Being Women

The Evolution Of Bengali Valentine’s Day: How Traditions Of Saraswati Puja Blend With Romance And Drama

Calcutta's Saraswati Pujo, once just a knowledge-focused festival, has evolved into the Bengali Valentine's Day. The author ponders the shift from tradition to modern romance, while celebrating the enduring spirit of Spring and youth.

Saraswati Pujo – A youth festival

I honestly don’t know when or how it happened. Perhaps I have an idea of the “how,” but for the “when,” I still don’t have a clue. It’s been 24 years since I left Calcutta when Saraswati Pujo was not only a pujo but a sort of youth festival in some ways. So the current status of Saraswati Pujo as Bengali Valentine’s Day is something that is not a surprise but rather a response like, “Really, when did this happen?”

Childhood memories

Looking back, this was bound to happen. I remember that Basant Panchami was at a time when winter was almost gone, lingering in the air through a gentle breeze, bright but tepid sunshine, chilly mornings and warm afternoons, and we proudly called it our very own spring even though its lifespan was just a few weeks or less. And Saraswati pujo was like no other pujo. Every house celebrated it, and the priest would be very busy. There are stories of priests getting kidnapped by different neighbourhood dadas to make sure their pujo happened first, within the stipulated mahurat, or sacred time!

Free Side view of young cheerful ethnic tfemale with yellow flower looking away on blurred background of green trees Stock Photo

Hues of Yellow

We waited for the day for several reasons. We could eat kul, a type of berry that appeared around that time. We looked forward to taking an early morning shower after smearing ourselves with a homemade turmeric paste. It’s another thing that many of us looked like jaundice walking around, but we didn’t quite care.

We associate yellow with beauty, not jaundice! Then, of course, the yellow sarees, sticking our foreheads with a bamboo pen and praying fervently to the goddess of knowledge to grant us good marks. For me, it was to help me pass in math! The yummy food of Luchi-aloo Dum and the stroll through different paras or neighbourhoods, visiting different pandals, homes, music and drawing schools, and good old adda with friends.Free Hand with Jujube Fruits Stock Photo

Whispers of love

What used to happen on a parallel plane, quite meticulously, were the love stories. Exchange of love letters, first date, proposal, acceptance and dejection, flying kisses, stealing glances, et al. Now don’t ask me why this day was chosen for all the love-shuv business when we were all required to pay obeisance to the Devi of knowledge and pray with fervent vigour for reaching the pinnacle of academic success, but that’s how it was.

Dada’s tale of Love and loss

Not all stories have a happy ending. I remember one dada from my para, who was studying at IIT Kharagpur, coming down and mustering up the courage to propose to his lady love, someone I knew well. I was with my friends in the park, binging on kul, and having a deep discussion of the pros and cons of such a match. By evening, IIT Dada’s heartbreak was breaking news. Dada left the next day, and in a month, our para had another breaking news story. Dada’s ladylove had eloped with her childhood sweetheart! Oh my!

Later, Dada left for the US to pursue his masters. But he was surely unlucky in love because, after a few years, he got married, duly arranged by his parents. In the meantime, the Didi who fled was later accepted by her family and forgiven. And she came happily to attend that Dada’s wedding with one baby in her arms, sharing fish fries with her childhood sweetheart turned husband, right in front of that jilted Dada!

Aiyyo, kashtam!Free A Woman Holding a Tray with Food while Feeding Her Partner Stock Photo

The Bengali Valentine’s Day

Anyway, I digress. So coming back to Saraswati pujo and love. It was a day filled with masti, good food, adda, sarees, no studies since our books were safely deposited at the shrine of the Goddess for blessing, and of course lots of love- shuv, and drama. Today, it has come to be known as Bengal’s Valentine’s Day. When did this official decree come into being? I have no clue. But given the romance in the air from the time I can remember, it’s not surprising how it came to be so.

Free Full body of Indian couple in festive suits looking at each other while standing in doorway old abandoned construction with destructed shabby brick walls under foliage of tall green trees Stock Photo

The transformation

Today is not only Saraswati Pujo but also February 14, which marks the official Valentine’s Day. The paras and now the new condominiums that have mushroomed all over Calcutta must be abuzz with adda, hoichoi, feasts, and romance. At times, this makes me wonder: if eating non-veg during Durga pujo is so shocking for people, especially the fasting ones, what would this desi Valentine’s Day on Saraswati puja do to them?! I can’t help but have a hearty laugh.

So here’s to Thoda Pyar Aur Thoda Puja…Basant Panchami greetings everyone, with lots of love. 

My cousin and me on Saraswati pujo, circa 1987

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