The lecture focuses on the city of Kolkata in eastern India, and on its biggest autumnal cultural festival that centres on the annual ‘homecoming’ of goddess Durga and her family. While the Durga Pujas are celebrated by Bengali communities across India and the world, the city of Kolkata is where we can best track its passage from the extravagant celebrations within the homes of the merchant and landed aristocracy in the late 18th century to its later life as a public community event and an open street festival in the 20th century. This is also where we best witness the festival’s long-standing proclivity to constantly outstrip the rites of worship and turn into an occasion for hedonism and revelry, sociability and celebrations, public spectacle and mass touring. Not least of all, Kolkata is where the present-day festival has taken on its grandest public scale, encompassing all spaces, streets and neighbourhoods, its largest commercial and corporate dimensions, and most importantly, its rising profile as a public art event.

In this lecture, Tapati reflects on the extended temporality of this seasonal event through the ways in which the material remnants of the festival remain thickly embedded through the year within the lived fabric of the city. Her key concerns are with the themes of impermanence, transience and cyclicality that have always been germane to such religious festivals, especially the Durga Pujas. While much can be written on the vast regime of festival productions that transform the face of the city over the months building up to the Pujas, the attention shifts here from the frenzies of making to the many forms of unmaking and destruction that leave their equal imprint on the urban landscape. The logic of the ephemeral has generated a particular festival economy of waste and dispersals, of recycling and reuse that now get tied to a year-round cycle of festivities, propelling large movements of labour and material within and beyond the city. The lecture ends by addressing the unfulfilled desires for preservation and permanence that confronts the urban festival as it grapples with a new circuit of artists and art productions that it has generated.

Tapati Guha-Thakurta is an Honorary Professor of History and the former Director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC) from 2012 to 2017.

This event took place on 16 June 2021.