Durga Puja in Kolkata, one of largest cultural carnivals and street art festival of the country, on Wednesday received an important international recognition by making it to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
“Durga Puja in #Kolkata has just been inscribed on the #IntangibleHeritage list! Inscriptions to the Representative List are one of the several ways by which #UNESCO advocates the promotion and safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage,” the UNESCO office in New Delhi tweeted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Minister of Culture G. Kishan Reddy and the West Bengal government welcomed the announcement. “A matter of great pride and joy for every Indian! Durga Puja highlights the best of our traditions and ethos. And, Kolkata’s Durga Puja is an experience everyone must have,” Mr. Modi said on social media.
A press statement from the Government of West Bengal described the inclusion of Durga Puja in Kolkata as a proud and historic moment. “It is a red-letter day for us. In real sense Bengal is now Biswa Bangla,” the press note added.
The State government’s note emphasised UNESCO also commended the concerned organisations in Kolkata for their initiatives to involve marginalised groups and individuals as well as women in their participation for safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Well-known art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta, who was the field expert in drafting the Ministry of Culture’s dossier for UNESCO, said that the creative and commercial economy of Kolkata will get a boost with the “well deserved recognition”.
“The artistic profile which the Durga Pujas of Kolkata has taken in the past two decades is unique… In the past few years, the Durga Pujas have provided a forum for artistic activism where artists are making statements about contemporary social and political issues,” said Ms. Guha-Thakurta, who has authored a book, In the name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of contemporary Kolkata .
With the inclusion of Durga Puja, the number of elements in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage from India has increased to 14. The latest inclusion in the list prior to the Durga Puja is the Kumbh Mela, the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth, which was inscribed in 2017. Yoga was included in 2016.
Ms. Guha-Thakurta said that the only large-scale festival that has been included in list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage list is the Kumbh Mela, and others are specialised rituals which are endangered. “We had to explain that Durga Puja is not endangered. It is thriving and it is changing. There is no question of preserving a religious tradition for a small community. All of this made Durga Puja a complex case,” she added.
A dossier was submitted in March 2019, with the voices of different stakeholders and a list of signatories who wanted the centuries-old festival to be included in the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
“The festival is characterized by large-scale installations and pavilions in urban areas, as well as by traditional Bengali drumming and veneration of the goddess. During the event, the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations,” the UNESCO website said.
Experts also point out that what is unique about Durga Puja in Kolkata is that it is source of livelihood to a large number of people, including artisans.
“The inscription of Durga Puja of Kolkata in the UNESCO Representative List acknowledges the festival’s contribution in sustaining and safeguarding of a multitude of traditional arts and crafts, well-being and economic empowerment of communities, and energising creativity,” said Ananya Bhattacharya, director, Banglanatakdot.com, a social enterprise working for sustainable development through the revival of heritage.
Earlier this year, the British Council in India had mapped the creative economy of Durga Puja to over ₹32,000 crore for the year 2019 and added that the festival contributes 2.58% of West Bengal’s GDP.