- The mass appeal of festivals such as Durga puja and the artistry involved help convey messages on environmental concerns and changes to a larger audience in a way that is relatable to them.
- Studies suggest simulating experiences emotionally connects the public to the environment, which is crucial for public awareness and caring about environmental issues.
- Human-tiger conflicts, conservation of the greater adjutant stork and perils of plastic pollution feature in Durga puja pavilions in east India.
Underpinned by the message of “good-over-evil”, Durga puja or the worship of goddess Durga, is one of the most important event in the religious calendar in east India. In contemporary times, however, it has become a paragon of pop culture spurring dialogue and awareness through rich artistic representations of an array of themes.
With increased focus on communication on climate change, biodiversity and environmental concerns in recent years, the five-day event in West Bengal and neighbouring states has seen celebrations branch out to spreading the message on conservation and environment protection.
Researchers say “simulating experiences emotionally connects the public to the environment, which is crucial for public awareness and caring about environmental issues.”
Topics such as wildlife conservation (particularly tigers) and pollution, have slowly pervaded the urban festival scenario during the Durga puja. In keeping with the global call on beating plastic pollution in 2018, many organisers have specifically chosen to highlight the subject in the current edition of the festival.
The festival (puja), whose origins are rooted in Hindu mythology, marks the arrival of Goddess Durga, in tow with her four children – Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati – on earth every year to visit her parents to battle evil. Seated upon a lion, the goddess wielding an array of weapons in her 10 hands, is said to have slayed the demon Mahishashura in a fierce battle and thereby establish peace and symbolising good over evil.
Transcending from its simpler versions of ‘bonedi bari’ (traditional family celebrations), ‘barowari’ (by communities or groups of people) and ‘sarbojanin’ (for all) celebrations that began around 300 years ago, the festivities now are known for the bedecked gigantic pavilions or marquees-housing the goddess and her family-that spring up across West Bengal, Odisha, Assam and Tripura and other east and northeast Indian states. It is also known as Dussehra or Dasara in other parts of India.
To draw maximum footfalls, marquees (locally called “pandals”) stage artistic representations of a variety of topics that are in sync with times. Local artistes, craftspersons and even stalwarts are roped in for their expertise to create art installations, pavilions and idols from clay, bamboo, natural fibres, coconut shells, seeds and virtually anything that can be whittled out to give form and shape.
Tigers, storks, GMOs and plastics
Each year these “themes pujas” up their game to outdo their counterparts. So for example, if in 2016 in Kolkata, a host of these pavilions showcased their perspective on demonetisation in India, in 2017, one highlighted the Mars Orbiter Mission and in 2015, the Nepal earthquake was in vogue.
Sliding in silently were issues such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with organisers taking the puja decor ahead with their participation in the “March Against Monsanto” global campaign, keeping birds in cages, conserving Sundarbans and its tigers.
“Durga puja is a mass activity where you can reach out to people easily and in a way that is relatable. It has become an important way to communicate messages including on issues related to the environment. If you consider the work of artists and sculptors such as Bhabatosh Sutar, Krishnapriya Dasgupta, Partha Dasgupta and Sanatan Dinda, who are associated with the idol designing then you would see how they underscore environment in them,” said conservationist Joydip Kundu of NGO SHER (Society for Heritage & Ecological Researches).
This year, organisers of a Kolkata-based puja in their 49th year bucked the traditional design style to opt for a marquee staging human-tiger conflict owing to rising population and habitat degradation.
With life sized models of men and children dressed up as tigers (depicting the Pullikalli folk form from Kerala), the marquee has installations of high-rises (symbolising population growth) and arrows whizzing out of them (symbolising the impact on big cats). Painted pug marks are scattered across the marquee.
“Our theme is called ‘Tarjan Garjan’ (tiger conservation) and it is high time that we pay attention to the tigers. Our Durga idol rides a tiger and not a lion,” said a spokesperson of organisers Beleghata Sanghati Club.
On similar lines, about a decade ago Joydip and his wife Suchandra Kundu, also a noted conservationist, began celebrating Vyaghravahini Durga puja-replacing the lion mount with a tiger-at their ancestral home in Kolkata in reverence to the tiger.
“The idol in our puja rides a tiger. To us Durga puja means a connection between nature and humans since it was originally the worship of nine native plants,” Kundu said.
In ecologically sensitive Siliguri subdivison in north Bengal, a marquee has portrayed the impacts of plastic pollution, in sync with the civic body stepping up its act on restrictions on plastic carry bag usage.
In Guwahati in Assam, ten thousand mineral water bottles were stacked together to create a marquee underscoring the menace of plastic pollution.
A village in Assam has chosen to highlight conservation of the endangered greater adjutant stork (Leptoptilos dubius), a huge stork conspicuous for its thick bill and pendulous neck-pouch, as the theme for their marquee. Out of a total 800-1,200 mature individuals globally, Assam alone harbours 650 to 800 of them. Locally the storks are known as “hargila”.
The village in question is Dadara that has become internationally famous for the “hargila army”, a unit of over 200 women committed to conserve the species and contribute to women’s empowerment by fashioning textiles with hargila motifs.
To draw attention of the crowds to the stork, the Dadara Durga puja organising commitee installed five giant statues of the bird at the marquee’s entrance and held henna drawing contests themed on the bird to make awareness generation fun.
A platform to communicate conservation
“It is important how we convey the message to the public. During the puja everyone is in a mood to have fun and are relaxed, and we felt that we should communicate conservation concepts in a way that is fun so mass gatherings of people can absorb the message easily,” conservationist Purnima Devi Barman of NGO Aaranyak, known for her work with hargila conservation, told Mongabay-India. Barman is associated with the Dadara Durga puja.
But both Joydip and Barman feel there are more challenges to master.
“The celebrations must be eco-friendly,” said Barman.
One contentious issue in this regard has been the use of lead-based paints and Plaster of Paris in painting and crafting idols and the subsequent immersion of those idols in water bodies at the conclusion of the festival. The central and state pollution control boards have rules in place but when it comes to implementation, norms do go for a toss, as evidenced from reports in Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Odisha. The switch to lead-free paints has faced challenges due to the steep costs of paints compared to the inexpensive lead-laced counterparts.
“When the idol surface touches water, the lead assimilates with the water as soon as it dissolves and the toxic metal eventually enters the food chain. Further, floral offerings that are made to the idols also lead to eutrophication following immersion,” said researcher Abhijit Mukherjee of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
Mukherjee, however, said a section of puja organisers, such as in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, have also initiated green practices such as the use of specially created water tanks to immerse the idols away from the Ganga river.
Protecting the blue jay
Joydip Kundu pointed out the plight of the blue jays (Indian roller birds) a protected species under India law. The capture and freeing of the blue-throated birds is associated with the last day of the puja. However, with the enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, this illegal practice has been reined in to quite some extent and devotees in Bengal instead use a clay blue jay figure for the purpose.
Telangana, where blue jay is the state bird, has banned its display at temples during Dasara.
Conservationists and animal rights activists have also underscored the slaughter of egrets and open-billed storks for their flowing white feathers that festoon the dhaaks (traditional drums) integral to the festival.
“We have been encouraging the dhaakis (drummers) to let go of this custom and use other materials for the decorations. But this still remains a concern,” Joydip added.
Banner image: A Durga idol astride a lion. Photo by Aaghran Ghosh.