Immigrants, all over the world, start looking for their own identity. Towards the end of the 20th century, it was pretty much the same story with the Bengalis who migrated to Iowa and started looking for their own identity. Those were the pre-9-11 days, life was easier, the world was less polluted, people were more trusting, and the environment was conducive to the growth of religious and cultural activities. What the Bengali immigrants were looking for was a platform. It all started in 1985 with the celebration of the first Saraswati Puja in Latika Bhatnagar’s Iowa City house, followed by almost yearly such Puja celebrations at the International Center lounge of the University of Iowa, and Spring or Fall (Bijoya) cultural events either at the basement of Wesley Hall (120 N. Dubuque St) or McBride Hall auditorium of the University of Iowa. Jishnu and Jayeeta Sen were involved in cultural activities from the very early days, and their hard work and sincerity indeed paid off. Sumita Ghosh was the anchor of religious activities. Every year we waited for the new arrivals and looked for what talents they have brought with them to showcase to all of us. Indeed, many of them had talents in dance, music, and acting. We started putting together small performances in and around the campus of the University of Iowa. Resources were scarce, but there was no shortage of enthusiasm.
Following the Y2K scare (some may not be familiar with this now) near the turn of the millennium, there was an influx of software professionals in the Cedar Rapids area, which boosted the Bengali population. Although many of them were here for a very short period, some took interest in these activities, and the question of forming an official platform came up. In one summer afternoon of 1997, there was a meeting of the Bengalis, where the name Suchona was chosen for the new organization. Satyapriya Roy (then a Rockwell employee) was instrumental in drafting the first constitution and the first governing body consisted of Latika Bhatnagar, Kalpataru Barman (he later started Calcuttaweb.com), Diptesh Das, Sukumar Ghosh (President), Malay Kar, Runa Musib, Malasri Das-Roy (Treasurer), Jishnu Sen (Secretary). Since then, sadly, three members, Latika Bhatnagar, Satyapriya Roy, and Malay Kar passed away.
Starting Durga puja was, however, another story. During the late 80s most of us used to go to Chicago for the Puja celebration. During the 90’s some of us started attending Durga Puja at the Hindu Temple of Minneapolis. In 1997, we found out that the Minneapolis Hindu Temple was planning to bring a new image of Durga from Kolkata. So we inquired what will be done to the current idol and learned that they would perhaps give it away to some organization. Immediately, negotiations started, and after some time, Minneapolis Hindu Temple authorities informed that they were willing to give it to us for a donation of $101, on condition that we have to perform Durga puja regularly. So, one morning in 1998, Dr. Chirantan Ghosh and I drove to Minneapolis, and carried the idol back to Iowa City in a minivan. It was placed in the puja room of our house in Iowa City. This idol, made of dense Styrofoam, was indeed a piece of art, and very easy to transport -- however, it was also very fragile. Therefore, after a few years, Suchona members decided to raise money and get a new idol from Kumartuli (artisan: Amar Nath Ghosh). This is the idol that we had worshipped till 2018 for our Durga puja. The old idol was moved to the Hindu temple of Eastern Iowa in Cedar Rapids, and from there it was shifted to the Vedanta Society of Iowa, housed at the residence of Tirthankar and Nandini Banerjee in Cedar Rapids.
The first Durga Puja of Iowa was held in Central Park Presbyterian Church, 1700 B Ave NE, Cedar Rapids. It was a grand success and received good press coverage too. For various reasons, we failed to acquire the same venue for the next year’s puja and had to shift to a different facility in Atkins, about 10 miles west of Cedar Rapids. Note that the Hindu Temple in Cedar Rapids was not there at that time, and our Durga puja was attended by many people outside the Bengali community. Since the third year (i.e. 2000) the puja has been consistently held in the Scottish Rite temple in downtown Cedar Rapids, except for 2007, when exorbitant rent escalation forced us to move the puja to a smaller facility in North Liberty. In 2001, the famous Bengali poet Joy Goswami was visiting Iowa City as a part of the International Writers Program of the University of Iowa, and he was an honored guest of our Durga puja celebration, where he participated by reciting poems from his own book, as well as poems on the 9/11 incident (that he learned about first hand during his stay in Iowa City). Over the past few years, due to the rising cost, the venue of Durga Puja had been shifted to different places in the neighborhood – these include a smaller hall at the Scottish Rite Temple in Cedar Rapids, the Montgomery Hall in Iowa City Fairgrounds and the Clear Creek Amana School in Tiffin, Iowa.
Suchona is also proud of its philanthropic endeavors: for the first 4-5 years since starting Durga puja, Suchona was able to make small donations to local and international charities. It was a good gesture to the state and the community that we live in. For some reasons, the practice has not been continued in the subsequent years.We were fortunate to have Mr. Krishna Sastry, a resident of Cedar Falls, IA as our priest for Durga puja -- he continued with this for several years. We appreciate his sincerity and dedication. Never did he accept any money in exchange for his services – instead, he donated to various charities whatever money Suchona offered him. Unfortunately, a few years ago, he suddenly passed away. Since then Viraj Anavkar of Cedar Rapids has taken over as the priest of our Durga Puja. His sincerity, humility and dedication are really admirable.The main driving force behind Suchona’s onward march was a vibrant cultural base. For more than decade, every year, Suchona members would regularly meet and rehearse for the cultural events to be staged during Durga Puja. There were no social media or Google hangout at that time -- during the summer months, enthusiastic members would assemble at the University of Iowa Field House for drama and dance rehearsals under the able guidance of Jishnu and Jayeeta Sen, often accompanied by Subhasis Mukherjee, then a resident of Moline. Subhasis himself was an accomplished Tabla player, and served as a resource person for contacting well-known musicians from India. During Durga Puja, there was such a strong participation of the Bengalis from Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Ames, Bettendorf and Moline that we would often forget that we were living outside India.I did not try to name the numerous other people who actively participated and contributed to the activities of Suchona, since any omission will offend people whose names may have been inadvertently left out. Also, my summary is heavily biased towards the first 10-12 years of Suchona, since during the subsequent years, my contact with mainstream activities of Suchona faded quite a bit. Nevertheless, this article will give the readers an idea about the history of Suchona, and I hope that the younger generation will build on this foundation to take Suchona to new heights.
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