Every autumn the streets of Kolkata come alive with the sounds of Durga Puja. The Hindu festival, which celebrates the triumph of good over evil, is marked in West Bengal and neighbouring states as a time for dancing, drumming, eating and worship.
Yet the festival’s most defining feature is the pandal – towering displays of religious sculptures depicting the story of Durga Puja: the moment that the Hindu goddess Durga triumphed over the demon Mahishasura.
Pandals are known for their creativity, and this year, as the festival began on Thursday under the restrictions of Covid-19, it was no different. But now, in several pandals, instead of the usual sculptures of the Mahishasura demon, a new malevolent being has been put in its place: the coronavirus demon, better known as the Coronasura.
The Coronasura has taken several shapes. In some pandals, the head has been made to look like a Sars-CoV-2 particle, with its head covered in long trumpet-like fronds. Others have simply made the demon green, as if he is an embodiment of the virus.
Babu Pal, the secretary of the artisans association of Kumartuli, the street in Kolkata where most Durga Puja icons are made, spoke of the inspiration behind the Coronasura they had made for a customer.
“Corona is the demon that everybody recognises, it is the demon that everybody is fighting, and we are all looking for the strength to defeat it,” said Pal of the sculpture. “Also we had no Covid cases in our artisans area, and we wanted to make this icon to thank the goddess for protecting us from the demon of corona here.”
The humanitarian impact of the coronavirus pandemic also inspired the artist Rintu Das to create a very different pandal for the Barisha Club Durga Puja committee in Kolkata this year. Rather than depicting a goddess, Das portrayed Durga as a migrant woman making the treacherous and exhausting walk along India’s roads with her children.
It is based on the experiences of tens of millions of India’s migrant workers who, when the country went into lockdown with just four hours notice, found themselves stuck hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of miles from home. With no work and no transport available, most began walking home in what became the greatest exodus of people across India since partition. Almost 1,000 migrant workers are known to have died on their journey.
“I would turn on the TV and I would see all the images of migrant women walking hundreds of miles along the sides of the roads, often carrying their children, with just a handful of rice to eat and feet that were raw and bloody. Women, mothers, daughters, who looked so desperate as they walked,” said Das.
“That’s when the idea came to me to make a Durga Puja idol which showed the goddess as these migrant women. These women who are in pain and suffering but also full of strength and determination and power, who should be respected and worshipped; women who have God within them.”
In an acknowledgment of the demon of hunger faced by migrants and so many other people in West Bengal during lockdown, the towering 14ft sculpture has been surrounded by 30,000 rice sacks, lit up with bulbs and hung up around the pandal.
“I pray that my Durga gives a new life to everyone who encounters it, that she takes away pain from everyone who is suffering right now,” said Das.
The pandemic has altered this year’s Durga Puja beyond recognition. West Bengal, a state still battling rising cases of coronavirus, introduced a series of strict measures to prevent millions coming out into the streets and causing a feared surge in cases, which now total more than 7 million in India. The 4,000-plus pandals across the state, the biggest and most popular of which usually draw in millions of visitors, have been banned from allowing anyone but organisers and performers to enter. Barricades have been erected around these usually buzzing places of worship.
It has been particularly tough for the traditional artisans who earn a living by making the icons for Durga Puja out of clay and fibreglass. Usually they receive orders and begin creating the sculptures five months before the festival, but this year they had less than two months. Even then, orders only trickled in.
Prasant Pal, 47, an artisan in Kolkata’s Kumartuli street who has been working for more than 25 years, said last year he had received orders for more than 50 icons: this year it was just 15 small ones, and his income had fallen from 3m rupees (£31,000) to 70,000 rupees (£725).
“Artisans have suffered a lot because of this pandemic,” he said sadly. “Most of the artisans left Kolkata and were scared to come back because of Covid. But we had to persuade them, because if they don’t work they will die of hunger.”
Even though visitors are not allowed into the pandals, the Durga Puja committees of West Bengal have found other ways to ensure they can be enjoyed. Many, like the Nutan Sangha Durga Puja committee in a neighbourhood of Kolkata, have gone digital. Abhishek Bhattacharya, a committee member, described how they were offering “an augmented 360-degree video tour of our pandal so people can be in their homes but still virtually walk through and enjoy seeing the idols as if they were really there”.
People can also use YouTube or Facebook to watch a live feed of the pandal, which this year is on the theme of introspection, and there will also be video broadcasts of dancing and celebrations “so we can still reach out to the crowds wherever they are”.
The committee for one of Kolkata’s most popular pandals, the Santosh Mitra Square Durga Puja, have also, reluctantly, gone digital. Sajay Ghosh, who sits on the committee, spoke nostalgically of previous years when 10,000 people an hour would visit their grand pandal, which would take months to create.
“People can view our pandal virtually online, but in our hearts we know it is not the same,” said Ghosh. “We all want to feel the warmth of the festival, and we are all feeling so sad at the situation this year, I can not even express it.”