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‘The Durga Puja ceased to be purely religious in its urban form a very long time ago’: Historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta

The academic who paved the way for the inclusion of Kolkata’s Durga Puja on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage on what makes it such a unique sociological phenomenon

Tapati Guha-ThakurtaWith artist Bhabatosh Sutar at the Suruchi Sangha Puja, New Alipore, 2019 (Courtesy Tapati Guha-Thakurta)

In her 2015 book, In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata (Primus), historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta traces the evolution of the traditional pujo to its modern form, that moves beyond religious aspects of Bengal’s most well-known festival to talk about its creative, cultural and social aspects. Little surprise then that Guha-Thakurta was chosen by the Ministry of Culture to put together a dossier highlighting the spirit of the festival for its inclusion in Unesco’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

In December 2021, it was this aspect of Kolkata’s Durga Puja that the Unesco recognised while including it in the list: “As a 10-day celebration, Durga Puja represents the collective worship of the Hindu Goddess Durga. During this time, masterfully designed clay models of the Goddess are worshipped in ‘pandals’ or pavilions where communities get together and celebrate. Several folk music, culinary, craft, and performing arts traditions add to the dynamism of this celebration,” says its official press release. In this exclusive interview, Guha-Thakurta reflects on how the festival transformed over the years and how she engages with it as a Kolkatan. Excerpts:

What made you undertake such an exhaustive project?

It was exciting fieldwork. In fact, it was the kind of research work that I enjoyed more than anything I did before. Firstly, it was on contemporary history, it was on my city, on something happening around me. I never thought I would do academic work on the pujos because I never felt that sense of distance. As a Kolkatan, I have grown up enjoying the pujos, and unlike many intellectuals, I was never thrown off by it. But having said that, the pujos of my childhood and of my student years were very different. A lot of my childhood was spent in New Alipore where my grandparents lived. It was a very small parar pujo (neighbourhood puja) and I enjoyed that ambience. Then, through the years of my high school, college and university, it became about touring and getting together. Much, much later, my late colleague Anjun Ghosh and I, decided to do an academic study on the puja as a sociological phenomenon. I also saw it as an artistic phenomenon. New kinds of artists were coming into the field, so the look of the pujo, the creative community, was transforming. This was the early 2000s when we began our work.

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How do you look at the blurring of lines between the religious and cultural aspects of Kolkata’s Durga puja?

What drew me to the book is absolutely critical to the kind of identity that the pujo has taken on now. I was clear that I’m not writing a religious history — it would be hard to write a purely religious history anyway about Durga Puja. The Pujo has been about so many other things throughout its history, through the almost 100 years of sarbojanin (community) pujo, and with bonedi barir pujo (pujo at the houses of the elite), we are dealing with a 300 year history. Besides, pujo has always been about competition between, initially, wealthy homes, and then between clubs. It’s about showing off. So, the pujo ceased to be purely religious in its urban form a very long time ago. Instead, it became a grand social celebration, a place for coming together.

Has Durga Puja always been about a celebration of indigenous art and artisans?

There was always immense artistry involved in the making of the pratima (idol) and the mandap. One can never write away the artistry of the traditional heritage skill set involved. With theme pujos coming in with a new social category of artists and designers, many of these older artisans did feel threatened. But you also realise that the need for the pratima and the need for basic bamboo and structural work has not gone away, so those livelihoods remain, but they haven’t gained in prestige, stature and visibility in the way that other kinds of creative people have. And, I think, that’s a difference. Many of the artists who are coming into the field are themselves from very humble backgrounds and the difference between the artist and the artisan collapses here. As an art historian, what I found fascinating is how it complicates the definition of who is an artist and who is not. What is the line of divide between the artisan, the craftsman, and the artists.

Tell us more about this new crop of artists

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In the 2000s, a new kind of pujo emerged. It was more of an integrated production where a single artist would be in charge of site-specific work, very much like in a film set, where there are many people who work, but there’s a single director who takes the lead. The site here is a narrow street, an open stretch of road. Some artists have used that to tremendous effect. When I began my work, there were a handful of seven or eight of them whose careers I followed for almost 10 years. Many who did not have an art-college background learnt on the job. Many came from craft backgrounds. This was a season when many could earn a livelihood, earn seasonal fame. Many had no aspirations to be artists. They saw it as a vocation, a new opening, while others had aspirations to be artists and that was something they struggled with. But now I would say that the pujo has even thrown up its own avant garde. You have some couture artists who will continuously be breaking the barrier every pujo. I would specifically like to mention Bhabatosh Sutar, Shanatan Dinda, Sushanta Pal among them.

How important do you think is documentation or preservation of this phenomenon?

Older ways of idol making and pandal making had a logic of destruction written into them. Some stuff could be recycled, some of the panels would be sold, the bamboo would be re-used. When the Durga Puja took on the form of installation or production, then you were using permanent material like fibre, stone, wood. It did create that aspiration for an afterlife, but never really acquired the status of a work of art. Now, there’s been an understanding that the work you do is ephemeral and they play with that ephemerality much more productively. They use biodegradable material. Even artists have begun to understand that it is festival art, it will come back every season and there may be bits of it you can bring back into your studio and have an exhibition of, but the clubs will not maintain it. But I still feel some of these pujo installations can find a permanent place, become part of an eatery or a bookstore, perhaps. I am soon going to start working on a Durga Puja archive with my two decades of research, one that I hope will be a more immersive experience for people.

First published on: 01-10-2022 at 10:00 IST
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