During our childhood from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, Durga Puja used to be celebrated with utmost devotion according to rituals with dominance of Bhakti encompassing both the organisers and public.
Even at Sasthi evening, many pandals were still having the final touch with the Devi and her children still behind the veil. Only on Saptami morning, we used to get awaken by the rhythmic beats of Dhak, all puja rituals used to commence with rendition of Sanskrit mantras and people used to start flocking to the pandals either as faithful religious devotees or just to relish the beauty of the idols. Irrespective of theist or atheist, people used to visit the pandals for evening Arati which was an excellent display of play of lights with Dhak and bells tolling in unison.
And dot on the evening of Dashami; when the Goddess used to be awarded a watery farewell along with her entourage, we used to feel the pain of parting in our heart as if our very own have departed us with no chance of meeting until next year!
Lots of waters have flown down the Hooghly since 30-35 years. And with it all things associated with Durga Puja have undergone a sea change with the greatest impact falling perhaps on the "grandest" venue of all --- Kolkata!
Far from commencing the Puja on Saptami morning, pandals and idols used to open up for public "consumption" on Panchami itself for a decade by throwing all norms of rituals to the wind! Then the "fun" started from Chaturthi, Tritiya and presently Kolkata pujas have achieved a new "record" by signaling the start of celebration right from the Mahalaya itself! Hardly surprising, after all, the majority of these "glamorous" Puja committees do not care to actually offer homage to it through rituals, mantras, holy hymns or flowers!
Yes, Durga Puja of Kolkata is nothing but a fashion show of sorts with vulgar exhibition of flexing muscles ---- be it monetary might or trophies garnered! And more Puja is being degraded to such a commercial venture, more people are flocking to those pandals in droves to "get blessed" through the reflected glory of those venues!
Who has visited the maximum number of glamorous pandals form one of the most common items of bragging! And residing in this ridiculous social perspective, it is indeed tough not to venture to those pandals with family by engaging in arduous battle by negotiating ocean of faces and suffocating traffic congestion if one does not want to get sidekicked as "out caste"!
So few years ago in a Chaturthi night, as we stepped on the first venue with the pandal resembling a giant Myanmar pagoda in the northern fringe of Kolkata, I heard the zealous boast of the organisers through microphone that "our pandal can compete with the best in South Kolkata"! Yes, this is the "real spirit" of today's Kolkata Puja! No respect towards the Devi, no need for associated Puja rituals --- just violate the environment through sound pollution with a big boast of "we are no lesser than rest"!
And entrance of each and every pandal religiously features a lighted stage with perhaps hundred trophies or citations! I wonder how many organisations are there to give awards to the Puja committees! And how can each and every committee receive trophies after trophies, certificates after certificates! All are getting judged as first, second or third by all judges! This is the age of paid news. So would it be unnatural for me to doubt whether these are all paid trophies and certificates! All things possible in these "I am the best" times!
And what is the main purpose behind such lunatic rush to the pandals! Of course to click selfies with the Devi and other decorative props and promptly post it on Facebook to count the number of likes and also to announce that "I have arrived" in the "social mainstream"!
So if anybody wants to have a serious view of the idols; then it would be next to impossible, given the dominance of the obstacles named mobiles tabs and selfie sticks! And immediately after entering the main arena(front of the Devi) through wait of 30-45 minutes, one would hear the admonishment of the security staff to clear the area! What a terrifying joke!
Yet such a joke is being zealously supported by the enthusiastic public just to click the selfie and announce their "social arrival" in front of the world!
However there is no doubt to the fact that right from the idols to pandals, the architectural quality is perhaps increasing by leaps and bounds. But where has the actual part of homage or rituals gone!
Also a clear demarcation line gets drawn whereby the minority privileged group enjoy a field day during Puja while the overwhelming unprivileged lot continue their fight against starvation and poverty! While one lot relishes a deluge of brand new dresses and shoes ; many underprivileged parents fail to gift even one new piece of garment to their children! Not to speak of the impact of such hullabaloo on the hearts of those unfortunate ones whose family members are in hospital or have lost their near and dear ones recently! Where is that so-called "Sarbojonin" (encompassing all) amidst this hoopla!
Rabindranath Tagore's short story 'Kabuliwala' --- The bride Mini's father donated an amount to the poor fruit-trader Rahmat Khan so that he can return to Afghanistan to meet her daughter after several years. In the process, band-parties and lightings could not be organised during Mini's marriage; but the heart of Mini's father glowed with much more vigour and lightened up his horizon. This mindset of sharing and caring with sensitivity and pathos should be the essence of any festival which needs to be adhered by the Puja organisers and revelers as well.
(The views expressed are personal)