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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Explained: The ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ of Kolkata’s Puja

The UNESCO has accorded heritage status to Kolkata's Durga Puja festival. What is Durga Puja, and what does the tag mean?

Written by Santanu Chowdhury , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: December 17, 2021 3:37:59 pm
A puja pandal in Kolkata. (Express Photo: Partha Paul, File)

Unesco’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage on Wednesday put “Durga Puja in Kolkata” on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Committee is meeting virtually in its 16th Session from December 13 to 18.

Eric Falt, director of UNESCO New Delhi, said he was “confident that this inscription will offer encouragement to the local communities that celebrate Durga Puja, including all the traditional craftspeople, designers, artists, and organisers of large-scale cultural events, as well as tourists and visitors…”.

Puja in Kolkata

Although celebrated across the country — notably in Tripura, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam, Maharashtra, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh — and in neighbouring Bangladesh, the heart of the 10-day annual Sharodotsav festival is in Kolkata, where more than 3,000 community Durga Pujas are held, apart from a large number of pujas in Bengali households.

Since 2016, the Mamata Banerjee government has been organising a Durga Puja Carnival — a parade of popular pujas from Kolkata and adjoining districts along with cultural performances — at Red Road to attract global attention for the festival and boost tourism. On Thursday, the Chief Minister said she was “proud and honoured for what we have achieved”, and took a jibe at her political opponents (BJP) who she said had “spread lies that I don’t allow Durga Puja celebrations in the state”.

Intangible Heritage

According to UNESCO, “cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects”, but “also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts”.

Intangible cultural heritage, according to UNESCO, is “traditional, contemporary and living at the same time”, “inclusive”, “representative”, and “community-based”. It is “an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation” — and “an understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life”.

More than 3,000 community Pujas in Kolkata every year. (Express Photo: Partha Paul, File)

On the list

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity currently has 492 elements, UNESCO said in a release. The list of Intangible Cultural Heritage elements on the UNESCO website includes 13 entries from India.

Besides Durga Puja in Kolkata (2021), the India list has: Kumbh Mela (2017); Nowruz (2016); traditional brass and copper utensil-making among the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru, Punjab (2014); Sankirtana of Manipur (2013); Buddhist chanting of Ladakh (2012); Chhau dance, Kalbelia dance of Rajasthan, and Mudiyettu of Kerala (2010); Ramman festival of Garhwal (2009); and Kutiyattam Sanskrit theatre, Ramlila, and Vedic chanting (2008).

The 2021 Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity also has entries including Arabic calligraphy, Uzbekistan’s Bakhshi art, Congolese rumba, falconry, Inuit drum dancing of Denmark, and the traditional Italian knowledge and practice of truffle hunting and extraction.

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