In 2021, Durga Puja joined UNESCO’S list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In a tribute, UNESCO said, “Durga Puja is seen as the best instance of the public performance of religion and art, and as a thriving ground for collaborative artists and designers. During the event, the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations.”
To know why it made the exalted heritage list is to understand how Durga Puja is more than just a festival to Bengalis everywhere.
How It Begins
Around July, Kolkata’s potters’ lane or potuapara in Kumartuli comes alive.
A low hum of excitement builds as organizers of barowari (communal) Durga pujas throng the narrow by lanes of Kumartuli, to give the bayna (token amount) for their matri pratima (mother’s idol) and her retinue of children.
Fresh silt from the nearby Ganges arrives on huge barges. Potters dry and mix the silt with straw and ready it for molding.
While this process is underway, they also assemble bamboo shafts into basic structures (kathamo) that will support effigies rolled from straw, of Durga, her fierce lion, Saraswati, Laxmi, Kartikeya and Ganesha.
Next, the nimble-fingered idolmakers skillfully smooth prepared clay over the straw models to shape their figurines – from traditional ekchala idols (idols made in a single frame) to more modern interpretations. Come autumn, Kolkata begins preparations to welcome their beloved Mother in thousands of venues and forms.
Durga Puja Is An Emotion
A Bengali from anywhere in the world will say that Durga Puja is not just a festival but an emotion. In its tribute, UNESCO acknowledged that Durga Puja is a festival that “has also come to signify ‘home-coming’ or a seasonal return to one’s roots.”
For five days, a city still mildly hungover from its colonial past, morphs into a canvas for one of the largest art installations in the world. UNESCO characterizes the festival by its “large-scale installations and pavilions in urban areas, as well as by traditional Bengali drumming and veneration of the goddess.”
Thousands of community organizers transform their Durga puja locales into pleasing crowd pullers.
Artisans Find Livelihoods During Durga Puja
Theme artist Avik Boral, who is known for his intricate, out-of-the box representations of idols, says that Durga Puja “bestows a platform to a large pool of individuals with means of earning their livelihood.”
The magnitude of festivities gives thousands of people jobs and ways to earn a living.
While Durga Puja is a major source of income to artisans, Boral explains that it also is a unique platform for various forms of art, especially ethnic artforms on the brink of extinction. Showcasing the art probably saves it from disappearing into oblivion, he says.
“As a matter of fact, it not only helps revive and rejuvenate these dying or unpopular trends but also provides a means of sustenance” to the few practitioners — most of whom, come from impoverished and rural backgrounds.
An Ancient Cultural Tradition
Durga Puja is an ancient cultural tradition. At the heart of the rituals is the eternal war between good and evil, symbolized by the battle between the deity and the demon buffalo. Ultimately, light triumphs over darkness. The ritual itself requires ten kinds of water and ten kinds of soil – some extracted from between the teeth of a boar (boraho donto mrittika) and some from between the teeth of a stallion (ashwa danta mrittika).
But few realize it also marked historic, societal change when it moved out of the zamindar bari (houses of feudal lords) to become a barowari (community festival).
Durga Puja Deserves Global Recognition
By taking the mega festival to the world stage, UNESCO gives Durga Puja the recognition it deserves as a reflection of society and social trends, adds Boral.
“The cherry on the top perhaps remains the fact that Durga Puja is just not any festival, but an “open-air”, public, mega-carnival celebrating art in all it’s different personalities and multitudes. Personally, I have seldom came across a festival organized at this scale, that engages the public – millions upon millions of people — organized along the length of an entire sizeable state and even beyond its borders by its ex-residents.”
The puja engages people of different religious and professional backgrounds (drawing photographers, designers, artists, scholars, priests, theologians, event-managers, journalists) in what Boral calls a “sheer celebration of life” ,
“It imparts artistic consciousness, makes and breaks trends, engages and uplifts the economy, provides steady income, brings together the masses across all strata,” says Boral.
Durga Puja fully “deserves to be heralded on a global stage as a champion of human culture and heritage.”