THE DREAM THEMEAsked by a television channel, a day prior to a major international match 11 years ago why he liked cricket better than football, an unpretentious Class IV student practising outside the Eden Gardens clubhouse said, “You have to run less!”
An innocent answer, now overtaken by media hype, sponsorship power and big names. For a sport that has evolved to the T20 format, a more ‘gladiator’ version of the ‘gentleman’s game’ where “sixes and wickets!” have replaced the “blood and kill!” cries of yore, cricket has indeed become popular, so much so that it’s being played from the lanes and by-lanes of the big city to a clearing in a forest in rural India. This year’s Team India win in the World Cup has further bolstered cricket enthusiasm among the youth.
Well, enough said about cricket! Amidst this cri-crazy milieu came a strong idea to marry a well-liked but ‘threatened’ sport with an omnipotent and perpetually revered Lady so that the ‘multitudinous offspring’ would breathe, eat and sleep the game. Football became the theme for the recently held worship of Goddess Kali (the lady in question) by a neighbourhood club in south Kolkata. One can say that the help of Goddess Kali was taken to rejuvenate, rekindle and radiate popularity of football.
Football has been, is, and will be the first love of Bengal’s youth. So believe the members of the club Eastern Park Netaji Sangha (EPNS) in the Kalikapur/Santoshpur area of south Kolkata who attempted to spread their conviction, apparently aware of the inroads that cricket had made. The annual worship of the deity of power is as accepted an event among the masses as is Durga Puja or Christmas in the West. “Our club has been organising Kali Puja for the last 35 years. It occurred to us that this year, we should have football as the theme in a bid to revitalise sagging popularity levels,” said Joyjit Sinharoy, a marketing manager of a Kolkata-based firm and a member of the club, who has been visiting the Maidan (the green area in the centre of the city) to watch football since he was a kid holding his dad’s hand.
Not that Eastern Park has a dearth of enthusiasts for the game. In fact, none of the youth from the neighbourhood chose to go to Eden Gardens on the day India played England in the only T20 match of the series. Instead, they all went to Salt Lake Stadium for the East Bengal-Prayag United (East Bengal being the most popular club football team in this part of the world) tie. It was this love for the game that they chose to propagate, and what better way for them to do so than to take the Goddess’s help?
Now, a word about the ‘collaborator’. She is the Hindu Goddess associated with eternal energy and destruction of evil. Kali means ‘the black one’, the consort of Lord Shiva. Kali is considered the Goddess of time and change. Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilation still has some influence. In Bengal, Kali is venerated in the festival Kali Puja – observed on the new moon day in the month of Ashwin (October-November). It coincides with Diwali, the festival of lights which is celebrated across India by people bursting firecrackers and illuminating their houses with ‘diyas’ (small clay lamps) to signify the triumph of good over evil.
It is with such belief that Kali Puja is held every year by the masses. This year, Ashwin’s new moon was on October 26, and over 1,000 pujas were organised in Kolkata itself. However, perhaps the only one that had football as its theme was EPNS. The members’ enthusiasm has survived the onslaught of cricket. If one visits the area any evening, one will find groups of residents in animated discussion, and the subject is always football. Access to live international matches on TV at the clubhouse has helped a lot, not just in keeping enthusiasm alive but also in providing scope to compare Indian football with European or South American. And it was this enthusiasm the neighbourhood wanted to share and spread with the Kali Puja pandal-hopping crowds.
How did they go about it? A founding member of the club explained that the decision was taken about two months prior to the Puja. The design, the add-ons and the costs involved were all discussed and finalised. Then came the implementation, with division of labour being executed among the members of the club and residents of the area, both young and old. The concept was visualised by Joyjit, who proposed that the idol of the Goddess, about three feet tall, would be placed in a large ‘football’, which would have an opening outside of which the priest would perform the Puja rituals. The football structure would be three dimensional, made with cardboard panels stuck to a round frame. Three members of the club took five days to construct the football. This was suspended on a stage from rafters above, enabling the structure to sway a bit, even as the pratima (idol) inside remained fixed.
Along with the pandal construction, the decorations and frills surrounding it were made as well. Two huge flags, one of Mohun Bagan, the other of East Bengal, the two most popular football clubs in Kolkata, were put up alongside the ‘ball’. Charts were pasted on each flag, on which were written the complete history of all the trophies won by the respective clubs. The entries had ‘which trophy’, ‘which year’ and ‘where the match took place’. The members gathered these details from websites on the internet and then got it verified by officials of the two clubs, the founding member explained.
Also put up were the names and pictures of 10 legendary players of each team, as well as two replicas of the IFA shield. “We managed to get hold of prints of rare pictures, which were enlarged and put up on boards at the sides of the pandal. Two important watershed moments of both the clubs were there in pictures. One was Mohun Bagan defeating the British East York regiment in 1911, the first time an Indian club won the IFA Shield, and the second was East Bengal winning the ASEAN Cup in Malaysia in 2003, the first time that an Indian club won the title by defeating Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana Club 3-1,” Joyjit said, his enthusiasm matching the pride in having been able to procure and display such pictures.
The three days of the Puja were filled with football-related songs, like East Bengal’s “Machher Raja Ilish” (the king of fish is hilsa – which is the mascot adopted by East Bengal supporters as opposed to the lobster adopted by Mohan Bagan) and Mohan Bagan’s anthem song depicting the 1911 win. They also played the popular song from the Bengali film Dhanni Meye (Exceptional girl), “Sab Khelar sera, Bangalir tumi Football” (The best of all games for Bengalis is you, football). The evenings were taken up by animated debates, called “Elopatari” (Jumbles), in which the pros and cons of the two teams were discussed threadbare on the public address system.
A large number of people visited the pandal during the three days, especially after hearing that football had been made the Puja theme. Many admitted that the theme was quite unique. Players like Simon Storey and Nemai Goswami from Mohan Bagan, and Mehtab Hussein from East Bengal, came and saw and congratulated the effort. The number of queries and encouraging messages from the hundreds of visitors over the three days that the Puja was held was ample proof that the objective of rekindling the love for the game had been achieved, not just in Eastern Park but the whole of south Kolkata as well. The spread, the get-up all combined to convey the message that football was still very much alive and kicking!