Urban spaces and Indian festivals

By Kanchan Naik

Thinking of festivals and urban spaces takes me back to my younger years. Back when it felt like everything in the city had come alive for a few days, and every person walking was buzzing with the same excitement as I did. With the month of July arriving and reminding us that yet another year is past the half-way mark, comes a vivid, colourful festival – Rath Yatra, mainly celebrated in Odisha and some of its neighbouring states. The annual trip of the three deities to their aunt’s house is a visual spectacle unlike anything else, atop their enormous ceremonial chariots (a marvel of art and architecture in themselves) driven forward by the devotees. The largest turnout is seen at Puri, where the procession takes place from the Jagannatha Temple to the Gundicha Temple. I have only ever seen the part of it that takes place in my own city, but the atmosphere itself where people come together as a community before anything else, makes me long for the spectacle at Puri.

Rath Yatra in Puri, Odisha. Image credits: Krupasindhu Muduli via wikimedia commons | Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en 

The most fascinating aspect of these kinds of festivals is the way people participate in them- claiming these open, public spaces for themselves in a way that is unseen at other points of time in the year. The celebrations allow people to mingle in and about without any notions of formality that often plagues many of our ‘public spaces’. This environment also has a positive impact on the mental health of people participating, as the general mood of the populace is on an upward trajectory during these times. This points out how our culture constructively influences urban life and can be a tool for planning such spaces in a city. 

Looking back on my memories of other festivals, the one at the forefront is the autumnal Navaratra or Durga Puja as people call it in my hometown. My brain lights up with the reminiscences of the smells, the visuals, and the flavours that accompany the celebrations of this festival, each integral to the experience. The main celebration lasts for 3-4 days, depending on the observation of Vijayadashmi at the end which itself is another experience on its own. 

A Durga Puja Pandal decoration in Kolkata. Image credits: Royroydeb via Wikimedia commons
Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0

The architectural experience in the festival has changed for me over the years, as I grow older. When I was about 10 years old, it meant passing through a tunnel of colourful lights on my father’s scooter and not being able to decide where to go first. Visiting the food stalls in the huge open space, browsing through the vendors selling toys and books and whatnot, or just paying the idol of durga mata a visit to offer prayers in the puja pandal meant everything. The puja pandals themselves are works of art with intricately decorated entrances that seem to be modeled after famous temples of Durga/Shakti. They are temporary structures made of bamboo and fabrics, but their presence is etched into the memories of visitors for a long time. For me, at that age, the whole setup felt like a wonderland that offered me an adventure of stepping into a different place with every few steps I took.

During my teenage years, it meant pandal-hopping, and competing for who could eat the most servings of khichuri, sitting on chairs inside the pandal chatting with my friends, and going home only to fall asleep and wake up next morning to be back at the puja. The Community Ground became the centre of all activity and a second home to us for those three days, from Saptami to Navami. The decorations on the stage on which the idols were placed were marvellously extravagant, a visual treat awaiting us each year. The seating in the pandal facing the stage was simple, the visuals being served by the brightly coloured clothing on the visitors and their excited faces. The outside of the pandal, out in the open, is where people would line up for the bhog vitaran, and would enjoy the khichuri after.

Chalta Bagan Durga Puja 2019, at Manicktala, Kolkata. Image credits: Subhrajyoti07 via wikimedia commons | Creative commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0c 

During my years away at college, it meant understanding how important these spaces and the accompanying streets were to the people. The older me understood the importance of public spaces and pedestrianising the streets, and how much they meant for people for these few days of the festival. Because the pedestrians had, in a way, claimed the streets even if only for a night or two. With shrinking availability of large open grounds or community halls, what had once been a road, became a stage, a dance floor or in some cases, a communal dining space. The vehicular traffic had to be diverted at places, because the wide road had transformed into a place for gathering and celebrating togetherness.

Now that July is already upon us, I am awaiting all the celebrations in my city that make its otherwise dull existence a lot more interesting. Two more months to go, and Ganesh Chaturthi will set off the festivities that will be concluded by the Durga Puja experience, where I wish to reminisce and revisit my experiences after spending the last two years staying home avoiding crowded places. I wait for the still magical experience of stepping into a portal that takes me to all the deliciousness and heady feeling of being with friends and celebrating together.

Our festivals are a way for us to transform the public spaces into environments that enable interactions and exchanges that are necessary for our communities and the society at large. Claiming these public spaces has greater impacts on our social fabric- beyond facilitating interactions that tie our communities together, these transformed environments also create an example of accessibility that many built spaces often fail to achieve. My hope for my city is that it will always have these spaces for celebrations, no matter how much the other parts of the city change.

By Kanchan Naik

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