Durga puja: The largest global public art festival

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Author’s Note: This is the fourth in a The following are some examples of the use ofMy experiences as a Fulbright Scholar are described in a series of articles. Recently, I returned from the first trip of three. I spent a month in Ahmedabad/Gandhinager, three weeks in Kolkata, and my last week in Goa.

I spent three week in Kolkata, India last October during the frenzied Durga Puja. Despite Durga Puja’s designation as the largest global public art festival, it’s surprisingly unknown in most of the world. In speaking with those involved with the festival, I heard it referenced as being “bigger than Rio” (presumably the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro). Some aspects of this event reminded me a lot of the Venice Biennale. For example, the site specificity of the event and the emphasis on socially-engaged themes. There’s also a bit of Vegas spectacle with the light and sound displays, as well as immersive environments with a narrative (think Meow WolfIn the U.S. but outside in neighborhood communities). I haven’t been to Rio, but assume the comparison has to do with the spectacle, performances, large crowds, and a party-like atmosphere. Durga puja is unique and none of these comparisons are appropriate. Being recognized by UNESCO as a world intangible heritage event underscores Durga Puja’s cultural and historical significance: celebrating traditional rituals, contemporary artistic expression, and community spirit. 

Before I describe the experience of pandal-hopping, it’s important to give a brief background on the story of Durga. She is a Hindu goddess, and I imagine her as an evil warrior who slew demons and ensured that good triumphed against evil. Durga has a contradictory mythology. Some see her as a modern-day heroine, a symbol of empowerment for women. Another interpretation says she was created by the male gods who domesticated her when she became powerful. This is not my preferred viewpoint as a feminist, but it is in line with many world religions’ views on women. 

I took over 200 photos on my visits to the different pandals. Due to the scale of the work, it’s difficult to get a sense of the nuances within each architectural structure. Each pandal includes a prominent Durga temple and is sponsored by an organization located in a particular neighborhood. Imagine a densely populated city with many neighborhoods, each containing narrow streets and alleyways. You may think that the GPS or taxi driver is taking you on a wild goose hunt, but then you are awestruck at an architectural marvel. I felt like a treasure hunter as I traveled from one pandal to the next. The pandals become alive at night. It is a magical event. 

Artists and artisans spend months creating massive art installations. They then disassemble them at the end of the two-week festival. The event is important enough to close schools and businesses. Kids enjoy staying up all night to go pandal hopping. 

The term “community” is bantered about a lot in contemporary art, especially in art that is deemed “social practice.” Here, I really witnessed communities coming together to create the pandals. The community members’ involvement in different aspects, beyond financial contributions speaks to a sense of collective responsibility and participation. Despite caste, class, and religion differences, there was an overwhelming sense of pride in the community. All are welcome was a phrase I heard repeatedly during my visit. This mantra transcended societal divisions and reinforced the idea that the power of art can affect change and manifest community strength. 

Here is a photo essay about my pandal-hopping experiences. 

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An in-progress shot of Rintu Das’s “Don’t Want To Be Uma,” Kashi Bose Lane Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023. 

Das raises awareness of the sex trade of women and children in this installation located in the Red Light District, Kolkata. I visited a few pandals in the week prior to previews. It was wonderful to see the work in progress, which made the festival’s transformation even more remarkable.

Image of a female deity hanging from the ceiling

Rintu Das, “Don’t Want to be Uma” (detail), Kashi Bose Lane Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

“Uma” is another word for “Durga” and references how the exploitation of women is an affront to Durga, who symbolizes divine feminine power.

Image of a hand over the mouth of a child

Rintu Das, “Don’t Want to be Uma” (detail), Kashi Bose Lane Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023. 

The hand covering your mouth is a recurring motif in the installation. This symbolises the fear of women and the silencing effect on children.

Photo of an installation of wooden rods

Pradip Das, “Heart-land:Montage of Memories” (detail), Naktala Udayan Sangha Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

The community donated photos and artifacts from their own lives to be included in this installation. The metal sculptural detail references maps of original and current neighborhoods, and also symbolizes physical and political barriers — who is kept in and who is kept out.

Installation view of portraits in a wardrobe

Pradip Das, “Heart-land:Montage of Memories” (detail), Naktala Udayan Sangha Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

Das interviewed residents in the neighborhood about their experiences with forced immigration from East Bengal to West Bengal as well as their struggles to form a new community and identity. The salvaged clothing reveals family images that have been damaged by time and represent resilience.

Detail of an installation piece with family photos and 3d elements on top

Pradip Das, “Heart-land:Montage of Memories” (detail), Naktala Udayan Sangha Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

The community donated photos and artifacts from their own lives to be included in this installation. The metal sculptural detail references maps of original and current neighborhoods, as well symbolizes physical and political barriers—who is kept in and who is kept out.

Installation view of a deity with their arms bound

Bhabatosh Sutar, “Divinity of the People,” Durga Alter, Arjunpur Amra Sabai Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

Typically sculpted with ten arms, Sutar’s Durga instead has two arms, representing humanity, with her other eight severed from her body and reaching towards the sky. I first thought these were prisoners or victims of the Manipur Genocide. When I looked closer, I saw that their wrists weren’t bound with rope as I had initially thought, but were covered in bangles. The gesture is one that shows hope and solidarity.

Installation view of a large scale sculpture of different elements of a house

Bhabatosh Sutar, “Divinity of the People,” Exterior, Arjunpur Amra Sabai Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

Sutar was in the process of construction when news broke about the Manipur Genocide. His work is an appeal to action for freedom from violence and persecution.

Installation view of a large deity made of brick

Rintu Das, Barisha Club, Exterior, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

This work, which explores themes of creation and devastation, points out that violence is never-ending in the name of power, religion, or hatred. The doves are arranged in a halo, symbolizing the hope for the next.

Installation view of the bust of a large feminine deity in stone

Rintu Das, Barisha Club, Interior detail, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

The interior of this installation was lined by stone columns with faces carved into them. I interpreted it as a sign of the creation that followed destruction.

Installation of a large figure of a female rebel

Pradip Das, “Stories of Unseen Rebels,” Exterior, Dum Dum Tarun Dal Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

Das’ work pays tribute to Indian female freedom fighters who did not make it into the history books.

Detail of female portraits against a light box

Pradip Das, “Stories of Unseen Rebels” (detail), Dum Dum Tarun Dal Club, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

This work, which combines history and personal stories, includes light boxes that feature photos of women revolutionaries. They add faces to the historical texts.

Installation view of a large female puppet with many arms

An in-progress shot of Anirban Das, “Dum Dum Bharat Chakra Club,” Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

Installation view of a gold deity with many arms

Anirban Das, “Dum Dum Bharat Chakra Club” (Alter detail), Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

This was one the few pandals i attended that included folklore as well as puppetry. A traditional puppet show was presented at the entrance. The level of artistry in the interior structure was impressive. Master weavers created an array of woven textures. Durga is portrayed as a marionette that has one human on either side moving her many arms.

Installation view of the entrance of a Pandal

Sushanta Paul, Tala Prattoy Club, Exterior, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

The pandal has a very impressive and imposing architectural structure. The lighting was meticulously designed. It was the biggest pandal that I had ever seen. Beautiful, reflected-shadows decorated the exterior and interior spaces.

Installation view of a deity on an altar

Sushanta Paul, Tala Prattoy Club (Interior detail), Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

Installation view of postcards on walls and a maquette ferris wheel

Krishanu Paul, Samaj Sebi Sangha Club, Exterior, Durga Puja Kolkata, 2023.

Using advertising banners juxtaposed with carnivalesque atmosphere, Paul’s work addressed the consumption and consumerism of Durga Puja.

Installation view of portraits printed on currency bills

Krishanu Paul, Samaj Sebi Sangha Club, Interior, Durga Puja Kolkata, 2023.

Paul shows the hidden labor that goes into the construction of pujas when he prints the faces of the workers on the money.

Detail of portraits os women on currency bills

Krishanu Paul, Samaj Sebi Sangha Club (interior detail), Durga Puja Kolkata, 2023.

Installation view of a large structure

Manash Das, Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha, Exterior, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

Das’ work explores the relationship between nature and humanity.

Installation view with boats leaning at angles against the water

Manash Das, Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha, Exterior, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

Located next to a small lake, the boat structures reference people’s reliance on water for survival.

Photo of the interior of the interior of a large structure with an altar

Manash Das, Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha, Interior, Durga Puja, Kolkata, 2023.

The magical interior shows light rain falling into a pond from the ceiling. Channeling and recycling the water from a local lake, the work points to water’s significance as a precious commodity. The piece highlights the fact that over 70% of India’s water is contaminated, causing illness.

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