the puja to its original home,” said Manab Majumdar, who helped organise the city’s first Durga Puja in 1963 - sponsored by distinguished Bengali journalist and newspaper proprietor Tushar Kanti Ghosh.

The Belsize Park puja is one of around 20 Durga celebrations held across the British capital every autumn - festivities whose ranks have swelled in tandem with a growing number of Bengali immigrants taking up jobs in banking, finance and information technology.

Although there is no exact count of the number of Indian Bengalis in London, some long-term settlers think the community has now become a substantial minority.

However, unlike the large community from Bangladesh, the Indian Bengalis are spread thinly across the British capital.

“For the first time in London, it is the second generation of Bengalis who are leading a puja - that’s what makes Belsize Park so special. People also love its homely atmosphere,” said Majumdar.

Things have come a long way for Durga Puja celebrations in London.

The first puja in 1963 was organised with help from the Indian High Commission, which provided the khichuri - a mix of rice and pulses that is fed to all participants.

Since then a string of high-profile entrepreneurs with Kolkata connections, including Swraj Paul, Lakshmi Niwas Mittal, Raj Kumar Bagri and Nirmal Sethia, have donated generously and gifted Durga idols.

The idol at Belsize Park has been donated by S.N. Gourisaria, a businessman who as a student was closely linked with India League, the London-based nationalist group that lobbied for India.

“We are expecting (Bollywood veteran) Sharmila Tagore to turn up this year,” said Majumdar.

“She wants to join in the sindoor-khela festivities on the last day and put sindoor (vermillion powder) on the idol. I don’t think she has ever done that before.”

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