Purbasha Roy clasped her 9-year-old daughter’s hand tightly as they gazed at the impressive art installation. Pink buds representing embryos, menstrual cups arranged like a bouquet, and fallopian tubes descending from the ceiling were all part of the display. This unique pavilion, dedicated to the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga, aimed to challenge the stigmas surrounding menstruation in India. The symbolism was clear: the half-man, half-bull demon at Durga’s feet represented India’s patriarchal society and its “moral police.”
During the five-day Durga Puja festival in Kolkata, hundreds of politically-charged pavilions like this one could be found throughout the city. This festival, which combines elements of Mardi Gras and Christmas, is the most important religious celebration for Hindus in this region of eastern India. From old Kolkata to the city’s parks and apartment complexes, these handcrafted pavilions showcased idols of the goddess Durga with her ten outstretched arms. The goddess, armed with a spear and a club, symbolized the triumph of good over evil and embodied both strength and motherly love.
In recent years, the festival pavilions have evolved from traditional works of art to high-tech installations expressing progressive ideas. This transformation has taken place alongside the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Despite the B.J.P.’s dominance in North India, the pavilions at the Durga Puja festival in Kolkata showcased resistance to the party and its push for Hindu homogeneity. They conveyed the message that India is a nation of diverse beliefs and that the spirit of inclusivity remains strong outside of the party’s stronghold.
Various themes were depicted in this year’s pavilions. They shed light on issues such as the struggles faced by auto-rickshaw drivers, child labor and trafficking, sexual abuse of young girls, and the suffering in Manipur, where there has been deadly ethnic warfare. One pavilion used a crying mountain symbol to represent the devastating effects of climate change. Acid attack victims were also invited to a pavilion dedicated to raising awareness about this horrific crime.
The festival pavilions highlighted the fact that India’s diverse beliefs and resistance to the B.J.P.’s ideology are still very much alive. The B.J.P. has struggled to gain influence in the eastern Bengal region, which is known to be a leftist stronghold. The state of West Bengal, which was once governed by the Communist Party, is now led by the Trinamool Congress.
Tapati Guha-Thakurta, a historian who has studied the evolution of traditional worship into contemporary manifestations and helped secure the festival’s place on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage, emphasized the important role the event plays in Kolkata’s social, cultural, and political scene. She noted that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has used the festival to highlight her governance and project a secular outlook. In contrast, the B.J.P. has pushed its Hindu nationalist agenda in preparation for the upcoming general election.
One pavilion created by a B.J.P. politician featured a replica of a Hindu temple being constructed at the site of a destroyed mosque in Ayodhya. This temple, dedicated to Lord Ram, is a contentious symbol that has sparked clashes between Hindus and Muslims for years. The opening of this temple, slated for early next year, is expected to be a major religious talking point for Modi and his party. Hindu nationalists have increasingly embraced a warlike portrayal of Lord Ram, while Bengal’s main deity, Durga, differs in her representation of the diverse expressions of Hinduism.
The cultural divergence in Bengal is further exemplified by the menstruation pavilion. The chief organizer, Ellora Saha, a politician from the Trinamool Congress, explained to a captive audience that a young girl depicted in the installation represented the societal restrictions placed on women during their periods. She emphasized that menstruation is a natural and essential part of a woman’s life and should not be a source of shame. Saha declared that Durga Puja is about empowering female strength and posed the question of why every woman could not be worshiped just like the idol.
While not all pavilions carried political messages, some sought to offer an escape from the monotony of daily life by transporting festivalgoers to faraway lands, be it Disneyland or Hogwarts. The city’s residents, adorned in their finest attire, flocked from one pavilion to another, often walking long distances for the experience known as “pandal hopping.” The air was filled with the enticing scents of fresh marigolds, tuberoses, and incense. The sound of rhythmic beats from traditional percussion instruments could be heard in the distance. Sweet shops and food stalls selling street delicacies did a thriving business.
Although some festivalgoers found solace in the more decorative pavilions, many expressed a preference for those with socially conscious messages. Purbasha Roy, for example, voiced her admiration for these pavilions, stating that her daughter would not adhere to the taboos they were previously subjected to. Artists like Bhabatosh Sutar and visitors like Sritama Adhya used their pavilions to shed light on pressing social issues, such as violence against women and child trafficking.
Ultimately, these socially-driven pavilions showcased the meaningful combination of religious tradition and contemporary messages. They demonstrated that the Durga Puja festival is not only a celebration of Hindu culture but also a platform for social awareness and progress.