It’s being called Kolkata’s phuchka Durga Puja.
Phuchka, or pani puri, is a staple of Kolkata’s street food and since Durga Puja is the time when crowds hit the streets in the millions, it’s anyone’s guess how many kilograms of phuchka are consumed during the festival.
A Durga Puja organised by the Behala Nutan Dal club in Kolkata this year has phuchkas in sal leaf bowls installed along the walls like hundreds of little diyas. The entire pandal, which houses the goddess, is made up of materials associated with a pani puri seller’s trade. The goddess and family are housed in a huge replica of a phuchka shell, as if enacting Durga and the Amazing Giant Phuchka.
Ayan Saha, the artist, explains to a group of visitors that he was inspired by a story in the Mahabharat where Draupadi made pani puri, a story which was new to me and turns out to have been an internet joke that was taken as gospel truth. To him, the phuchka represents “a woman’s character, with a hard shell and tenderness inside”. And it occurred to me that what could have been a whimsical, playful Durga Puja riffing off of one of our favourite snacks now had to bear the burden of wearing its profundity on its sleeve, or at least in the artist statement.
Another Puja nearby had one which squeezed in “colonial edges”, “dystopia”, “asymmetry”and “synergy” into one paragraph. Someone reading it wondered bemusedly if it had been generated by ChatGPT.
Ever since Durga Puja was declared part of Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2021, the pandals must not just look stunning, they need to have their messaging on point. The Unesco tag helps market the festival to international visitors and some Puja organisers seem to think they need to be impressed not just by the art but also the artist statements.
This year, the Vassar Club South Asia of Vassar College in the US organised a tour comprising faculty, alumni and current students, who attended seminars and panels and pandal-hopped around Kolkata, checking out the artwork. Erica Moiah James, who was part of the group, was blown away by the creativity on display but said: “The beauty is in the fact that it’s so layered and dense. I hope marketing doesn’t reduce the experience. This event has to be marketed with a fullness, not reduced to sound bytes. How can you market it and point to the complexities?” Density of experience is not about dense language.
Part of the complexity of Durga Puja is that it can be simultaneously socio-political by, for example, paying tribute to migrants who lost their lives after covid-19, to unabashedly cheesy, such as a recreation of Disneyland and the Titanic (though why anyone would think a ship that sinks on its maiden voyage is an auspicious sign is rather perplexing).
Last year, one of the organisers at a south Kolkata Puja which had turned a street into Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night said proudly that they chose that as the theme because Durga Puja is now an international festival and Van Gogh is an A-list international name. Next year, there might well be a Durga Puja that pays tribute to same-sex marriage or calls for peace in Israel-Palestine.
Durga Puja has always liked its hot-button issues. Candice Low Swift, also part of the Vassar delegation, said she thought she would learn about religious practice when she came to Kolkata. Instead, she learnt about “politics, what’s going on in popular culture, what people think about the environment, and it’s not just local. It’s an expression of being global in this moment in time.”
Debanjan Chakrabarti, director of British Council East and NorthEast India, which produced a report on the economic impact of Durga Puja, tells me he can never forget one which imagined Durga Puja as seen through the eyes of a poor young boy who sold tea for a living. In the first installation, the boy is gazing at the goddess. By the last one, as the idol is immersed, the poor tea seller boy himself has become Durga. “It was an incredibly powerful story of social and economic class, as well as aspiration and gender fluidity, and about everyone participating in the festival in their own way,” says Chakrabarti.
Niladri Chatterjee, who has documented Durga Pujas for years, tells me he was rather perturbed when he first started seeing Durga Puja being used to put out social messaging about issues like domestic violence. But then he thought he should not dismiss this. “Maybe the artist is trying to say something and he thinks this is the best way to say it.” He is delighted the Durga Puja can be a boon for young artists who have just graduated from art college. “And whenever I sell Durga Puja to other people, I say, you know, come to Kolkata. Because when you come to Kolkata during Durga Puja, the entire city is going to be one big art installation,” says Chatterjee.
However, even as it’s being marketed as public art, it’s not art in front of which one can stand and meditate, letting the work seep into one’s consciousness. As millions throng the city, they can only absorb a few seconds of all the detail that goes into a pandal.
A Puja organised by the Naktala Udayan Sangha in Kolkata has spent months collecting the oral histories of the residents of the neighbourhood, most of them migrants and refugees from East Pakistan/Bangladesh. Every inch of the pandal bears witness to the pain and heartbreak of their stories. They have recreated the walls of someone’s erstwhile home in Bangladesh, containers carry bits of bhitey maati, or soil from their old homes. There are old cupboards, a refugee certificate, as well as bottles carrying water from the rivers of both Bangladesh and India. Durga herself stands in the foreground, her children do not flank her, as is customary. They stand a little behind her. One of the organisers says it is deliberate. A mother, especially a refugee mother, will face all the storms first on her own, protecting her children as she takes them to safety.
Chances are the jostling crowds being moved along by volunteers will miss most of these nuances and complexity. That’s why many pandals just try to wow them with size and spectacle—Burj Khalifas and Disneylands.But all that is okay. Durga Puja has its origins in a bit of hedonism. It has always unabashedly embraced commerce as the babus of old tried to wow their European business partners. Durga Puja’s great power is that it is about everyone coming together—high and low. It’s not snooty. It’s happy to rejoice in the pani puri and the egg roll of its devotees. It does not judge those who queue for hours to see the faux Burj Khalifa or those who appreciate the Hridaypur (town of the heart) in Naktala. There is room for everyone in the pandal.
That is its secret power. It’s serious business but worn with a lightness of touch. So the children’s annual magazines that come out during Durga Puja always show her as human, whether having a picnic with the children or enjoying a day at the spa or even enjoying an egg roll, which routinely horrifies many who are observing their Navaratri fast. That element of playfulness is what has made Durga Puja everyone’s festival, even if it’s not part of everyone’s religion. That makes pani puri and Durga Puja a match made in some whimsical heaven. As I walked out of that phuchka pandal, I found myself wishing it had just celebrated that instead of needing to layer on the gender politics.
After all a phuchka, like Durga Puja, is an occasion for friends and family to come together, gathering around the phuchka seller with little sal bowls into which he plops one pani puri after another. And Kolkata phuchka, like Durga Puja, has its own rituals—it must always end with one “dry” one given gratis, minus the tart and spicy tamarind water. But, most importantly, both are about fun.
And that should be good enough reason to create a Durga Puja that can be savoured by all, with or without an artist’s statement.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr.