"I have just spent all day doing the hair.”
Goddess Durga is getting finishing touches at the Dum Dum Park Bharat Chakra Puja in Kolkata. She’s 14ft tall (18ft with her crown). Workmen are perched on ladders, hammering her hair into place, hair that is billowing out behind her and snaking around the walls of the venue.
“It’s human hair, 40kg of it,” says Anirban, the theme designer for the Puja. Then he hollers: “The nails are looking too shiny. Tomorrow we will need to colour them.”
Anirban does not use his surname. But he calls himself Anirban Pandalwala on his social media handles. Durga Puja is the time pandals dot the city, housing thousands of Durga images, big and small, and Anirban has been doing “theme Pujas” since 2005. This year’s theme at Bharat Chakra is “Introspection”—how we are obsessed with ourselves, yet somehow lose our true selves.
His “Pandalwala” moniker is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the artistic evolution of Durga Puja. The “pandalwalas” have found artistic respectability, especially now that Unesco has inscribed Durga Puja on its “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” list in December 2021. The Durga Puja starting 1 October will be the first with that tag.
“Of course, it makes me happy that our Durga Puja has been recognised internationally but I am doing this for everyone, not for Unesco,” says Anirban.
The excitement over the “intangible heritage” tag (including a grand thank you parade for Unesco officials this month) might make it seem as if Durga Puja was lying neglected in some dusty corner of Bengal until it was “discovered” by Unesco. In fact it was always Bengal’s greatest festival, noisy, grand, ostentatious, growing bigger every year. But the Unesco tag has officially put the imprimatur of “public art gallery” on Durga Puja, making it an arts festival as much as a religious one.
This year the NGO MassArt is even hosting a pre-Durga Puja exhibition, showing how the city transforms into an art gallery, with previews of selected Pujas and a time-lapse audiovisual of four big Pujas coming to life.
The other thing the Unesco honour has done is make an unlikely celebrity out of an art historian. Tapati Guha-Thakurta led the team which produced the dossier that went to Unesco. Now, to her astonishment, Puja organisers are inviting her to inaugurate Durga Pujas, a task usually reserved for politicians and film stars.
Like most of us who grew up in Kolkata, Guha-Thakurta took Durga Puja for granted. It was big, brash and sometimes tacky. My own family often fled the city during Durga Puja, complaining about the crowds and the noise. “I noticed a kind of intellectual distancing from the Pujas,” says Guha-Thakurta. “Many Bengali intellectuals might have had some affiliation with some old Durga Puja at the ancestral home but they considered the Pujas of the city as a form of invasion of the city by crowds, by light, by noise.”
In 2002, she started studying Durga Puja as an ethnographic project with her colleague, Anjan Ghosh. “I didn’t know who the artists were but I could see a new folk aesthetic was coming,” she says. She remembers being stunned by a Durga Puja done in Santhali form. She and Ghosh started following a few Durga Pujas but discovered something new down some alley each year—a little Madhubani village or a Puja using woodblocks. “There was a folk aesthetic but it was also about a new design conception. It’s not some extinguished tribal tradition. It’s also the tribal artist trying to become a contemporary artist.” For want of a better description, all that was dubbed “theme Puja”. That project became a book in 2015—In The Name Of The Goddess: The Durga Pujas Of Contemporary Kolkata. The book became the basis of the dossier that went to Unesco.
While Unesco honours Durga Puja as a “public art festival”, Durga Puja has complicated the whole idea of who is an artist and what is art. It’s not a biennale with a curator or a managerial committee. “I could see a new social category of artists, some of them with art college degrees but coming from very subaltern backgrounds,” says Guha-Thakurta. Some were like impresarios bringing in other craftspeople. Clubs started competing for awards. It was all feeding into a middle-class aesthetic that valued weekend art classes and deified culture. I can relate. The first drawing I ever had published in a Bengali children’s magazine was, unsurprisingly, one of Durga Puja.
But Guha-Thakurta says no matter how “artsy” it gets, the actual “labour of the pandal maker or image maker never goes away because there is still a lot of basic work”. Hence, Anirban Pandalwala rather than Anirban Artist. Yet Anirban cannot deny the artistic excitement. “Where else will I get a canvas as big as this? My Bharat Chakra pandal is 150x30ft and three-dimensional. In a movie, the audience cannot enter the screen. Here the audience is part of the composition.”
In 2004, Guha-Thakurta did a case study of four-five Pujas, From Spectacle To ‘Art’, where she writes that she wanted to track how something that was predominantly “glitter, extravaganza, and mega-spectacle” was clamouring to have an identity as one of the city’s most “unique, public ‘art’ events”.
Some Pujas still make the spectacular their USP. One had so much gold one year that they needed armed guards. Another year, they replicated Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and ran into trouble with the civil aviation authorities owing to the lighting. While these draw mammoth crowds, the truly memorable are those that make an emotional impact, says Jaydeep Mukherjee, who runs Meghdutam Travels and has been promoting Durga Puja to international audiences for years. He brings journalists and bloggers every year to Kolkata for an “International Jury Award”.
“One year the jury saw pandals worth crores but they still ask me about one pandal in Haridevpur whose budget was not even ₹3 lakh.” That Puja had focused on brick kiln workers. “There Mother Durga was carrying bricks on her head,” remembers Mukherjee. “That connected with people.” Like the Durga Puja in 2020 that visualised the Mother Goddess as a migrant woman fleeing the lockdown with her children.
Art and religion mix at some peril, however. A Durga Puja that paid tribute to the farmers’ agitation, with hundreds of discarded slippers, raised the hackles of some Hindu activists and politicians. Guha-Thakurta says those who complain that club rivalry, pandal décor and social messaging have replaced actual worship forget that Durga Puja, even from the time of the zamindars, was always about a “certain excess, a certain hedonism, a certain revelry”. Now Durga has entered a “new commercial cultural economy” but Guha-Thakurta is confident her worship can “never be erased”. Durga will always be the protagonist with 10 arms, three eyes and her Mahishasura. The artist must work with that and around that. But it’s also secular in terms of its patrons, its audience and its artists, and that’s no small thing. “It has room for all,” says Guha-Thakurta.
Most of us have treated the Unesco tag as a prize, a cause for extra celebration. Guha-Thakurta says it is also an “opportunity and a responsibility”. Durga Puja does not need more crowds but she wants the Unesco hoopla to be an opportunity to bring the larger art world to it. She notes that at the big thank you rally, it was the embassy officials who got to sit on the dais with the dignitaries, not the artists.
Mukherjee, who has done 62 road shows to promote Durga Puja abroad, hopes the Union government will offer more tourism support. “I am competing with 200 tourism boards and I can’t offer what even Nicaragua can because many Indian tourism offices abroad, like the one in Toronto, have been shut down,” he says.
Anirban understands these debates and challenges but for him it ultimately boils down to pure passion. And love. He is building a Durga temple in a flat near where he lives. An ashtadhatu Durga has been installed. “One day the people of Kolkata might get bored of my art,” he says. “But I will still have that Durga. I can still decorate her. I can’t live without that.”
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.