A peek into the ‘world’s greatest public art installation’

With Unesco including Kolkata’s Durga Puja in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, here’s a look at how the festival has evolved to become a celebration of arts and culture

Photos by Atri Bhattacharya
Photos by Atri Bhattacharya

By Atri Bhattacharya

Published: Thu 6 Oct 2022, 11:13 PM

Earlier this week, I was mildly miffed with my tailor. A minor wardrobe issue, but he said he could not help me because he was not in the shop, but going around Kolkata’s pujo pandals. Pandals... how does one explain the concept? Some years ago, when we were pitching Durga Puja to an European audience, we used the term ‘marquee’, which seems rather inadequate. A giant temporary installation, usually a colourful cloth façade on a framework of bamboo poles, where Durga and her children are revered in the autumn every year. An adequate description? Far from it.

Coming back to my tailor, Anees was almost apologetic that he had taken time off. “I shall be back before midnight, sir, and I’ll get it done before you go out tomorrow morning. You will have your new kurta before Onjoli.” He knows that norms and tradition decree that one must wear new clothes at the prayers on ashtami, the 8th day of the fortnight. Anees is not a Hindu and is not even certain he is a Bengali, because his grandfather migrated to Kolkata from the northern province of Uttar Pradesh. But he is part of the millions (yes, millions!) who throng the streets during Puja, wondering at the lights and the pandals and the grandeur of the fanfare. And he will go the extra mile to ensure that our Puja goes off well. This, to me, is the essence of Durga Puja in the 21st century. It is a celebration of community and creativity, a fortnight of rejoicing. No wonder then Unesco recently included Kolkata’s famed Durga Puja in its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.

Being inherently argumentative by nature, Bengalis naturally disagree on the origin of the tradition. The landed gentry of Kolkata attribute it to Raja Nabakrishna Deb of the Sovabajar Rajbari. By some accounts, this Puja, held in 1757, was also a celebration of East India Company defeating Siraj ud-Daulah, the then Nawab of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey. I would look further, and not just for historical veracity. An exclusive Puja organised by a landlord, with little participation of the masses, a celebration of an Indian defeat, a kowtowing to colonisers — these are disturbing ideas not only in hindsight but because these ideas are far removed from the social, cultural and even commercial celebration of unity that Durga Puja has come to be known for.

There is also a contention that the zamindars of Dinajpur and Malda initiated the first Durga Puja in Bengal in the 16th century. Other claims abound. Raja Kangshanarayan of Taherpur in 1500, or Bhabananda Mazumdar of Krishnanagar in 1606, or Lakshmikanto Majumdar (founder of the Sabarno Rouchowdhury family) in 1610 … who organised the first Sharadiya Durga Puja in Bengal. Noted academic and historian, Sukanta Chaudhuri, provides an interesting insight when he says, “The most amazing act of worship was performed by the East India Company itself: in 1765, it offered a thanksgiving Puja, no doubt as a politic act to appease its Hindu subjects, on obtaining the Diwani of Bengal.” These are of course prime topics for debate and adda, that celebration of conversation which defines Bengali society.

Regardless of its origins, Durga Puja today would be unrecognisable to a time traveller from the 17th century. A large number of bonedi barir puja, the celebrations conducted by aristocratic families, still survive. They are nuclei for annual gatherings of the clans, and zealously preserve the form, procedure and rituals handed down over generations. On a larger scale, the Sarbojanin Puja organised in each para ( neighborhood) performs the same function. Not only the residents but also their prodigal children, the migratory birds who return each autumn, gather at the neighbourhood Puja over 10 days of festivities. Amateur theatricals (the romances fuelled by those two months of evening rehearsals!), musical performances, food fetes, handicraft fairs, all happen at the pandals. The Sarbojanin Puja started in 1910 with donations from local residents. Now the bigger ones have patrons (much like the Rajas of the 18th century), who also get corporate sponsorship and advertisements that fund the extravaganza that is overwhelming in scale, conception and execution. The world’s greatest public art installation.

Consider this: this year, one Puja pandal is a model of St. Peter’s Basilica, right down to the Vatican’s amazing corridor ceilings and the art on the walls. Two hundred and fifty artisans worked for four months to create this! Another one, covering more than 30,000 square feet, embodies tranquility through motion, and is covered by a multi-paneled polycarbonate dome that changes colour with the light of day. At yet another, the walls and ceilings are covered with incredibly detailed poto chitro, paintings and fabrics in the traditional Bengali art form. During this time, one sees considerable truth in Arthur C. Clarke’s argument about technology being indistinguishable from magic. For this is magic, where the mundane transforms into something so overwhelming in scale and beauty.

Now the unfortunate part: these stunning creations are available for viewing for a few weeks, following which they are immersed into the waters on the fourteenth day. Only over the last few years have we woken up to their immense artistic value and commercial potential. A recent study estimated the economic value of Durga Puja and related activities at US$3.7 billion each year. Billions, yes. That figure should now increase. For the last few years, the finale to Puja has been a parade of all the major idols on Red Road, in the heart of Kolkata. NGOs and curators are setting up the process for an annual auction of all the live art created for Puja and for pandals.

From a harvest festival to a celebration of unity and an exclusive public relations exercise to becoming the greatest public art installation that the world has seen, Durga Puja has continued to evolve as a celebration of arts and culture.


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