Beyond Tradition: The Cultural Evolution Of Durga Puja In Modern-Era Kolkata

L: A traditional Ma Durga idol R: The Durga Puja pandal in Shreebhumi from last year, inspired by Rome's Vatican City.
L: A traditional Ma Durga idol R: The Durga Puja pandal in Shreebhumi from last year, inspired by Rome's Vatican City. L: Two Together R: Curly Tales

As the monsoon season retreats and the autumn leaves start to fall, the month of October, riding on a fragrance of the beautiful shiuli flowers, ushers in a special time in the City of Joy. For ten days, the Divine Feminine, or Ma Durga, as we endearingly call her, descends from her husband, Lord Shiva’s abode in Mount Kailash, and visits the earthly realm. We, the earthlings, put up nothing short of a visual spectacle, to greet her. For ten days, Kolkata is transformed into a living canvas of art and pageantry — you will find grand idols sculpted by the city’s finest craftsmen, lights that illuminate the cityscape, folks thronging the streets dressed in the most vibrant attire and innovative pandals, each more unique than the other.

L: A traditional Ma Durga idol R: The Durga Puja pandal in Shreebhumi from last year, inspired by Rome's Vatican City.
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Now there is an interesting conversation to be had around pandals, the (temporary) houses that Ma Durga and her children reside in. As a Bengali living in Kolkata and witnessing the Durga Puja festivities for a quarter of a century now, I have observed how the pandals have evolved from their singular identity as sacred places to become cultural sites where art and devotion seamlessly merge. Especially in the last decade, we have seen a cultural shift in focus from the idols themselves to the pandals. We have shifted from traditional cultural debates like which Ma Durga idol has the most expressive eyes to which pandal is the most visually appealing. There is a collective hype around the themed pandals, the artistry and concepts behind them and now with the advent of technology, some pandals even resemble high-tech art installations.

A Durga Puja pandal resembling an art installation.
A Durga Puja pandal resembling an art installation.Telegraph India

When I was fourteen, a friend of my mother’s, Ekta Aunty came to visit Kolkata for the first time from Gujarat. We went to pick her up from the airport and the day was Mahalya (seven days before the puja festivities and the day Ma Durga begins her journey to the earthly realm). After picking her up, we took a taxi bound for our home. On the way there, she saw a pandal and refused to believe my mother when she said it was a structure erected only a couple of days ago. Ekta Aunty insisted that it had always been there and stopped the cab to step out and see it for herself. It was a simple traditional pandal made out of bamboo with a colorful pink cloth enveloping the idols inside. It was only after the artisans confirmed it, that Ekta Aunty understood that we were not playing a practical joke on her. That was the beginning of Durga Puja for her. In retrospect, I wonder how she would have reacted if she saw the ultra-realistic, larger-than-life pandals we see today.

Gone are the days when Durga Puja pandals were simple structures made of bamboo, wood, and clay. Today, these pandals have undergone a technological metamorphosis, embracing cutting-edge innovations to create awe-inspiring visual spectacles. LED lights, sound systems, and special effects have become integral components, transforming the pandals into immersive experiences that captivate the senses. The interplay of light and shadow, the synchronization of music and visuals, and the use of multimedia elements have elevated the festival to new heights, leaving visitors spellbound.

Lights and visual projections add to the immersive charm of contemporary Durga Puja pandals.
Lights and visual projections add to the immersive charm of contemporary Durga Puja pandals.Tripoto
A Durga Puja pandal as an immersive art installation
A Durga Puja pandal as an immersive art installationTripoto

One of the most significant developments in Durga Puja pandals is the emergence of theme-based installations. Inspired by iconic landmarks, historical events, and cultural motifs, these pandals transport visitors to different worlds. From recreating Rome's Vatican City to capturing the grandiose world of Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol the pandals have become gateways to diverse cultures and experiences. The meticulous attention to detail, intricate designs, and multimedia presentations create a multisensory journey for devotees and tourists alike. The fusion of traditional artistry with modern technology has given birth to a new form of storytelling, where each pandal tells a unique tale.

L: A traditional Ma Durga idol R: The Durga Puja pandal in Shreebhumi from last year, inspired by Rome's Vatican City.
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When Durga Puja began in the 16th century, there was no way to document it except through oral histories passed down through generations. Then, with the advent of photography, people started collecting black-and-white photograph prints of famous Durga Pujas. Today, those are rare and valuable archives. Now, in the age of social media, Durga Puja pandals have found a new platform to showcase their grandeur and attract a global audience. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become virtual windows into the world of these magnificent installations. Pandal organizers leverage social media to create hype, share behind-the-scenes glimpses, and engage with enthusiasts. Hashtags, live streams, and interactive contests have become powerful tools to amplify the reach and impact of Durga Puja pandals. Through social media, these pandals transcend geographical boundaries, allowing people from all corners of the world to experience the magic and splendor of Durga Puja.

A vintage photograph showing Durga Puja in the late 19th or early 20th century.
A vintage photograph showing Durga Puja in the late 19th or early 20th century.Pinterest

The evolution of Durga Puja pandals has been fueled by the growing importance of marketing and sponsorship. In the past, chanda(neighborhood donations) were the primary source of funding for pandals. However, with the rise of elaborate installations and the costs they ensue, attracting sponsors and advertisers has become crucial. Pandal organizers collaborate with brands, local businesses, and artists to create unique experiences that resonate with their audiences and visitors. The infusion of financial support has enabled pandals to push boundaries and explore new realms of creativity.

In 2019, the government of West Bengal and the British Council signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that revealed a staggering piece of statistic — the creative industries surrounding Durga Puja in West Bengal is at an estimated value of ₹32,377 crore, an amount equivalent to the economies of numerous smaller countries worldwide. From immersive brand activations to interactive installations, marketing and sponsorship have played a pivotal role in shaping the grandeur and scale of Durga Puja pandals. Prestigious excellence awards like Asian Paints Sharad Samman given to the most well-decorated pandals further fuel the pandals' implementation of creativity, in order to stand out.

Amidst the technological advancements, there is also a growing emphasis on sustainability and eco-consciousness in Durga Puja pandals. Many organizers are adopting eco-friendly practices, using biodegradable materials, and promoting environmental awareness. The shift towards sustainable pandals reflects a collective responsibility to preserve the environment while celebrating the festival. From eco-friendly lighting solutions to the use of organic materials, these initiatives showcase a harmonious blend of tradition, innovation, and environmental consciousness.

PBWA's Durga Pooja eco-friendly pandal made of coir in POWAI
PBWA's Durga Pooja eco-friendly pandal made of coir in POWAIX

Kolkata is a place of limitless innovation and Durga Puja pandals are a testament to that. Like all things, the festival and its cultural signifiers, the pandals, have evolved with time. I bet Walt Disney or JK Rowling never imagined in their wildest dreams that Bengalis could re-create a Disney World in Sreebhumi or a Hogwarts in Sodepur within a matter of days but here we are! There is a definite reason why UNESCO declared the festival as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in the year 2021. So what are you waiting for? Step outside, breathe in the festive air, soak in the lights, jostle your way through excited crowds, find children playing with toy cap guns, dance with dhunuchis(an Indian form of frankincense), to the beat of dhaaks(drums), and embrace the Durga Puja in all its glory.

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