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The Art of Durga

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Behala looks like any Kolkata neighbourhood. Honking cars. Little shops selling groceries and sweets. Except for a huge Bamiyan Buddha recreated in Kolkata just for a few days.

SM1: The Taliban has destroyed the entire. All the world famous statue of Bamiyan buddha we will never be able to see. Neither next generation. So destruction is here.

Sanjay Mitra is one of the organisers of the local Behala Friends Durga Puja here, Kolkata’s biggest festival when the ten-armed Goddess Durga comes home every year.. This year his club’s theme is destruction and regeneration. Near the image of the Goddess we can see little saplings.

SM2: Life goes on. This is where new saplings are coming out representing. Life is regenerating itself

During Durga Puja the whole city turns into a festival as temporary temples pop up everywhere, in parks, street crossings, old family mansions and in new fangled apartment complexes.
This year it’s drawn new visitors to the city like Lavanya Manickam, a student from Vassar College in New York who sums up her experience.

LM1: Really large installations that focus a lot on the product of the art, rather than like the ritual and celebration.

Manikam is here because Vassar alumni Milena Chilla Markhoff decided to shepherd a busload of alumni, students and faculty from all over the world around the city’s Durga Pujas, no easy feat as artists, electricians, metal cutters, carpenters added their final touches.

MC1: Watch your steps live construction

Milena split her time between Berlin and Kolkata for years. And she wanted to shared her home away from home with her Vassar family

MC2: But I also felt a sense of urgency to get people to experience Durga Puja now before the UNESCO stamp of approval potentially changes things.

In 2021 Durga Puja got the intangible cultural heritage tag from UNESCO. And that’s led to a huge push to celebrate not just the festival but also the public art. Erica Moiah James, Vassar alum and associate professor of art history at the University of Miami is thinking of how to explain what she saw to folks back home.

EJ1: I would use a language of spectacle, but also handmade on a grand scale. I would talk about community, a sort of collective creativity. I would talk about the way form informs narrative.

Organisers like MassArt lead Durga Puja preview tours for foreign guests and diplomats to take Kolkata’s Durga Puja to the world like a Biennale. That poses some interesting questions says Lavanya Manickam

LM2: Like, is it about religion? Is it about art production celebration?

And Is there a danger that this artistic tag will make for a more self conscious Durga Puja?
This year one Durga Puja was all about recycling. Another was based on the oral histories of refugees. Yet another used a humble street snack called puchka as its theme and artist Ayan Shah read a lot of feminist subtext into a crunchy snack.

AS1: Hard shell is kind of woman. And  tenderness is there inside her.

Could the actual religious festival get lost behind the artist’s statement?
The city’s mayor Firhad Hakim said Durga Puja has never just belonged to Hindus. It’s always been for everyone.

FH1: whether we are hindu muslim Christian buddhist, this is OUR festival Everyone in bengal this is our festival. Of course it has religious aspect. But more than that it has art and cultural aspect

Candace Lowe Smith who teaches cultural anthropology at Vassar says its difficult to cherry pick between what’s religious and what’s art

CLS1: it's not just religious, it's also and it's not just local. I think it's it's like the way that people express a way of being global in this moment in time.

Its really about the sensation of being immersed in the transformation of a city, something you cannot capture in photographs says Vassar political science professor Himadeep Mupiddi who is of Indian origin.

HM1: But I think what happens when you live in the United States for a long time is you forget how intense and how dense things are in India, right?

Milena agrees.

MC3:  You can’t prep someone for that. People need to come in, be open minded and just dive in.

And even if all the installations weren’t quite finished when they visited that was OK says Himadeep, It was like seeing a working draft of Durga Puja.

HM2: So I think you get pulled into the process of making. And so that's why the term working draft is like so beautiful. Right. Because it's like it shows you that this is amazing, but it's still human.

Amazing yet still human. I think the Goddess who is also a Mother can relate to the fact that it takes a village to raise a Durga Puja.
This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW