This object highlights the figure of the goddess as the epicentre of power, female authority, kinship and paradoxes related to outsider/insider narrative. In Indian historiography, Hindu and non-Hindu religions have all tried to claim Durga as their own. The warrior goddess and mother figure has been localized and her figure has mirrored the socio-political aspirations of kingdoms, kinship and ruling dynasties. Ideas of heroism associated with her have spread far and wide throughout the Indian subcontinent. It is a figure that has been manifested through different identities and has assimilated ideas of various social groups and their rituals.
A Polysemic object: power of objects to define/contextualize lived experiences.
My research will explore ideas of representation of this object within its contextual field, missing cultural history and meaning inscribed on it by a viewer (insider/outsider to a religion, community), a maker (artist) or a broadly shared communal perspective. The intersectional side of affect, provenance and materiality within the Indo-German context will be highlighted vis a vis the emotional and affective part of the object that is not the object itself.
In the contemporary celebration of the Goddess in the autumn festival in Kolkata (‘Durga Puja in Kolkata’ has been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO), an increasing number of women priests have been performing the rituals for her worship or puja to end gender biases in a male-dominated field.
The makers: The 12th century idol in the Museum of Asian Arts in Berlin belongs to the Pala empire in eastern India (8th -12th century). During Pala rule, Hinduism and Buddhism peacefully co-existed, even similar stylistic conventions applied to artworks of both religions. Buddhist pilgrims came to temples and left with small pieces of sculptures, and this is how this style was disseminated to the rest of South and Southeast Asia.
The large migrant community of hereditary clay-artists and sculptors (known as Kumbhakarsin the community of Kumartuli in Kolkata) are the group of people responsible for making thousands of clay idols of Durga that are circulated in India and in many countries across the globe. The community of potters and artisans are struggling to preserve the hereditary style of idol-making and are responsible for creating their own independent paradigmatic styles of portraits of the Durga idols. The precarious plight of these artists leads us to us questions about how is heritage being contained and nurtured/ what role can cultural institutions play in this kind of conservation?
Site 1: Kumartuli, Kolkata
The large migrant community of hereditary clay-artists and sculptors (known as Kumbhakarsin the community of Kumartuli in Kolkata) are the group of people responsible for making thousands of clay idols of Durga that are circulated in India and in many countries across the globe. The community of potters and artisans are struggling to preserve the hereditary style of idol-making and are responsible for creating their own distinctive and paradigmatic styles of portraits of the Durga idols. The plight of these informal-sector artists leads us to us questions about how is heritage being contained and nurtured/ what role can cultural institutions play in this kind of conservation? A large group of seasonal, informal artists take part in preparing these idols in cramped up spaces with crumbling infrastructure over a period of six months.
In the contemporary celebration of the Goddess in the autumn festival in Kolkata (‘Durga Puja in Kolkata’ has been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO), however, it is focusing on the political economy of the largest open air religious festival in the world.However, the informal labour force of caste-based artisans is often not represented well in the framework of neo-liberal practices of cultural tourism, commercialization of the Durga Puja. My fieldwork also helped me understand spatiality and temporality of the social practice of idol building, the non-musealization of idols which are immersed in water every year after the festivities end spanning five days in autumn. Space and practices are intertwined, and both influence each other. For e.g., one of my interviewees, China Pal, one of the foremost female artists in a largely male dominated profession talked about her challenges in consolidating her place as well-known artist who now successfully trains other women artists. Her idol building practice was shaped and influenced by hereditary traditions as well given a new dimension by her personal interventions within the hereditary artistic style. The space of her art practice has been shaped by her agency in defying certain gender barriers while running it as a business in a male dominated physical and cultural space.
My ethnographic approach aimed to study spaces as defined and redefined by artists and communities, their lived practices and interventions through a medium of participatory dialogues and audio-visual documentation. My fieldwork helped me understand aspects of emotional relationship of the participants/artists with their artwork, letting go of ownership of objects and dwelling upon the hope of the artform being renewed next year; a perspective, which contrasts with the idea of creating a museum of objects arresting them in time which dates to the idea of a cabinet of curiosity.
The group of hereditary artisans face myriad challenges due to transformation of the slum spaces, inadequate infrastructure, transformation of traditional family-run workshops into larger commercial studios for production of idols etc.
Site 2. Radha-Govind-Jiu Mandir / Antpur Temple, Hooghly
This lesser known and often overlooked hundred feet high 18th century terracotta temple has exquisite and rare terracotta carvings depicting stories from various religious scriptures, cross-religious figures, episodes from the East India company’s inroads into the subcontinent. While Radha and Krishna are predominant in the carvings, there is also the goddess Durga, whose worship had been revived in a big way by Nabakrishna Deb of Shovabazar Rajbari in 1757.
The story of this temple as recounted and narrated by the tour guide (who is also a member of the custodian family of the temple) is of interreligious harmony, with the rarest example of Islamic Mosque architecture incorporated within a Hindu temple. However, the temple suffers from poor restoration and conservation practices and neglect from the state government.
This temple has some incredible depictions of the fierce and deviant feminine divine force (Candi) in the form of various Hindu Goddesses such Durga and Kali.My fieldwork encapsulated the story of a temple in obscurity, which tells us the story of communal harmony and interreligious dialogue in Bengal, which defined the foundations of this state. It contains one of the oldest mandap (podium/place) of worship of Goddess Durga, which exists till date and houses the community worship of Durga in autumn which attracts devotees and visitors from nearby villages and the city.