A festival that binds Bengali students and professionals in Chicago

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Students and professionals belonging to the Bengali community in Chicago came together for a recent religious and cultural celebration.

Started at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus by a group of students in 2007, the celebration is centered around Durga, a Hindu Goddess.

It, however, has turned into “a huge picnic” and “a version of Christmas for Bengalis in Chicago”, according to 26-year-old Indrani Banerjee who is completing her Ph.D. in chemistry at UIC.

Durga Pujo/festival is celebrated in India and Bangladesh in honor of a warrior goddess, who defeated the dark forces. The festival has become an integral part of the social and cultural fabric of West Bengal, an eastern state in India, and is also observed in other locations where Bengalis move in.

Approximately 500 people joined the celebrations in Chicago. The idea is that Bengalis will come together as a community, according to Banerjee, the president of the organizing body.
This is the second idol of Durga that has been brought to UIC from Kumortuli, the porters’ quarters in northern Kolkata, by air. The first was handed over to the National Indo American Center near Little India after being worshipped for at least six years. After the celebrations, the idol is taken to the house of a volunteer, where it stays till the next year.
Former students who are now working in Chicago are actively involved with the volunteer-based festival. This provides incoming students a chance to network and find new friends, said Banerjee.
Volunteers include current and former students from different Chicago area universities. Sumit Bhattacharyya (left), an assistant professor of medicine at UIC, who arrived in the US from Kolkata in 1998, has been involved with the event since 2007. “This is about revisiting our growing up years in Kolkata. Students wanted to organize a festival as they couldn’t afford to go to the suburbs for Durga Pujo and they asked for my help,” he said.
The cultural program kicked off with a dance performance by former student Debasmita Paul depicting Durga’s triumph over evil.
The performances included songs in Bengali, Hindi and English by various groups, Bollywood dances and a theatrical act.
Food is one of the most important aspects of the festival, according to Bhattacharyya. This year, the culinary fest included a traditional meal of “khichudi” – an Indian comfort dish made with rice and dal, Indian-Chinese dishes such as chili chicken, biriyani – a mixed rice dish with meat, and fish cooked with mustard.
Photo at top: Bengalis across generations celebrate Durga Pujo in Chicago. (Madhurita Goswami)