Durga Puja in Kolkata provides space for artistic activism, says art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta

: Devotees visit a community Durga puja pandal themed on the condition of refugees in the view of the panic over National Register of Citizens (NRC), in Kolkata. File Image.

: Devotees visit a community Durga puja pandal themed on the condition of refugees in the view of the panic over National Register of Citizens (NRC), in Kolkata. File Image.

Art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta has played an important role in getting Durga Puja in Kolkata included in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Ms. Guha-Thakurta was the field expert who drafted the dossier for the Ministry of Culture seeking international recognition for the festival after having studied the puja in Kolkata for decades and published a book in 2015, In the name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata . Excerpts from an interview:

What does the inclusion of Durga Puja in Kolkata in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity mean and how will it help the festival?

Durga Puja is one of the largest events of the country that has made it to the list. Given the kind of things that have made it to the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO, Durga Puja is certainly unique and perhaps the most deserving. It is a very complex event and organised on a very large scale. As an international cultural and street festival, it deserves this recognition.

If you look at other listings from India, the Kumbh Mela is perhaps the only other large-scale festival that has been included in the list; others are specialised rituals that are endangered. So, you have the Vaishnav Sankirtana from Manipur and the Buddhist chanting from Ladakh, among others.

We had to explain that Durga Puja is not endangered. It is thriving and changing. There is no question of preserving a religious tradition for a small community. It is not just about tradition and ritual, it is about a whole thriving consumer economy that is dependent on the festival and hopefully the cultural economy will get a boost with this recognition.

You have highlighted how the Durga Puja festival is providing an opportunity for artists.

The artistic creativity associated with Durga Puja is its highest premium. Yes, it is a community festival where all kinds of people come together, but the artistic profile that the Durga Puja of Kolkata has taken in the past two decades has turned out to be unique. Durga Pujas have provided space for some kind of artistic activism. It has become a forum for artists to make a statement on certain social political issues.

Consciously and unconsciously, the artists are using the space for highlighting social and political issues. The themes around refugee crisis, migrant workers, farmers’ protests, NRC or a village destroyed by cyclone Amphan all show that the clubs are becoming aware that it is important to raise social awareness through a festival.

I began to track the artistic profile of Durga Puja in 2003. There were a handful of artists and the budget was also very low, a few lakhs. But, over the years, it has become a professional vocation for many. Durga Pujas have provided a huge boost to a certain kind of creative economy of craftspeople and artisans.

Why is it ‘Durga Puja in Kolkata’ and not Durga Puja in West Bengal or India?

Durga Puja is unique to Kolkata as an art event. There was some talk about doing this for the whole country but I said we cannot do justice to the depth of application. Also, the scale of the festival is unique here. This is the master event. So, finally, they [the Ministry] agreed. We wanted to make it ‘Durga Puja of Kolkata’ because the city’s cultural identity is branded. Elsewhere, the ‘Probasi Puja’ [Durga Puja organised by the Bengali community outside West Bengal] is more of a community event like bhog [offering]. Even if the community aspect is a little lost in Kolkata, the Durga Puja in Kolkata is a spectatorial event, an exhibition.

It has taken a few years to get the recognition as work on it started in 2018.

We had started working on this in September 2018 and a dossier was submitted in March 2019, with the voice of different stakeholders and a list of signatories who wanted the centuries-old festival to be included in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO.

While we prepared the dossier for the Ministry of Culture, the rooting authority for the application was Sangeet Natak Akademi. After a few years, queries like how the crowds can be controlled and how far is this an international-tourist-friendly event started coming. That was the time the Tourism Department of the West Bengal Government came on board. It has been a rocky journey, but I am happy that the dossier has made it through.

There has been politicisation of the Puja. What are your views on this?

Durga Puja has been a major ground for political mobilisation for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. For the present government, pujas are a secular festival, a major cultural platform where the Chief Minister herself inaugurates hundreds of pujas. For the pre-election year, Mamata never had the festival in full strength because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She cited the High Court order to keep crowds away, but the Durga Puja continued.

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Printable version | Aug 23, 2022 2:57:11 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/durga-puja-in-kolkata-provides-space-for-artistic-activism-says-art-historian-tapati-guha-thakurta/article37976891.ece