Ambassador of Brazil Andre Aranha Correa Do Lago was in Kolkata to experience his first Durga Puja and went pandal-hopping during the Preview Show. He shares his thoughts with The Telegraph on the comparison that is forever doing the rounds, more so ever since Durga Puja went global on being inscribed on the Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Is this is your first visit to Kolkata around Durga puja time?
This is my third time in Kolkata in my four years in India. But this is the first time I am coming for Durga puja.
Have you had a chance to visit any pandals?
Of course! I went to seven of them. It is unbelievable. My great passion is architecture and design, and what I have seen is really beyond belief. I’m so glad that Unesco has recognised it (Durga puja) because it is really an exceptional demonstration of renewal of talent. The marvelous thing is that the central theme is always the same, the same composition. And then you have hundreds of interpretations of that composition. This is real art for me. Some art has no rules, no boundaries. But this has a very clear boundary — you have to very clearly depict a scene that everyone must recognise. It is fascinating to see how this variation never ends although there are very strict rules. You need to have the same number of statues, from the lion to the gods — everything has to be there. And then you have this fantastic architecture and design surrounding it, using typical materials or traditional method or high tech.
Any one which particularly impressed you?
I saw one that was incredibly high tech, with beautiful broken glasses (Chorebagan Sarbojanin, helmed by theme-maker Bimal Samanta). It was amazing. I think it’s an experience that should be known over the world. Now with the Unesco recognition I think it gains a new dimension.
People tend to compare Durga puja with the carnival in Rio de Janeiro. As someone who has grown up seeing the carnival, what would you say are the similarities and the differences?
There are many things that are in common with the carnival. But while Durga puja has pavilions all over the city, the carnival is a parade in which you have enormous chariots with themes and people dancing. The big contrast is that the carnival is a constant variation of themes while in your case, it is the same theme reinterpreted hundreds of times. But both are an expression of popular traditions, of talents. You have many people who spend months preparing for something that will be there for just a few days.
For readers who have never seen the Rio carnival, can you describe what it is like?
It’s a procession of allegoric cars that we call chariots. Some of these chariots are enormous and absolutely extraordinary in design. In that sense it is very similar (to Durga puja) because simple people with lots of imagination and a great knowledge of materials create what may be considered high art.
Does it happen over one day?
In Rio, over three days, in Bahia (a north-eastern state) a little more. It’s a parade of many neighbourhoods of the city. Every day about 10 of them go round. In Rio, it is spectacular because you have the dance and the music and the chariots. The carnival is a very dance thing, with samba. The percussion is very important. It is the strongest element of the music, like it (the dhaak) is here.
The Rio carnival is known across the world, Durga puja is not. What is your advice to take Durga puja to the next level?
The most important thing both for the carnival and for Durga puja is local participation. The fascinating thing in Kolkata is that everybody is on the street. At the end of the day, you don’t need tourists (laughs). What you need is really for people to know better the artistic quality of that.
In Rio also, we have mostly locals. There are some tourists but it is essentially a Brazillian party. Also Durga puja is a more static thing. What I believe would be wonderful is to take these pavilions to other places of the world, because the world is going to be totally in love with these pandals. They are fascinating. I understand that they are not made in this way anywhere else in India. So this is a mystery that you have to come to Kolkata to see. And when you come to see, the whole population is on the street. It’s the best moment to come to Kolkata, like the carnival days are in Rio. Many people from across Brazil come to see the carnival and here also you have people from other areas of India who come for Durga puja. As for the residents, some people think that it’s a bit intense so in Rio, during the carnival, many people go to the mountain or travel outside. I understand here too some people do that. (Laughs)
One challenge for Durga puja to draw tourists is the crowd on the streets.
In the world today, when so many things have become so similar, what is really important is the personality of cities. This is the great thing about Durga puja — it is a legitimately Kolkatan tradition. I believe in cities that have their own personality and do these things primarily for locals, not for foreigners, because we have so many places in the world where things have become boring because they are made for foreigners. The wonderful thing about our carnival and your Durga puja is that it’s still something made for the locals.
If you were to speak about Durga puja to someone in Brazil, what would you say is the biggest difference?
Durga puja maintains a religious dimension that the carnival has lost. Originally it had a religious meaning because it is the big party before Lent, a period in which you have to be very subdued. So it occurs because of religion but is not a religious celebration. But Durga puja is still a religious celebration.
You came for the Preview Show this year which took place before the rituals of Durga puja had started.
Absolutely. What I saw is the artistic part of it and the artistic part itself is worth 10 times the trip. The first one that I saw made me feel that it’s worth coming to Kolkata to see just one. And you have so many (pujas) that you can spend days!
Talking of another shared passion that ties Brazil to Kolkata, the FIFA World Cup is coming up.
We are thinking of holding a screening of a Brazil match in a special open space with all those who support Brazil. We will see if we can put up a big TV to watch together.
Are you aware that when the World Cup is on, there are Brazilian flags flying in the streets of Kolkata and pictures of the star players are put up on walls?
I have to see that and that’s why I have to come back. I love the idea. I’m going to cry because I’m so touched by that.
Who is your favourite footballer in the current team?
I’m not going to take a name because it’s a big discussion. But I love footballers who prefer to play for the national team than for the team that pays a fortune for them. He has to be patriotic before anything else. (Laughs)