Each year, Kolkata’s During Puja scales new heights as the most spectacular and extravagant event in the city’s calendar. From the turn in the twenty-first century, the festival has taken on a particular artistic dispensation that is unique to the contemporary city, demanding a new order of attention and analysis. Based on field –research conducted between 2002 and 2012, this book unravels the anatomy of this newly-configured ‘art’ event, by tracking the new production processes. The mounting trends of publicity and sponsorship as well as the practices of mass spectatorship that make for the transform visual culture of the festival. This new visual aesthetic, it is argued, has become the most important marker of the rapidly mutating identity of today’s Durga Puja in Kolkata, bringing into the fray new categories of artists and designers, new genres of public art, and new spaces for art production and reception the city.
The book’s central concern lies in conceptualizing a specifically contemporary and artistic history of the urban festival. In keeping with its title, the book examines the diversity of images and practices – from the consumerist spectacle and the bonanza of awards to the efflorescence of publications – that unfurls in this season ‘in the name of the goddess’. While profiling the Durga Pujas as Kolkata’s biggest public art event, the book also address the ambivalence of the designations of ‘art’ and ‘artist’ in this field of production and viewership. One of the main aims of this study has been to lay open the claims of ‘art’ in this festival both as a set of insistent projections as well as a mesh of incomplete formation. The new artistic nomenclature of the festival, it is shown, is not easily secured and has to struggle to assert itself within the body of the religious event and the ephemeral mass spectacle.
Tapati Guha- Thakurta is Professor in History and currently the Director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). Her two main books are The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal, Cambridge University Press, 1992, and Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India, Columbia University Press and Permanent Bhlack, 2004. She is also the author of several articles on the art and cultural history of modern India, and exhibition monographs, including In her own Right; Remembering the artist Karuna Shaha. Seagulla, 2000; Visual Worlds of Modern Bengal Seagulla, 2002; and The City in the Archive: Calcutta’s Visual Histories, CSSSC, 2011. Along with Partha Chatterjee and Bodhisattva Kar, she has co-edited anthology, New Cultural Histories of India: Materiality and Practices, Oxford University Press, 2014.
This was meant to have been a short, non-academic book that I thought I Could write after two or three seasons of research. In 2002-03, I could never anticipated that it would end up in its present form and taken the many years it did to be completed. The fault here lies not just with the author, who has always needed a decade or more to finish each of her books. It lies equally with the subject the book sets out to study, where in the spirit f the city’s festival the work rolled and gathered new layers every Durga Puja and took on its own annual cycle of research and writing . It is hard to justify why a single festival phenomenon in a single city, studied only over the span a decade, should call for a book many pages, notes and images. The of my readers the same indulgence and tolerance that the festival asks of its public. My engagement with the transforming artistic dispensations of this festival became an incursion into the contemporary history of the city intellectual home even as I have that has left me; a city that has remained my emotional and intellectual home even as I have never ceased to despair about it. It is in that ineluctable space of living, loving and agonizing that I would like to place this would like to work on my city and take the blame for both its narrow focus and its disproportionate bulk.
Unlike any other book I have written, this one has pushed me into taking many disciplinary liberties and leaps. It has led me from my training in history into my untrained foray into urban ethnography, from the field of art history into messy space of production and practices that fall under the rubric of popular visual culture, from the secure, from the secure enclave of libraries, archives and museums into the chaos and crowds of a street festival. Without realizing it, I also found myself flung from the role of writer to that of amateur photographer and book designer. With each move, I found myself learning more than I ever thought I was capable of art my age, and (as my publisher alleged) biting off more than I could chew. I found myself grappling with the challenge of writing a new kind of academic-cum-pictorial book, where I could with concepts and theories in my narrative and use my visuals not merely as illustration but as the ground on which the work stands. Having never before worked on a theme of contemporary history, I also found it very hard to bring to a marks of all these difficulties and the ‘indiscipline’ of my meandering into these different fields and skills. Nonetheless, in the manner of the Durga Pujas, this book too, I hope, will hold its blemishes and rough edges.
The analogy with the Pujas keeps surfacing. Like every aspect of the festival, this work has been, from its inception to its end, a collective endeavour. It began in 202 as a collaborative project with my colleague and friend, Anjan Ghosh. Together, we mobilized an enthusiastic team of student researches, went about our field tours and began compiling an archive interview and transcripts, photographs, and media reports, to be housed at the Centre for Studies in Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). Anjan’s particular interest in studying public spaces and neighbourhoods of the city through the lens of the Durga Pujas is evident in the articles he wrote on this theme, on which I have based many of my formulations. That he never lived to develop these into a larger work nor see my book completed remains a lasting regret. His untimely loss is what propelled me to finish this book against all personal and professional pods.
This work would never been possible (nor been half as pleasurable) without the participation of over different seasons of a large team of committed researches. My heartfelt thanks go out to Kamalika Mukhejee, Abhijit Bhattacharyya (both of the CSSSC archives), Jayani Bonnerjee, Moumita Sil and Sudipta Ghosh, who formed our first group of researchers; to Paramita and Renu Roy Chowdhury who worked on this project suring its most expansive phase in the mid 2000s and provided me with the most comprehensive interviews, transcripts and coverage of the festival; and finally to Moumita Sen, who brought a fresh lease of life and companionship to this project from 2010-12, when I found myself alone in my struggle to wind up to work. I hope they will all be able to relive incredible fun of our Puja though the pages and images of this book. My thanks also to Kaliprosad Bose and Sanchita Bhattacharyya for their help with compiling media reports. While the bulk of the photographs used here are my own, over different periods of research, Sambuddha Banerjee, Abhijit Bhattacharyya, Ranu Roy Chaowdhury, Arnab Ghoshal, Shankulal Bose and Moumita Sen have contributed a large body of photographs on the festival for our archives.
As the completion of the book has dragged on for years, the trail of debts has mounted in equal measure. I have many to think for keeping faith in the book and patiently waiting for it to happen. Firstly, my colleagues at the CSSSC who heard me promise every year that the book will be done soon and gave me their valuable responses to the first versions of some of these chapters the I presented in seminars. Secondly, the many organizers and audiences at seminars in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, London, New York, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Bekeley and Stanford, where I have over the years ahared different sections of this work. This book has had its prior life not in published aricles but in seminars and public lectures, all of which cannot be listed here. The ones that I would like to specially acknowledge for the critical feedbacks they gave me are the presentations I made at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi (in 2003 and 2012), at the School of Art and Aesthetics and Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi (in 2006 and 209), at Ambedkar University and Department of Political Seience, Delhi University (in 2012), at the Centre for South Asian Studies at Columbia, Berkeley and Stanford (in 2004, 2005 and 2011) and at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad (2013). Thirdly, I must thank the many Puja committee members and Puja designers who gave us interviews year after year and, through their conversations and work, offered the material from which the work evolved. In a field of immediate returns and gratifications, many ceased to take seriously the promise of an ever- deferred book. But there were a few who welcomed me back to the Pujas each season and believed that my work would take their art and the festival to places they had not gone before. I hope not o have let them down entirely.
I remain particularly indebted to those who had the time and patience to plough this voluminous work to convince me that it was worth publishing. Janaki Nair gave me her incisive comments on the first book prosposal I had floated. As the book took on its present shape, Partha Cahatterjee’s and Manas Ray’s critical annotations on some of the chapters provided important insights for the work as a whole. Susan Bean’s enthused reading of the full manuscript was a great morale-booster, and pushed me to think of ways of making this work accessible to a global readership-a task I which I have admittedly failed. Ajanata Dutt, a childhood friend, meticulously read and edited the entire work through an immensely difficult time in her own life. Hari Vasudevan also took it upon himself to read the work amidst his many other commitments and taught me new ways of thinking about its implications. While I feared that the work failed to rise above its material, they both persuaded me that its value lay In its details. They became the main lifeline of this work in its last stage. Without Ranjana Dasgupta taking charge of the Director’s office and Lakshmi Subramanian sharing responsibilities as Dean, Academic Affairs, I would never have survived my years of Directorship nor even been able to finish this work. The book owes a lot to unflagging support and friendship at office, and to this ever-smiling assistance of Kamalika Mukherjee, who has been the constant facto ion this project from its beginning to the end.
Each year, Kalkata’s Durga Puja scal3s new heights as the most spectacular, extravagant and publicized event in city’ calendar. There is a long history of the transforming life of this biggest religious festival of Bengal into a civic communitarian event, a time of mass public festivity, a mega consumerist carnival and a city-wide street exhibition. This history, in is many frames, takes us back to different points of time in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is also a shorter history of the present-one that brings us to the first decade of the twenty-first century-where we see the festival assuming a special artistic profile that is unique to the contemporary city, confronting us with new categories of Durga Puja ‘art’ and ‘artists’. This book extricates itself from the demands of the long history to hone in on this shorter temporal time frame, to see how certain new dispensations of ‘art’ and ‘design’ have come to signify a specific contemporary tenor in the lifwe of this urban festival. One of its main concerns lies in dissecting the anatomy of this newly-configured public art event, by traching the different trends of creative and spectatorial practices as well as commercial promotion and sponsorship that made for the visual metamorphosis of the current festival. This new visual aesthetic, it is argued, has become the most important marker of the rapidly mutating identity of today’s Durga Puja in Kolkata, bringing into the fray new categories of artists and designers, new genres of public art, and new spaces for popular art production and reception. All of these come together to orchestrate an artistic high-point in the image of the city’s Durga Pujas in the first decade of the new ,illennium, during which the main research was conducted for this book.
The Past In The Present
Art the heart of this new story are the cumulative, embedded residues of multiple older stories. There is, to begin with, the inheritance of a curious composite iconography of goddess Durga in her role as Mahishasuramardini, astrid her lion, slaying the buffalo demon Mahishasura, while she stands surrounded by her four divine children, her two sons Ganesh and Kartick and her two daughters, Lakshmi and Saraswati. (See 0.1) Each of the are separate deities in their own right and have their own smaller dedicated Pujas, the come either before or after the Durga Puja in the annual ritual cycle, but appear in this setting as offspring of mother Durga and an integral part of her pantheon. This seamless blending of the martial with the maternal image of the goddess is on that is particular to the history of Durga Pujas in Bengal and goes back over four centuries. The invincible warrior Durga of the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana becomes one with the domestic Durga of Bengal’s Agamani and Bijoya songs, where she is Uma, Parvati or Gauri, the daughter of Himavant and Menaka, the presiding, deities of the Himalayas, and the consort of Shiva, lord of Mount Kailash. And what is played out every autumn is an intensely emotional ritual of ‘homecoming’ around the five days of the Pujas, when Bengalis welcome the goddess both as mother and as a married daughter who descends to her earthly home each year from her husbande in the hills and returns there following a tearful that is accorded to her on the last day of her on the last day of her worship. With no major Durga temples in existence in Kolkata or in all of Bengal, the worship of the goddess has always been seasonal and always premised on the fabrication of temporary clay images (pratimas) to be immersed in the river at the end of the five days of the Pujas-and the creation of temporary abodes, whether inside existing household altars of affluent and middle-class homes or inside elaborately constructed, dismountable public pavilions on streets and open grounds, which are called pandals. This seasonal cycle of worship and the impermanence of the clay images of the goddess and the abodes that are constructed for her stands integral to the life of this event in the past and in present. These factors will emerge as critical in understanding the intensity of production and participation that is invested in this ephemeral annual event, as well in comprehending the compelling transfigurations of time and space in the city in the build-up to the final days of the festival. The autumnal calendar of the festival and the main continuing format of Durga’s household and public worship-beginning with Mahalaya which inaugurates the ten days of the Debi-paksha, leading to Shashiti, Saptami, Ashtami and Nabami (sixth, seventh, eight and ninth days)as the main days of the Pujas, and ending on the tenth days, Dashami, the days of the immersion of the goddess-especially underscore the carry-over of the past into the civic urban festival of the present. Ritual and secular time stand powerfully interpolated in this seasonal outburst of festivity. What is particularly striking for any outside is the extent to which the full spread of the year in Bengal gets structured around the ritual calendar of this autumnal event, and the ways all work and professional time in the modern metropolis freezes during the week of the Pujas.
Today’s Durga Puja encapsulates a series of critical yransitions in thie timing, forms and locations of the festival in Bengal in a history that has been shown to stretch from the sixteenth to the early years of the twentieth century. We could look back, for instance, to the early passage of the Puja from a spring-time ritual to an increasingly grand autumn celebration (held in the month of Ashvin in the Sharat season), where the changed time was intended to commemorate Rama’s unseasonal invocation of the goddess on the eve of his battle with Ravana and the last day of the Durga Puja was mad to coincide with the Dussehra festivities marking Rama’s final victory over Ravana. The goddess killing of thebuffalo demon came to be thus incorporated within a larger all-India mythological canon of the Ramayana and its climactic narrative of the triumph of good over evil. Alongside the evolution of Bengal’s specific mixed iconography of Durga, this important change in the timing of the Durga Puja in Bengal has been interpreted by scholars a part of the ‘Sanskritization of the ritual event and its induction within the new structures of Brahmanical orthoboxy and the rising political authority of Hindu land-owning magnates during the seventh and eighteenth centuries.
All along, the evolving religious of the festival powerfully coalesces with its changing social and political roles in Bengal under late Mughal and early colonial rule. If the first public performances of the worship of Durga were staged in the courts and household of the Hindu zamindars from the turn of the seventeenth century, more well-known are the last shifts and travels of the through the colonial era-first, from rural feudatory setup to wealthy mansions of the new merchant aristocracy of the colonial city, producing the new ostentatious entity of the Banedi Bari (aristocratic household)Pujass, and thereafter from the exclusive precincts of elite home to the spaces of communities, neighbourhoods and open grounds of the city. With these transitions come about the new nomenclatures of the public community Pujas-of, first, the Barowari Puja (literally meaning a Puja begun by twelve friends or associates) and next, the Sarbojanin Puja (connoting a Puja belonging to all)-which over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gradually defined the contours of the modern urban festival. The contemporary city festival, will show, continues to thrive on a thick cultural nostalgia for these different form of the rural and urban Pujas of older times, and generates its own bounty of historical of the shifts from the pomp, extravagance and hedonistic celebrations of the rich and powesful to the communitarian ethos of a people’s festival. The present then remains in a continuous dialogue with these ritual, historical and social pasts of the Durga ujas, even as it offers its own sharpene image of contemporaneity alongside the narratives of an artistic upgradation and corporate makeover of today’s festival.
In this book, thought, I have chosen to turn my back on these many legends and history of the Durga Pujas to think about how we may conceive of a specifically contemporary history of this city festival. I use to my advantage here a significant body of recent scholarship that covers these various angle to the study of the festival that I have briefly skimmed through above. So, for instance, my work consciously steps outside the wide range of writing on the mythological, textual, iconographic and liturgical dimensions of goddess worship in Bengal, to approach today’s public from a distinctly ‘non-religious’ perspective. To do so means separating out my interests in current urban history and popular visual culture from the disciplinary locations of Scholars who have studied the Durga Pujas (often locating this event within Bengal’s year-long calendar of religious festivals) from the field of religious studies or structural anthropology of rituals and belief systems. The book also avoids the project of providing a broad historical overview of the origins and traditions of Durga worship in medival Bengal or of the changing socio-cultural forms of the household and public festival in the modern Kolkata of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A good sampling of these histories are there to be read in some recent article and monographs, some of which also effectively combine a study of the Durga Pujas of Bengal, traced over a long period from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, with the complementary though different trajectories of the Kali and Jagaddhatri Pujas that come in its immediate wake. The broad range of this scholarly coverage has given me the liberty to train the lens of my book closely on the present, on only the Durga Pujas, and on the urban topography of a single city whose image has grown to be synonymous with this grand autumnal festival of the goddess. It has allowed me to think of the present itself as a distinct historical time, and to clock nack to earlier histories of the festival to see how far serve as pre-histories of the present and presage the contemporary turning points in tastes, forms and practices.
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