Avik Chattopadhyay: Re-Kali-bration!

14 Jul,2022

Avik ChattopadhyayBy Avik Chattopadhyay


“This time, Kali,

I’m going to eat You up.

I’ll eat You,

I’ll eat You,

Oh Compassionate to the Poor.

I was born under an evil star

and sons born then

devour their mothers.

Either You eat me

or I eat You:

we must decide on one.”


These are the opening lines of one of Bengal’s most popular songs on Goddess Kali titled ‘Ebaar Kali tomaay khaabo’ composed by Ramprasad Sen sometime in the mid-1700s. One of the leading Hindu ‘Shakta’ saints of all times, he started a genre of Bengali devotional music later called ‘Ramprasadi’ in his honour. Siraj-ud-Daula the last nawab of Bangal was supposedly a huge fan of his.


Ramprasad would be trolled today. The sheer nerve of even imagining that he would devour the goddess! Multiple FIRs would be filed across the country, and he would be spending a large part of his life between sessions of jail and interim bail. Add to that the handful of threats of being beheaded issued by the leading seers of the faith!


Rabi Ghosh as Nataraj smoking a beedi in Satyajit Ray’s “Mahapurush”, 1965


In 1965, Satyajit Ray made a delectable black comedy called “Mahapurush” about the proliferation of fraud ‘sadhus’ and ‘yogis’ in society. In one scene, Rabi Ghosh, a leading actor is shown dressed up as Nataraj [Shiva] smoking a beedi.


Ray would be in jail today for such blasphemy as he would have refused to delete the scene. And the movie would have anyway been an OTT release as the Censor Board would have refused to even purify it with its holy ‘scissors’.


Om Puri as Bheem in the Mahabharat episode in Kundan Shah’s ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’, 1983 


The present generation needs to watch Kundan Shah’s masterpiece ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’. Made in 1983 it is a demonstration of what society and culture was like then. A cult film, the Mahabharat episode would have led to the set being burnt during shooting itself. Imagine Om Puri walking in as Bheem, wearing sunglasses remarking, “How can we let Draupadi go? We are all her equal shareholders!” Processions would be out on the streets and some Mr Shah might as well have interred this Mr Shah.


The entire brouhaha around the Kaali poster for Leena Manimekalai’s documentary is quite amusing to me. People have been offended as the goddess has been shown smoking. There is a lesser blasphemy of showing her also carrying an LGBTQ flag. Twitter wars have been fought, orders for beheading have been issued and FIRs have been filed against the lady. Some politicians have also made the most of the situation, firing barbs and laying barbwire! Kali is trending, finally!


It is good in a way. The goddess has always played second fiddle to her fairer counterparts across the country apart from in Bengal and Odisha. In these two states, she stands shoulder to shoulder with Durga. In Bengal, which is more matriarchal in matters of religion and society than the rest of the country, Kali is more a mother, a daughter, and a child than a goddess on a pedestal.


She did not start from scratch on the Vedic pantheon. Regular mentions are made in Vedic texts only from around 500 AD. Some sources say that Kali was a pagan goddess to start with, going by her complexion and depiction. Tribals and groups like dacoits and thugs prayed before her. Over time she got assimilated into the mainstream and stories were woven around her integrating her into the narrative, along with Parvati and other symbols of ‘Shakti’ [power] like Durga. She is also depicted in contrasting styles across the country. The popular image of Kali is the one from Bengal, dark, menacing, hair open, wearing nothing but a garland of severed heads and a belt of severed hands, blood red tongue out seemingly in embarrassment over stepping on her husband Shiva! The very imagery is very non-conformist and unsettling to the uninitiated. She breaks all rules of conservative feminism. She is offered wine and meat, the staple of her earliest worshippers before the whitewashers came in.


Kali manifests herself in various forms, going by the interpretation of her worshippers. Smashaan Kali. Bhadra Kali. Dakshina Kali. Samhara Kali. Raksha Kali. She is Ugra Tara and Krodikali in Buddhism. She is Sara-la-Kali for the Roman in France. She is the Jessoreshwari Kali in Jaipur and the Dhakeshwari Kali in Dhaka.


‘Brand Kali’ is omnipotent and omnivorous. She creates her own rules instead of readily accepting the old ones. She does all that the repressed Indian woman has not been allowed to do. She has the power to save as well as sever. She is not the stereotype ‘Sati Savitri’. She is complex yet confident to take the proverbial bull by its horns. She is as comfortable in the dark as she is in the light. She is the modern Indian woman who enjoys her mutton, red wine, and an occasional drag of the chillum. Bereft of rituals, bindings, dress codes, food menus, colour, and caste.


And she scoffs at those who try to recalibrate her for their personal agenda. For it takes just a swipe of her ‘kharga’ to finish it all!



Avik Chattopadhyay is senior business strategist living in Gurugram. He writes on MxMIndia every other Thursday. His views here are personal


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