September is the best time to visit Calcutta, the capital city of West Bengal, India. In the gentle autumn weather the Bengalis celebrate a ten day festival in honour of their favourite diety: the ten-armed Mother Goddess Durga. There is private worship in every home, but each neighbourhood organizes public worship at a stall, or pandaal. These pandaals are elaborate affairs: ranging from small sheds to enormous halls that are several hundred square feet in area. They are designed and built by local artisans, and have the most diverse inspirations. Last year’s pandaal themes included Victorian, Tribal, Gandhi, and Harry Potter. The highlight of each pandaal is a large idol of the Goddess Durga, designed in keeping with the theme. The Harry Potter pandaal was shaped like Hogwarts castle and the idol had moons and stars on her sari.
February is the best time to visit Rio de Janeiro, and to join in the riotous mania of the Rio Carnival. Neighbourhood Samba schools design their own parades, called blocos: complete with floats, dances and outrageous costumes. The competition of these blocos is a highlight of the carnival. In June, Lisbon celebrates the Marchas Populares. Come August, in Mumbai, the locals celebrate in honour of the God Ganesh, ending the festivities in a procession to immerse the God’s idols in the ocean. On the 1st of November, the Dia de los Muertos, every building in Mexico has a specially decorated public altar. And then, at the end of November, is the Thanksgiving Parade in New York.
Television channels cover these events as they take place. Travel writers showcase them. But rarely does one get an insight into what goes into creating these amazing experiences. There has been no serious study of the annual design variations of these festivals, no utilization of these designs as indicators of social change. No design magazine is out there: deciding which Samba school had the best float in this year’s Carnival; or which neighbourhood’s Durga Puja pandaal was most innovative and—most importantly—why.
An enormous amount of human creativity and ingenuity goes into these events every year. Every year, design decisions are anonymously taken by numerous artisans, seamstresses and other neighbourhood talents. Money is raised, designs are commissioned and they go into production. The designs are used and the user feedback is instantaneous. One never hears of a traditional festival that was an utter failure. They are annual exercises in experience design at the largest scale possible, with a near one hundred percent success rate! I doubt there is a design studio today which could make a similar claim.
Not everything is gung-ho about the design of festivals, though; and this requires public attention too. What happens to all those enormous floats, all that tinsel and plaster, on the day after the Rio Carnival? The Durga idols in Calcutta are ritually immersed in river water on the tenth day of the festival. The idols are made of sundried mud which disintegrates rapidly, but the paint on them leaches noxious chemicals into the water. The Ganesh idols from Mumbai are worse: they are made of Plaster of Paris, which is insoluble in water. Because the design of festivals is rarely discussed, they also pass under the radar as far as sustainability is concerned. Indeed, how must traditional festivals take sustainability into consideration? As of today, there are too few answers to this question.
Many festivals are religious ones, and they operate upon mechanisms of deep faith and tradition. It is faith that impels the designs of the Dia de los Muertos or the Durga Puja. Professional designers have rarely considered that religion or spirituality might influence the practice of design. But the fact remains that religious faith is a valid and essential part of the human experience. It is a social function that creates opportunities for celebration. And perhaps we cannot truly celebrate design until we understand the design of human celebration.