An Assam based artist has become a striking symbol of India's traditional religious harmony in challenging times, proving yet again that art and culture transcend man-made social divisions of religion or caste.
Prominent art director Nuruddin Ahmed has been in the news recently for making the tallest idol of Durga in one of the pandals (marquees) in the state's principal city Guwahati.
Ahmed has not only designed the 110-feet Durga idol with bamboo sticks in Bishnupur Durga Puja pandal, but also applied to the Guinness Book of Records to recognise the idol as the world's tallest bamboo sculpture.
The art of Ahmed, who has won several national level awards for his art works in the past -- like the prestigious Chaman Lal Memorial National Award in 2004 for his contribution to the field of stagecraft -- assumes significance in the backdrop of worrying incidents of religious intolerance and hate crimes against minorities and lower castes reported across the country.
"I am born Muslim but religion has never come in the way of my work. I am an artist and what I wanted to create is a piece of art. I have been doing this since 1975," Ahmed told IANS.
Born in North Lakhimpur district of Assam, Ahmed made the first Durga idol in 1975 and has since created over 200 such idols so far and designed many puja pandals in Assam.
"I still remember that the first idol and pandal I designed was in 1975 in North Lakhimpur. Everyone liked it. No one raised any question that a Muslim has made an idol to be worshiped by the Hindus," he said.
"You see, this feeling of religious hatred was not there in Assam in the past. Hindus and Muslims have been living in Assam like brothers for ages. I celebrate puja and there are many Hindu friends who come to my house during Eid. However, things are changing now due to some recent happenings, which is not good for a society like Assam," said Ahmed, expressing concern over the growing incidents of religious intolerance.
"I do not believe in religious hostilities. I am a Muslim but that does not make me hate other religions. I equally respect other religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity and others," said Ahmed.
Regarding his Durga idol, an excited Ahmed said that the breadth of the podium is 20 feet while the length is 63 feet. The height is 110 feet.
Ahmed, along with 40 workers, started working on August 1 and it took almost two months to complete the idol.
Unfortunately, a cyclonic storm that hit parts of Guwahati on September 17 grounded the whole structure. The team then worked with redoubled enthusiasm to re-erect it and completed the idol on September 23. His co-worker Deep Ahmed said that close to 5,000 bamboo sticks were used to make the structure, which cost around Rs 12 lakh.
The Durga Puja festival came to a close over the weekend.
"It is a matter of pride for us that we have got a designer like Nur Da (as Ahmed is called by most) to build and design our idol this year. We are happy that he had finished the idol on time despite the cyclone devastating it once completely," said D. Sarkar, one of the members of the puja committee.
"We have known Nur Da for a long time. Although he was a born Muslim he is basically a humanist and religion has never come in the way of his work," he said.
(This story is part of a special series that showcases a diverse, progressive and inclusive India and has been made possible by a collaboration between IANS and the Frank Islam Foundation. Aditya Baruah can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)