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True spirit: ten and now

“Toilet? How can a pandal have a toilet?”

“Traffic control? That’s the duty of police.”

“Sound limit? Are you telling us not to play a mike during Puja?”

Incredulity, cynicism and arrogance — such were the common responses while doing the rounds of community pujas of the city for the inaugural edition of CESC The Telegraph True Spirit Puja a decade ago.

Many of the 79 pujas that had signed up in the first year, for what was then a novel concept — ensuring a people-friendly puja by maintaining certain parameters, were taken aback by the queries or comments from the True Spirit Puja (TSP) teams that went around supervising facilities in pandal after pandal. Often, our role ended up being that of campaigners for a cause, reasoning with organisers, rather than of detached judges silently ticking score sheets.

One could hardly blame the Puja committees for taking time to absorb what we were asking them to do. Over two decades, they had been led to believe that a beautiful idol, dazzling lights and an eye-catching pandal were all that they needed to be hailed as the best. And here we were, asking them to take responsibility for the consequences — bumper-to-bumper traffic, snaking queues, people falling ill, getting lost…. The pandal-hopping woes were endless.

On one hand, pujas in Calcutta were attaining a level of aesthetic excellence that made Bengal’s annual festival a contender for the crown of the world’s greatest street-art show and, on the other, indiscipline and thoughtlessness were making the five days a time for suffering, rather than celebration.

devis who supported the cause
It was a great experience because I never really get to go pandal-hopping. I really liked the way the pujas have maintained the systematic and organised side of the celebrations, thanks to the True Spirit movement.
Raima Sen, 2012

It is at this point that TSP was born. Just as Durga emerged from the energy contributed by a galaxy of gods, who armed her with a weapon each to help her conquer Mahishasura, the TSP judges’ team drew representatives from CESC, fire services, the municipal corporation, police, partnering NGOs and, of course, The Telegraph. The mission: bring order to the chaos the Pujas had become, to instill in the Puja organisers the belief that the spirit of the celebrations mattered more than the size.

The True Spirit Puja is so different from the rest…. From now on, Durga Puja will not just mean five days of fun and frolic for me. It has taught me how safely we can enjoy….
Arpita, 2011

As the TSP parameters became known, some organisers, with an eye on the award but lacking the spirit at heart, would try innovative techniques — a toilet signage over a locked door, which on being opened revealed an empty plot open to the sky or a first-aid box, complete with a red cross made of marble paper pasted on its lid, stuffed with a few strips of medicines past their expiry date. Judging in the preliminary round was tough in the initial years.

Thanks to this, so many pujas across the city are following all the rules and also becoming more compassionate. A big thank you to TSP!
Swastika Mukherjee, 2010

It was also a period of learning, picking up tips from fellow judges. Fire services officers taught us to check the width of the exit — which needed to be as wide, if not wider, than the entrance to ensure easy evacuation in an emergency — or how to check if the inflammable jute had really been fire-proofed, or the strategic points where sand buckets and extinguishers needed to be kept.

The CESC personnel would come down heavily on hooking. Theft of electricity is as heinous an act as it is to hire a dhaki or a priest and not pay him for his services. They also lauded pandals with a “clean” meter box and untangled wires with insulation intact.

I am privileged to be a part of True Spirit Puja. It shows us how to enjoy
Paoli Dam, 2009

Our NGO partners kept an eye open for damages to the environment and social involvement. While chopping trees to put up banners and rampant use of plastic were common offences, many clubs seemed to care little for the less fortunate.

And then some eminent pujas started playing Pied Piper. Shib Mandir Sarbojanin Durgotsav, the Model Puja in the inaugural year of TSP and Five Star Puja in the second, kept raising the bar. In the third year, it installed a smoke sensor inside the pandal, impressing CESC and fire services representatives.

This is a unique initiative and I hope it becomes a movement to make our Pujas safer and more meaningful.
Roopa Ganguly, 2003

Behala Club, the only puja to have been crowned Model Puja twice, trained volunteers in crowd control in 2005, the first time it won.

Small efforts, with a big difference — that’s the true spirit.