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Unesco director Eric Falt throws Durga Puja challenge to Kolkata

The city needs to outdo a celebration Falt saw in Vietnam to top his list of greatest jubilations to mark an inscription

Sudeshna Banerjee | Published 24.08.22, 05:45 AM
The December 2021 rally from the Academy of Fine Arts thanking Unesco

The December 2021 rally from the Academy of Fine Arts thanking Unesco

The director and representative of the Unesco cluster office in Delhi, Eric Falt, has thrown a friendly challenge to Puja enthusiasts in the city.

Kolkata needs to outdo a celebration he had witnessed in Vietnam to make it to the top of his list of greatest jubilations to mark an inscription.


During a Kolkata trip earlier in the year, The Telegraph had met the Frenchman heading Unesco operations in the Indian subcontinent (except Pakistan), to discuss Durga Puja, inscribed last December on the Unesco’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity.

News of the celebrations that have taken place in Kolkata had reached his Delhi office and has made an impression. “I was very pleasantly surprised to see the extraordinary level of enthusiasm in Kolkata and West Bengal in general, and in the whole of India, for this inscription. We were informed through those who supported the candidacy and the media,” he said.

On December 22, a rally had been brought out from the Academy of Fine Arts that had stakeholders and enthusiasts walking together in a statement of collective pride. The only message on display was “#thanks Unesco 2021”.

“It was quite extraordinary to see thousands of people on the streets of Kolkata celebrating with Unesco signs,” Falt said.

But that rally was more of a Puja organisers’ initiative, with artistes and Puja event planners taking the lead. Now, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has announced a rally with government backing on September 1, which will start from Jorasanko Thakurbari at 2pm and culminate at Esplanade.

Falt confirmed on Tuesday that he would be visiting Kolkata next week with a colleague from Paris, where the Unesco is headquartered.

A felicitation for the Unesco representative had been planned in end-April but was deferred at the last minute as the chief minister wanted to get involved. Falt had met Mamata briefly then, on the sidelines of the Bengal Global Business Summit, and was told about bigger plans closer to Puja.

Falt said he welcomed “this interest in ICH as there’s a lot more to ICH than monuments” (which typically get listed as World Heritage Sites).

“This is the living heritage of a country. The ICH list is representative. The 13 elements (that are already inscribed) are only a tiny sliver of what India has to offer. There are thousands of art forms that are just as important as the ones on the list. India started a bit after but is catching up. We’ve had three festivals in a row for India — Navroz, jointly with other countries, Kumbh Mela and now, Durga Puja,” he said. India has nominated Garba for inscription in 2022.

But Falt is not sure about the impact of the Unesco tag to magnify the pull of Durga Puja on the international tourism calendar. “I’m not sure that it should be the aim. It’s not a popularity contest. I think that it is very much the intention of the government to do so. For international visitors, sometimes there’s a reluctance to go to mass events like Kumbh Mela. They feel uneasy, especially in Covid times. Mass events are not going to be so easy to popularise,” he said, sounding a cautionary note.

But right now, he said he only wanted “to stress the positives” because of “the outpouring of popular support” for the inscription.

Falt has been “with the UN in general for 30 years of which 10 years have been with UNESCO”. “The only time that I saw as much popular celebration was when I was invited to Vietnam (in 2012) when the citadel of Ho was inscribed. They organised an event in front of the citadel with 50,000 people. It was telecast live nationally. If we can have that sort of celebration, I promise I will stop referring to Vietnam as my personal landmark and will refer to Kolkata’s Durga Puja,” he summed up.

Last updated on 24.08.22, 06:46 AM

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