It was an Ashtami to remember for 50 schoolchildren who went pandal-hopping to five pujas shortlisted on the basis of scores given by them as judges of Idea presents TTIS Choto Chokhe Boro Pujo, in association with GD Hospital and Diabetes Institute and the Alchemist Group. In between picking the final winners, the children made new friends, offered anjali together and even matched steps with Shaheb Bhattacherjee, aka Topshe, to dhak beats.
For Shaheb, celebrity judge for the event along with father and Maidan great Subrata Bhattacherjee (in picture right), the day brought back a rush of childhood memories. "When we were growing up, there were no theme pujas. My childhood memory of Durga Puja is of the goddess in daaker saaj. I remember putting our hands inside the lion's mouth! That was so much fun," said the actor. "Another vivid memory is of cap pistol fights! We used to conquer paras with them! We would return from the contests victorious, pistols tucked in our pockets, just like cowboys! And then there were balloon bursting contests and Ferris wheel rides."
Malini Bhagat (in picture below), the principal of Mahadevi Birla World Academy, was reminded of her childhood when "I used to go pandal-hopping with my parents". "It was my ardent wish to be a part of this. It was like a dream come true," she said. "My girls were also part of the team and I was quite amazed to see the children's perceptivity in judging the pujas. It was an enriching and fulfilling experience as I saw the pujas through their eyes."
Subrata Bhattacherjee, too, enjoyed pandal-hopping with the children. "It was a very good experience. I had never gone out with kids on puja parikrama before. This was my first time. The kind of knowledge these kids have is amazing!" said the star stopper of his time.
Barisha Youth Club Best Idea
Dhak beats welcomed the TTIS Choto Chokhe Boro Pujo team at Barisha Youth Club, their first stop.
Jasmine flowers made with funnels and colourful thermocol butterflies perched on trees represented the festive season, in stark contrast with the painting of a boy brushing his teeth in front of a dry municipality tap.
Explaining the choice of the theme ' Tahader Katha ' puja committee president Debashish Chakraborty said: "For most of us, the four days of Puja are all about fun and festivity, while for the marginalised people, it's like any other day. They don't even have the basic amenities in life. So at the time of our biggest festival, we wanted to make people aware of their daily struggle."
The pandal was made with PET bottles, buckets and metal scrap while Durga was armed with a bowl and kunke of rice instead of weapons.
The use of recycled material to depict the theme is what appealed to Arkadeep Mukherjee, a Class VI student at Calcutta Boys' School.
"Durga Puja is for everyone. The way they portrayed the slum and made the pandal using things usually found in a slum is wonderful," said Shaheb.
Tridhara Sammilani Best Idol
The serene look of the goddess in resplendent golden, the idol styled on the lines of a Buddhist deity and the dragon-faced lion at her feet won over the judges.
"I love the golden colour, which is the main element of their (Buddhist) prayers," said Emea Daniom, a Class VI student at South City International School.
Also striking was the face of Buddha made of brass and copper at the entrance to the pandal, in keeping with the theme of Bishwa Shanti (world peace).
Debashish Kumar, the secretary of the puja committee, feels it is the simplicity and relevance of the theme that worked. "In these times of political and communal violence, we tried to send out a message of peace and Buddha is synonymous with peace. In a way, we also brought together two religions."
"They had Buddhist monks praying every day at the pandal... now, that's new! It created a global feeling," said Shaheb. "It was not about being creative alone. The pandal was so artistic and so was the idol."
Malini Bhagat, too, liked the Tridhara Sammilani puja the most. "It had an element of peace that played an important role."
Dum Dum Park Bharat Chakra Puja Committee Best Pujo
The winner of last year's TTIS Choto Chokhe Boro Pujo did not disappoint this time either. A giant matrix of 7,500 human figures was the centrepiece at this puja, which had as its theme Alor Sandhane (In Search of Light).
"This is a unique concept. I don't think any other puja committee ever attempted anything like this," claimed Pratik Choudhury, the joint secretary of the puja committee. "We are delighted to retain the TTIS Choto Chokhe Boro Pujo title. It's very challenging to live up to people's expectations every year. We will definitely try to make it a hat-trick next year."
The young judges got a chance to shake a leg with Shaheb as they stepped out of the pandal. "Dancing with Shaheb was an amazing experience," said a beaming Sayantika Das, a Class VII student at Loreto Day School, Sealdah.
Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha Puja Committee 1st runner-up
A riot of colours greeted everyone at Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha Puja Committee. Abstract models made with papier m�ch� and cascading colours worked wonders.
"A colourful creation always strikes a chord. This is probably the reason why everyone liked our pandal so much," said Prithwish Roy, a core committee member of Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha.
Cascading colours from around 1,100 paint tins formed the pandal and walls at the Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha puja.
The colourful pandal attracted the kids, most of who got busy clicking pictures.
Aashay Garg, a Class VII student at South City International School, had his own take on the puja. "I think this puja depicts no theme in particular. It's up to the visitors to decide what the theme is. It can represent the festive feeling, joy or the colours of life. This is what makes it so interesting."
Bosepukur Sitalamandir Durgotsab Committee 2nd runner-up
Bosepukur Sitalamandir Durgotsab Committee scored with its theme of Utsha Shakti and the use of the hand-pulled rickshaw as a motif.
"We have come a long way since the advent of hand-pulled rickshaws. There is no place for these rickshaws in our present fast-paced life. So our pandal is an inverted rickshaw," said Kajol Sarkar, the joint secretary of the puja committee.
Hatibagan Nabin Palli Green Puja of the Year
Aadi Khadi showcased the revolution Mahatma Gandhi brought in with the charkha (spinning wheel). Started by a group of middle-aged widows under the guidance of Gandhi, it now provides income to 16 lakh women in India.
The art work on the walls of the pandal and live demonstrations aimed at raising awareness about khadi. Everything from the pandal and decorations to the idol was made with threads, bobbins, paper and cloth.
"The organisers have only used handmade material, nothing artificial. Even the colours used were not synthetic, but vegetable dyes," said Mayghaa Chatterjee, a Class VI student at GD Birla Centre for Education.
The puja got a perfect 10 for its green quotient from Malini Jane Basu, a Class VIII student and a member of the Earth Club at Calcutta International School.
"In terms of green puja, I liked Hatibagan Nabin Palli the most," said Malini.
Shaheb was impressed with the young judges' environmental awareness. "The schools these kids go to are all as conscious about the environment as they are about social causes. They know what recycling is and which paints are harmful….I asked them how they were planning to rate the pujas and one of them said there was too much chemical paint in one of the pandals."
The actor also marvelled at the concept of Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh being depicted as Durga's strength.
"Our idol represented matri shakti. Since every mother's strength lies in her children, the trishul held by Ma Durga here has the portraits of Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh," said Zinnia Banerjee, a member of the puja committee.
66 Palli Sarbojanin Durgotsab impressed the judges with its representation of the underwater world. In keeping with the theme ' Rupsagarer Sagartale Mayer Rup ' the pandal resembled an ancient dilapidated stone temple inspired by the archaeological excavation of Dwarka.
The entrance to the pandal was inspired by the marine aquarium in Singapore, complete with 250 types of fishes and eight snakes.
At Ramesh Dutta Street Sarbojanin Durgotsab Committee, another Judges' Choice winner, the focus was on street children and kids from red-light areas. All the save-environment banners and posters displayed at the puja were made by the children.
Bagha Jatin Udayan Sangha won a Judges' Choice award with its baul theme. The pandal was modelled after a khamok and Durga held an ektara instead of a trishul.
Text by Ayan Paul, Saionee Chakraborty and Shweta Keshri
Pictures by Bhubaneswarananda Halder