The UNESCO on Wednesday added Durga Puja in Kolkata to its 2021 list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, giving international recognition to the biggest religious festival of the 331-year-old city and the state of West Bengal.
As many as 36,946 community Durga Pujas are organised in Bengal. Of these, around 2,500 are held in Kolkata. In recent years, several organisations had urged UNESCO to recognise the festival.
Traditional yoga and the Kumbh Mela got the recognition in 2016 and 2017 respectively. On Wednesday, the Durga Puja was the only Indian festival to make it to the list of 20 events and traditional activities.
“Durga Puja is an annual festival celebrated in September or October, most notably in Kolkata, in West Bengal of India, but also in other parts of India and amongst the Bengali diaspora,” the UNESCO wrote on its website on Wednesday, mentioning the cultural activities, involvement of artisans and participation of the masses.
“Durga Puja is seen as the best instance of the public performance of religion and art, and as a thriving ground for collaborative artists and designers. The festival is characterized by large-scale installations and pavilions in urban areas, as well as by traditional Bengali drumming and veneration of the Goddess. During the event, the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations,” the UNESCO said.
Defining Intangible Cultural Heritage, the UNESCO has said: “The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as performing arts, oral traditions, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe.”
Founded by the East India Company in 1690, Kolkata was the capital of British India from 1772 to 1911, when the capital was shifted to Delhi.
The UNESCO’s announcement was welcomed by Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) as chief minister Mamata Banerjee is widely recognized as the biggest patron of the festival.
Banerjee has drawn criticism from opposition parties for granting government funds for community puja organising clubs and holding a carnival at Kolkata’s Red Road before immersion of the idols. The carnival drew a huge number of foreign tourists in recent years. It has, however, not been held for two years in its usual form because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The budget of many community puja organisers in Kolkata and the districts runs into several lakhs of rupees. The money is raised through subscription from members of the public and corporate sponsorship. According to a study the British Council of India conducted last year, the economic value of the artistic creations and cultural activities during Durga Puja in West Bengal is more than ₹32,300 crore.
“Durga Puja occupies the heart of every Bengali. Mamata Banerjee has made the best efforts to promote the festival as a national event. She has given a grant of ₹50,000 to each of the clubs and also held the carnival. Her efforts and that of the puja organisers have succeeded,” said senior TMC Lok Sabha member Saugata Roy.
Even as it rose to become Bengal’s biggest opposition party since 2019, when it won 18 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), too, joined the festivities in an apparent bid to connect with the masses.
October 22, 2020 became a significant day in Bengal politics when Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually joined the commencement of the first Durga Puja the Bengal BJP unit organised at the Salt Lake campus of the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre (EZCC) in Salt Lake, a township located on the eastern outskirts of Kolkata. No other Prime Minister had earlier inaugurated a Durga Puja in Bengal.
As PM Modi invoked the goddess in Bengali and talked of female empowerment, laws to curb crime and Central schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (save and educate the girl child), his speech was streamed by the party to its supporters in all 294 assembly constituencies. EZCC, which is the under the Union ministry of culture, wore a festive look.
Since the BJP could win only 77 assembly seats in the March-April polls against a target of 200, the enthusiasm was visibly less at EZCC this year.
Bengal BJP vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar said the UNESCO’s recognition was a gift for millions of Bengalis.
“This is recognition for a culture that has been inculcated and built over several centuries. The UNESCO has recognized the superlative emotion behind the celebrations,” said Majumdar.
Many eminent citizens of Kolkata welcomed the news.
“This is a joyous moment for all Bengalis. I, however, feel that the recognition should have come much earlier,” noted writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay told the media.