'Modi Govt Didn't Even Say Thanks,' Says Historian Behind UNESCO Tag for Kolkata's Durga Puja

Tapati Guha Thakurta describes the Union government's claim that PM Modi made the honour possible as ‘ridiculous’.

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Kolkata: A poster in the national capital in which the Union Minister of State for Culture, Meenakshi Lekhi, expresses her ‘sincere gratitude’ to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised a few eyebrows. Lekhi has thanked the PM for his ‘great endeavours’ which made it possible for Durga Puja to be included as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

Speaking to The Wire on the first day of the week-long festivities in Kolkata, Tapati Guha Thakurta, the historian who led the project and prepared the nomination dossier sent to UNESCO seeking inscription of the city’s Durga puja on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, said she was not really surprised.

“I am not surprised at all. After all, politicians will leverage good work done by academics and activists. But what was really unfortunate was the fact that after the success of the project, no one from the Ministry of Culture showed the basic decency of even writing a thank you note to me,” Guha Thakurta said.

A DPhil from Oxford, Guha Thakurta is the former director and professor of history at the Centre for Social Science Studies in Kolkata. She has worked all her life in the domain of cultural history. In 2015, she authored the book, In the Name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata.

“The Sangeet Natak Akademi under the Union Ministry of Culture approached me in 2018 with the project because I had earlier worked on Durga Puja. And in the past, the same project – getting the UNESCO honour for Durga Puja – had failed once. So this time, they didn’t want to take chances. Durga Puja is a huge part of people’s lives in Bengal and the ruling party at the Union government was looking for political gains in the state,” she said.

Also read: Kolkata’s Durga Puja Is Social, Cultural and Never Adequately Religious

Guha Thakurta is not keen to get into the debate over who deserves credit for the international honour. She believes that the credit goes to the festival itself and thousands of people associated with it in various capacities. She, however, makes no bones about the fact that the way she and her team were treated after the job was done was ‘unfortunate’. 

“A large team of researchers worked day and night for this to happen. A note of thanks from the ministry would have encouraged them. When I wrote a mail to the Sangeet Natak Akademi saying my team deserved at least a note of thanks, they wrote back to me asking if I had any dues with them,” she says.  

“Only one official from the culture ministry, Nirupama Kotru, a former joint secretary, had the graciousness to send me a text on WhatsApp. That’s all. We worked closely with the culture ministry and the Akademi, but on one else had the basic professional courtesy to say a thank you.”

Durga Puja, a watercolour by Sevak Ram, c.1809. Photo: British Library/Public domain

The historian informed The Wire that her team worked for around seven months and finally sent the dossier in March 2019. It included a 25-page form, 10 photographs and a 10-minute film. Endorsements were needed from puja organisers as well as state government officials. Everything had to be routed through the Union culture ministry. 

The announcement came in mid-December, 2021. A press release by the UNESCO dated December 15, 2021, titled ‘Durga Puja inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ says: 

“Today, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage inscribed ‘Durga Puja in Kolkata’ on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity during its 16th session, taking place virtually from 13 to 18 December this year.”

It then quotes UNESCO New Delhi director Eric Falt as stating:

“I would like to offer warm congratulations to India, its people and especially all those who worked on the nomination dossier. I am confident that this inscription will offer encouragement to the local communities that celebrate Durga Puja, including all the traditional craftspeople, designers, artists, and organizers of large-scale cultural events, as well as tourists and visitors who partake in the inclusive festivity that is Durga Puja.”

Also read: In 2020, The Durga Puja Returned To Its Core Group – Those Who Can’t Celebrate It

The page on intangible cultural heritage on the UNESCO website describes the festival thus:

“Durga Puja is seen as the best instance of the public performance of religion and art, and as a thriving ground for collaborative artists and designers. The festival is characterized by large-scale installations and pavilions in urban areas, as well as by traditional Bengali drumming and veneration of the goddess. During the event, the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations.”

Nobody from the ministry contacted Guha Thakurta after the job was done. 

“Only in late September, weeks after the UNESCO team attended the state government programme at Red Road, did the Indian Museum in Kolkata invite me for a felicitation which was to be attended by Meenakshi Lekhi. I didn’t attend it for personal reasons,” she said.

“In October-November 2021, we were receiving a lot of queries from UNESCO. They wanted to know about the antiquity of the festival, whether there were mentions of Durga in the Vedas, so on and so forth. I wrote to the ministry to put me in touch with Eric Falt, the UNESCO director. They never even responded to my request. I could find my way to him if I wanted. But I didn’t break protocol. I met him finally on the Red Road dais at the state government programme.” 

“Recently I saw on the newspaper that Meenakshi Lekhi said all of it happened because of the Prime Minister’s large-heartedness. I wasn’t surprised then, I am not surprised now.”

“I can only say that it’s ridiculous,’ Guha Thakurta adds.

Also read: The Prospect of a Humble Durga Puja Is an Opportunity Lost for Mamata Banerjee

Asked about the role played by the Modi government in the whole process, Guha Thakurta categorically says that she had to fight with the Ministry of Culture for making ‘Durga Puja of Kolkata’  the focus of the project. 

“The Union government wanted the dossier to be on Durga Puja of India. They told me it was not a Bengali festival. But I held my ground. Our project was successful only because we focused on a specific city. Festivals which made it the list in the past all had a specific geographical focus. And secondly, there is no denying the fact that the character Durga Puja takes in Kolkata is not to be found anywhere else,” she adds. 

Asked to comment on Meenakshi Lekhi’s comment on PM Modi’s efforts bringing the UNESCO honour for Durga Puja of Kolkata, Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien told The Wire, “On the last day of his 2021 election campaign in Bengal, PM Modi had said that Durga Puja and Saraswati Puja are seen as an offence and according him no Durga Puja is allowed in Bengal. So I don’t understand where is the question of him having any role in getting it the UN recognition.”

“Such claims only expose the lies of Modi,” he added. 

Note: This article was updated since publication to clarify Nirupama Kotru’s role in the culture ministry.