Xenia Zeiler, University of Helsinki
Festivals are important events and locations for migrant communities to live, stage and negotiate identity, heritage and culture – beyond borders. The festival Durgāpūjā is a perfect example for this, as it has extensively traveled with Indian communities, beyond many geographical and cultural borders. Today, the festival is characterized by elaborate public celebrations and pronounced community aspects in many places all around the globe, places that have become home to Indian migrant communities. The festival was added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2021.
Historically, the worship of the goddess Durgā at the time of the year of today’s celebrations, in September or October, started out as celebrations restricted to private homes and partly temples. But the festival grew, partly because of an explicit community celebration factor. In the late 16th or early 17th century celebrations became public to a limited extend, as invited guests took part. Those early public celebrations were hosted by wealthy landlords, in order to negotiate or secure their political and other authority. In 1790, a preform of today’s Durgāpūjā public organizing committees originated. With this, a kind of democratization of the festivities occurred.
Durgāpūjā took the form of how we know it today – of a popular mass event with elaborate celebrations – in the 19th century, making it the arguably most popular Hindu festival in India and the Indian diaspora. The social interaction aspects were additionally enhanced and partly transformed since the late 20th century, with processes of mediatization. Today, all aspects of Durgāpūjā are highly mediatized – including the organizational activities surrounding the festival, such as planning and preparatory practices, and advertisement strategies that increasingly employ social media. Durgāpūjā committees in and beyond India increasingly communicate, coordinate and negotiate via social media, in order to organize and advertise the festival and activities surrounding it. The specific celebrations then serve as identity markers for the respective communities and support the committee’s and community’s authority. And of course, festival visitors make intensive use of social media, to capture and share their experiences. Not surprisingly, photos and videos are the by far most popular media formats to do so.
Public, community centered celebrations are the predominant form of the festivities today, in India and worldwide. A committee consisting of mostly unpaid helpers is elected to represent a locality, neighborhood, or increasingly other units such as firms and big corporations. Festival activities commonly include rituals, cultural performances such as music and dance presentations, and joint activities such as cooking or drawing competitions.
That Durgāpūjā is celebrated in migrant communities world-wide is not a new thing. With migration, and with the formation of Hindu diasporas all over the world, Durgāpūjā moved as well. Specifically the community celebration has been popular in many big cities world-wide, and for many decades. Principally, such events are highly mediatized; most have webpages, Facebook groups, and make intense use of social media platforms. This follows a general trend: migrant communities frequently employ media, including journalistic and social media. One of the reasons for this is that migrant organizations often reach out to the public, to position and sustain themselves in diaspora environments, and for that use many tools and ways for self-representation. Outreach activities for example also include collaborations with museums and universities.
Let’s take an example: In Helsinki, the first Durgāpūjā was organized in 1999. It grew to become an important event for the Indian community, with appointed organizing committees consisting of volunteers. As is often the case in the diaspora, the celebrations became an explicit social event, offering a welcome chance to get together in the Indian community, and to jointly celebrate, present, and live cultural heritage. The Saturday celebrations in Helsinki are considered to be the main happenings and annually attract 100-120 visitors, from the capital city area and to some extend also other far-away places in Finland. The festivities in Helsinki include the popular and widespread happenings which accompany celebrations world-wide, such as cultural activities, namely music or dance performances, and kids’ drawing competitions. In 2017, a cooking contest was introduced. Photos and videos on all these happenings are constantly taken and shared widely by festival visitors.
Among the shared photos, selfies are the major format. That Durgāpūjā visitors choose selfies as primary way to portray and widely share their participation in a certain festival stays in line with the general trend of ‘selfie-mania’ in social media. And of course also selfies highlight the cultural heritage elements in the festival – dress, dance, eating home foods, singing familiar songs together – that are negotiated and lived when jointly celebrating.
And if you are interested to know more: check out the educational video game Durga Puja Beyond Borders! It was developed specifically to playfully yet educationally introduce various layers of Durga Puja festival culture, such as joint Durga Puja organizations and especially celebrations. It conveys educational content about the festival’s history and past and present ways of worshipping and jointly celebrating, in India and beyond. Moreover, it allows a glimpse into how festivals are important events and locations for migrant communities to live and negotiate identity, heritage, and culture – beyond borders.
Xenia Zeiler is Professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Helsinki. Her research and teaching are situated at the intersection of digital media, culture and society, specifically as related to India and the global Indian community. Her research foci are video games and gaming in India, digital religion (especially Hinduism), global Hinduism, and Tantric traditions. She also researches and teaches aspects of (Global) Digital Humanities and popular culture, especially as related to India.