Literature and festivals have always had a close connection – be it Durga Puja in Bengal, Onam in Kerala or Bihu in Assam. These are times to celebrate and rejuvenate the mind and soul with some food for thought – with some literature, which takes the form of special magazines and festive supplements. Magazines that include the words of the literary high and mighty as well as the aspiring all and sundry.
This is autumn, the time for the annual celebration of the magnificent Hindu festival of Durga Puja, which commemorates the victory of Goddess Durga over evil. Nowhere are the celebrations as grand as in Kolkata, the hub of Bengali culture. Though the festival is celebrated on an equal scale in Assam, Odisha, and Tripura, the grandeur of Bengal’s Durga Puja celebrations secured itself a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity tag in 2021. The first Asian festival to receive this recognition, Durga Puja celebrations in Cal (short for Calcutta) have secured a space for social and cultural activities alike. According to statistics published by CNBCTV18, Durga Puja celebrations were worth over Rs 40,000 crore in West Bengal in 2022, creating at least three lakh jobs.
This is the time for celebration of art and culture. A time when Bengali newspapers, periodicals, and magazines come out with annual issues referred to as Durga Puja specials. Newspaper stands and bookstores in West Bengal are flooded with vibrant festival publications, which include short stories, essays, poems, plays, fiction, and illustrated and cover stories.
The tradition of bringing out Durga Puja specials can be traced to the late 19th century when Bengali weekly Sulabh Samachar came up with a Durga Puja supplement. The Kolkata-based Anandabazar Patrika group has been bringing out Puja-special literary supplements since the beginning of its operations in March 1922. However, the first Pujo sankhya (edition) as a separate magazine was published by the group only in 1935 and soon became an indispensable part of Durga Puja celebrations in the state.
As with most media trends, Durga Puja literary specials soon made its presence felt in the English publishing scene in West Bengal as well with the Anandabazar Patrika group again becoming the first English daily to bring out Puja specials. Gradually, publications such as Anandamela, Desh, Saradiya Patrika, and Anandalok started publishing Durga Puja special supplements.
Big literary names such as Bibhutibhushan Mukhopadhyay, Satyajit Ray and Kamakshi Prasad Chattopadhyay were contributors to these Pujo specials with renowned illustrators such as Pratul Mukhopadhyay and Saila Chakraborty contributing to the artwork. Some of the published articles in these supplements are translated from English to Bengali.
With the advent of time, some English newspapers such as The Statesman and The Asian Age started inviting foreign authors and writers from outside West Bengal to contribute to its Durga Puja supplements.
Diverse content in Durga Puja literary specials
Many of these Pujo supplements contain ghost stories, mystery stories, novellas, travelogues, jokes, crosswords, other puzzles, educational comics and illustrations, cartoons, poems, interviews with celebrities, and still photography for readers of all ages. Well-researched articles on art, sports, books, food, fashion, and cinema are also included. Some of them also feature a historical perspective on the city’s landmarks and the oldest Durga Puja pandals in town. However, what is starkly missing from these Pujo supplements are articles and write-ups on politics, which readers feel are deliberately avoided by the media companies.
Though social media has gone a long way in moving the younger generation to digital feeds for exploration of food, travel and cultural articles through reels and posts that are available with scrolling their feeds, it has not been able to replace the wide popularity and high-quality content of these literary supplements in West Bengal. The focus of these supplements remains the celebration of Durga Puja and highlighting the rich cultural heritage of the state, they never propagate religious tenets and dogmas.
Students and children from the state are encouraged to read these supplements from a young age as they provide informative and educational articles which the older generation considers will widen their horizons and promote curiosity regarding the rich cultural heritage of the city. These supplements also encourage youngsters to learn about history and arts, wonder and appreciate the world around them and encourage them to explore new genres of literature and writing. They learn the significance of culture and traditions, and refrain from disseminating hatred, giving negative comments and connotations, and pulling people down.
Many well-established puja pandals like the Ballygunge Cultural Association, Suruchi Sangha, Ekdalia Evergreen Club, Dumdam Park Tarun Sangha, Hindustan Club, Manicktala Chaltabagan Lohapatty Durga Puja Committee, Pallir Yubak Brinda Club, Sodepur Nabin Sangha, Sreebhumi Sporting Club, and Singhi Park Sarbojanin Durga Puja Committee come out with their own Durga Puja magazines. These magazines, however, contain contributory articles, write-ups, poems and jokes by members of the club along with advertisements of the participating brands at the pandal. Most have attached book stores, where you can find the latest books by popular Bengali and Indian writers sharing space with foreign authors. These bookstores also remain a huge selling point of the Durga Puja literary supplements brought out by Bengali print media.
“Durga Puja is a major festival for us and from time to time, our newspaper brings out various supplements and makes them available to our readers as part of our daily issues or as independent supplements,” said a spokesperson from the ABP Group. The group is bringing out its English and Bengali Pujo special supplements this year as well. These 4-10 page supplements, which go by the names of Saptami and Ashtami supplements, will be a part of the regular newspapers.
“In addition, we bring out separate annual publications. These publications, with around 300-400 pages, have their own editorial boards and support staff and are sold as independent publications. There is a great demand for these publications from our readers,” he added.
The Anandabazar Patrika group makes these Pujo supplements available to its readers outside West Bengal through commercial vendors and agents, he told Indian Printer & Publisher. These supplements and publications are also available online and through eCommerce websites such as Amazon and Flipkart, he added.
While some of these Durga Puja specials come complimentary along with the main editions of the newspapers, the annual collector’s editions are usually priced separately and go into a few hundred rupees. With the passage of time, the popularity of the English Durga Puja supplements gradually declined. At the same time, their Bengali counterparts were able to maintain their reach and favor among the state’s population.
“It is a tradition we have been following since our childhood. A puja special magazine is a must-read and on the to-do list of the puja festivities. A tradition that should be retained in some form. It will be sad if we can’t save this part of our culture,” said an avid reader of Bengali puja specials.
This article has been updated on 19 October 2023 with new inputs