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UNESCO recognition of Durga Puja a big feat. But it was no easy journey for India

Creating the idol for puja is more than just mixing sand and clay. It circumscribes the emotions and efforts of all artisans.

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India is a land of festivals that celebrate and manifest its rich culture and diverse traditions. In the Hindu month of Ashwin, or September-October in the Gregorian calendar, we celebrate the Sharad Navratri, popularly known as Durga Puja in East India. The festival involves worshipping the feminine spirit, which manifests itself in many forms.

Durga Puja is the homecoming of goddess Durga from the sacred mount Kailash to her maternal home. It encompasses qualities such as strength, transformation, beauty, compassion, and power, reflected in each individual and even the universe.

Considering the many traditional values, workers, artists and sentiments involved, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has finally included Kolkata’s famed Durga Puja in its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list (ICH). While the government sent its proposal in 2019, it was only accepted in December 2021.

UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage commended Durga Puja for its initiatives to involve marginalised groups and individuals as well as women.

Also read: Kolkata pandals have messages, Maa their messenger—sex worker to a mother awaiting justice

Durga Puja is more than empty festivities

“Durga Puja highlights the best of our traditions and ethos. And, Kolkata’s Durga Puja is an experience everyone must have,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi while congratulating the nation, and rightfully so.

During Durga Puja in Kolkata, the entire city comes together and dresses up in festive spirits. The 10-day celebration is one of the most awaited events for almost every person living in the city. The last five are spent in socialising, amusement, lively reunions, and sumptuous feasts.

With energy buzzing in the air, the city of Kolkata lights up for those 10 days, replete with sounds of dhak (drum) and shankh (conch) along with the aroma of freshly cooked bhog (prayer food) in the air.

Creating the idol for puja is more than mixing sand and clay. It circumscribes the emotions and efforts of all artisans—a contribution which must be recognised.

For instance, to celebrate and commemorate their outstanding contribution and achievements, a special function was organised by the Ministry of Culture on 24 September at the Indian Museum in Kolkata, where a select group of 30 artisans and artists intimately involved in Durga Puja celebrations were honoured.

These included shilpis (sculptors) of Durga’s protima (idol), members of Raj Baris, Pandal makers, artists, the dhakis (drummers), the priests and the jewellery makers of protimas, among others.

But Before Durga Puja became a national symbol, it was a marker of pride and class for merchants in 18th century Bengal. Slowly, it became more widespread and, by the 20th century, gained popularity at the community and national levels. This involved the public organisation of Durga Puja in Pandals or temporary sheds used for public meetings.

Also read: Pet-friendly Durga Puja pandals in West Bengal set to redefine faith and family

Making it to UNESCO ICH

The entry of Durga Puja in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage was possible only because of the tireless efforts of all stakeholders who have, over the centuries, put in their heart and soul into making a grand celebration. Thanks to this inclusion, India has 14 Intangible Cultural Heritage components on the UNESCO list. Before Durga Puja, Yoga and Kumbh Mela made it to this coveted index in 2016 and 2017, respectively. As a signatory to the 2003 UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage, India has clearly prioritised preserving its cultural ethos.

The Ministry of Education, which is the nodal agency for UNESCO in India and the Ministry of Culture, was also involved in preparing dossiers for inscriptions on the UNESCO list. At the same time, the Ministry of External Affairs mobilised international support to get the proposal passed by UNESCO. Finally, with the help of Ministry of Culture’s Sangeet Natak Akademi, the dossier for Durga Puja was prepared and sent to UNESCO.

But what is this Intangible cultural heritage, and why is it so important?

UNESCO defines ICH as unique “oral traditions, performing arts and rituals” that hold immense relevance for communities—to the point where they become part of a nation’s collective heritage.

Furthermore, the importance of these traditions lie not just in their cultural manifestation but in the wealth of knowledge, know-how, and skills they help transmit from one generation to the next. From dance, music, crafts, rituals, and culinary practices, ICH has many interesting aspects.

After West Bengal’s Durga Puja was recognised by UNESCO, Gujarat’s famous ‘Garba’ dance has also been nominated for 2023.

Cultural heritage is the soul of any civilisation and is a bridge between generations. A nation’s cultural heritage and natural history make it unique and precious. We should, therefore, preserve our tangible and intangible heritage so that it attains acclaim at the global level while also serving as a milestone for the nation.

The author is Minister of State, Ministry of Education, Government of India. He tweets @Drsubhassarkar.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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