The tradition continued uninterrupted for 84 years until the pandemic intervened in 2020.
Every Mahashtami, the third day of the five-day Durga puja festival, young and aged men would display their stick and sword fight skills on a field in front of an imposing Durga idol decked in the traditional style, as a crowd would gather around the venue to experience this dying form of ancient Indian martial art.
The participants belonged mostly to physical culture clubs established by freedom fighters in their bid to intensify the militancy of the Swadeshi movement nearly a century ago. It was their way of offering the auspicious ‘anjali’ of ‘Mahashtami’ to the goddess.
The event: ‘Beerashtami’—the worship of valour as part of the worship of ‘Shakti’. The venue: the puja of Bagbazar Sarbojonin Durgotsab and Pradharshani (exhibition), one of Calcutta’s oldest community Durga pujas that started in 1919 and was used by freedom fighters during the 1920s, 1930s and the 1940s to promote the Swadeshi movement and products.
Freedom fighters associated with physical culture clubs used to display their skills in their bid to draw more youth into learning Indian martial arts as part of the Swadeshi movement.
In 2020, as pandemic-related restrictions forced the puja organisers to exclude the event, members of these clubs came together to hold the event online - which each participant joining in from their own locations.
“The practice carries such a rich heritage that it could not be discontinued. What would we have answered when the future generation asks why we discontinued it? Moreover, it’s our anjali to the goddess,” said 42-year-old Kanchan Chakraborty.
Lathi Khela - courtesey Facebook, Bangiya Byayam Samiti
As a member of Bangiya Byayam Samiti, he has been participating in the beerashtami since the early 1990s, when he was yet to cross past the doors of the school. This year, too, they will be holding the event online through their social media page.
Stick fight and sword fight was popularised among the Bengalis from the beginning of the 20th century when a number of physical culture clubs were established by the so-called extremists among the revolutionaries, starting with Anushilan Samiti in 1902. The same year, cultural polymath Rabindranath Tagore’s niece Sarala Debi Choudhurani founded a Beerashtami Samiti (club) at their residence to promote physical culture.
The secret revolutionary society Anushilan Samiti, after a series of actions terrorising the British authorities, had weakened by the late 1910s, especially after the death of Bagha Jatin (1915) and the failure of the Indo-German plot during WWI. Atindranath Bosu and Pulin Bihari Das, both with a background in the Anushilan Samiti, founded Simla Byayam Samiti and Bangiya Byayam Samiti in 1926 and 1928, respectively, in north Calcutta. At Baranagar, also in north Calcutta, Abhedananda Seva Pratishthan was started in 1928.
'Netaji’ Subhas Chandra Bose joined in with these revolutionaries to connect the physical culture clubs with Durga puja by introducing stick fights and sword fights as part of the worship of Shakti in the community pujas. Simla Byayam Samiti started a community Durga puja on its own campus in 1926 itself, with Bose inaugurating it, and the beerashtami was introduced in 1928.
Due to the puja’s overt political tone, the British authorities banned it for 1932, 1933 and 1935. It resumed in 1935, with beerashtami and exhibition as part of it. Bag Bazar’s puja started organising beerashtami from the next year. Some pujas in the districts, too, started it.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Simla Byayam Samiti and Bagbazar Sarbojonin - both of them had Subhas Bose as president of the Puja committee at different times - used to organise stick and sword fights on Mahashtami, besides organising an exhibition of Swadeshi products and puppetry, often targeting different aspects of British rule. The Simla Byayam Samiti idol used to be clad in khadi and became popular as ‘swadeshi thakur’ (god).
Swadeshi puppet show at Simla Byayam Samiti's puja in pre-Independence days. Courtesey - Facebook Simla Byayam Samiti
In the post-Independence period, only the Bagbazar puja continued with beerashtami, as stick fight turned into a dying martial art. Simla Byayam Samiti no longer teaches it. But since 1936, members of Bangiya Byayam Samiti and Abhedananda Swasthya Pratishthan have taken part in it continually till 2019.
Beerashtami at Bagbazar
Nostalgia for a glorious past used to grip Sagnik Rakshit, a third-year college student and among a handful in his generation to practice stick fight, whenever he appeared before the Bagbazar pandal with a stick in his hand. A member of Abhedananda Swasthya Pratishthan, he watched since his childhood his uncle participating in the beerashtami and himself took part in it four-five times till 2019. The experience thrilled him, being able to connect with a history he is proud of.
Sword fight at Bagbazar Beerashtami. courtesey Facebook, Bangiya Byayam Samiti
“Very few practices stick fight these days and there are too few in my age group. But the history of how freedom fighters used this art to fight the British made the participation in beerashtami a thrilling experience,” Rakshit said. “It’s a very effective self-defense technique, albeit neglected.”
The Bagbazar puja organisers carefully preserved some of the sticks that were used by freedom fighters and participants in the later years sometimes got the chance to use them on the special occasion of beerashtami.
The 1910s and the 1920s were the decades when Durga puja started being organised on a community basis - a puja to a locality or a club. The first community Durga puja was organised by Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha in south Calcutta’s Bhawanipur area in 1910. Until then, Durga puja was organised mostly by the wealthy, landed or trading families that were the early beneficiaries of the beginning of the East India Company’s rule.
Historically, the first Durga puja in her now-popular avatar and time - the season of sharot , or autumn - was perhaps organised by the King Kangsanarayan of Taherpur in present-day Bangladesh in 1580 or 1582. The first Durga puja in Kolkata was most likely organised by the Sabarna Roychowdhury family of Behala in the southern fringes of Calcutta, in 1610. A few other landlords organised the puja in the districts of Hooghly, Bardhaman and Nadia during the 17th century.
But the puja started gaining popularity among the wealthy families of Calcutta after Sovabazar’s Naba Krisha Deb organised it with grandiose in 1757 and invited Lord Clive and other Company officers to the gala event. It was only a few months after the Clive-led East India Company’s army defeated the army of Bengal’s last independent Nawab, Siraj Ud Daula, on the battlefield of Plassey.
In an article titled, ‘Mother of the universe, Motherland’, which was originally delivered as a lecture, historian Tapan Raychaudhuri wrote that in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Bengal, Durga puja acquired meanings beyond devotion. “For the nouveau riche, the products of the East India Company’s trade and their tenurial system, Durga Puja became a grand occasion for the display of wealth and for hobnobbing with the sahibs,” he wrote.
According to Raychaudhuri, the initial tendency among the rural elites was to celebrate in one’s village home to acquire a reputation for wealth and generosity in the eyes of the local community. But it changed, as these rural elites also chose their Calcutta residences to host the grand celebration.
“Wealth was not worth acquiring if it was not used to impress the elite of Calcutta and the sahibs who were the ultimate source of that wealth as well as status. This is how the rural elite of Bengal began to sever the umbilical cord which had bound them to the villages and their people for centuries. Conspicuous consumption rather than display of bhakti was the central motif of these urban festivals. Bhakti, such as it was, was directed as much to the English masters as to the mother of the universe. The trump card was to have the governor-general as the chief guest at the puja,” he wrote.
“In the family pujas, not only the puja, the bisorjon (immersion), too, used to be a grand event, with carts decorated with hazak lamps carrying the idols to the Ganga banks amid the beating of the dhak and then carried the idol on twin boats that would separate reaching the middle of the river, letting the idol immerse,” said Jawhar Sircar, a former chief executive officer of Prasar Bharati and a current Rajya Sabha MP of the Trinamool Congress who is also a scholar on the history of Calcutta.
Sircar said that there are many paintings, including one by Gaganendranath Tagore and several others by the Company School of painters, depicting the bisorjon processions with people crowding on both sides of the streets.
Protima Bisorjon by Gaganendranath Tagore_courtesey - Rabindra Bharati Society Collection of Victoria Memorial Hall
After the family pujas gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century, things took a different turn at the turn of the new century. The Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha’s puja was followed by Shyampukur Adi Sarbojonin in 1911, Sikdar Bagan Sadharan Durgotsov in 1913 in north Calcutta, Adi Lake Pally in south Calcutta in 1915, Sarkar Bagan Sammilita Sangha in 1917 and Bagbazar (then Nebubagan) in 1919, Dharma Prasarini Samiti of Mukherjee Ghat in south Calcutta in 1922 and Simla Byayam Samity in 1926.
It is from this time that Durga puja started turning into a common people’s festival from being one of the rich. The story of the transformation lies in the history of the beginning of these pujas.
“The extravagant pujas of the wealthy families were also exclusionary - many families did not allow everyone to visit or attend the pujas. People used to get excluded on the basis of caste and financial status. Even those invited often used to feel humiliated once inside. Therefore, the need for puja of the common people,” said Goutam Neogy, one of the organisers of Bagbazar Sarbojonin’s puja.
Freedom fighters, Netaji and his elder brother Sarat Chandra Bose prominent among them, found it a good opportunity to organise the people and promote Swadeshi. Most of the senior Congress leaders used to get themselves associated with community pujas. Apart from the puja of Simla Byayam Samiti and Bagbazar Sarbojonin, Netaji had also presided over the puja committees of Kumartuli Sarbojonin, Adi Lake Pally and 47 Pally.
The rich men’s puja had become a people’s festival not excluding the political motivations of a ruled race.