Durga Puja UNESCO credit war | Art historian speaks: ‘It is the festival that deserves the credit… Durga Puja is work of people at many levels’

Durga Puja UNESCO credit war | Art historian speaks: ‘It is the festival that deserves the credit… Durga Puja is work of people at many levels’

A row has erupted in West Bengal surrounding UNESCO’s inclusion of Kolkata’s Durga Puja in its ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list. The Ministry of Culture, under the Centre, had approached Tapati Guha Thakurta, an art historian and the Director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, in 2018, to put together the dossier to apply for the list. Opposition parties say Thakurta’s field work under the commissioned project brought in the honour. The state government, on the other hand, attributes the same to the city’s “spirit” and its involvement.

Guha Thakurta speaks to The Indian Express about how she put together the project and its challenges, and gives her take on the whole debate. Excerpts:

How was it working for this project?

It was a bit of a challenge. I have never worked for public policy. It was different from academic research. I did my book on the Durga Puja as an academic because I had seen the puja on a particular scale and dimension… I was working closely with the ministry (in 2017 for an institution project)… I conversationally told one of the joint secretaries about my work on Durga Puja. In August 2018, they called and said they were looking for a field expert to work on a dossier for UNESCO. This is how they approached me.

How was the location for the festival decided? Why did it become Kolkata’s Durga Puja not India’s Durga Puja?

The ministry wanted it to be done for all of India. But I said it was difficult to produce an in-depth dossier covering Durga Puja in the entire country. Secondly, I made an argument that Kolkata, in some way, is the nerve centre of the celebration, even when it is a global celebration. Also, Kolkata is where the earlier history of the festival began. Durga Puja had a large entertainment, festivity and celebration, much more than just the worship of the goddess. The public element of the puja was also crucial. That is how I justified the city’s location.

What did the process involve?

In 2018, we were given four to five months to get the work done. We had a meeting with all the stakeholders, including the state government, artistes and members of the forum for Durgotsav (community puja organisers in Kolkata). We secured signatures from all the departments concerned. People were aware of what we were doing and they gave us support letters. Finally the dossier was submitted to UNESCO in March 2019. But then we did not hear from them. The Covid-19 pandemic took over. Finally, in 2021, we began to get queries again. Finally we received the recognition (in December, 2021). I am very happy that it has happened.

What were the main challenges?

We didn’t face challenges in our research. The puja people came to talk to us. The difficulty came (with) the government (state government). It took us a very long time to get appointments with the persons concerned. Getting certain signatures took us a lot of time. But we (pursued) the bureaucracy to get our jobs done.

What does this recognition mean for the country and especially for the people of West Bengal? How will this help the artistes and the economy surrounding Durga Puja?

As far as I know, there is no direct monetary investment that UNESCO will make in Durga Puja. The puja financing will have to happen. But this will come as a big boost to tourism. It gives an international branding to Kolkata and the city’s identity will be based on this festival. The turnover of the puja will be bigger as this will create publicity. There will be a big turnover in the consumer and creative economy.

One of the things that UNESCO is interested in is the craft economy. They are in fact looking for what they call small industries. They are very keen to get other craft forms like ‘patachitra’ or ‘dhokra’. This may get a boost.

Generally for a state, getting more UNESCO inscriptions will also attract the attention of advisors, tourists… UNESCO also has an interest in promoting the puja, but I cannot say in what capacity. It is now up to the government, Tourism Department and other stakeholders to use that attention and recognition. They need to utilise the international branding to their advantage. Durga Puja is an industry in itself. Many small enterprises are tied up with it. Apart from cultural recognition and all, these sectors will also benefit.

There is a debate going on in social media on who should be credited for this recognition. What is your view?

If Durga Puja had not taken on the character it has, I don’t think our application would have been successful. Durga Puja itself deserves certain recognition. So many people are associated with it and make the event what it is. It is the festival that deserves the credit. Not the person who wrote the dossier. The puja is what it is because of the involvement and the work of people at so many levels.