The Colours of Navratri.....ऐलमा पैलमा गणेश देवा

The Navaratri festival has just begun.

Navaratri , celebrating the advent of the month of "hasta" according to the Hindu calendar , is a celebration by women in honor of the Mother Goddess. We have several Goddesses, and we celebrate these days in honor of Kali/Durga (the Goddess who slays evil), Lakshmi(the Goddess of wealth), and Saraswati (the Goddess of learning). As can be expected, this is primarily a Womens' festival. At least as celebrated in traditional Maharashtra, which more or less excludes Mumbai, the way things are today.

India has a plethora of various cultures, with varying customs based on your region of origin. Given the wide variety of geography, history and weather across the country, the celebratory customs vary. What doesn't change is the dedication and worship of the Goddesses.

Here in Mumbai, there is a distinct Gujarati(Western Indian) flavour to the proceedings.

One sees earthen pots with wonderful decorations being sold in various localities. In most shops, sales are on, and the female of the species is literally spoilt for choice of traditional clothes, all of them bursting with color, and outstanding in the detailed patchwork and embroidery. The clothes replicate those worn in rural areas in Gujarat, particularly also amongst the menfolk.There are mass celebratory folk dances or garbas held on all the days of Navratri. Some super enthused folks with no limits on resources, often wear nine different outfits on the nine different days. (And it is not as if you can wear these later to office, or someones birthday or a movie.) Announcements are made by various entrepreneurs, who organize garba dance events, for all the nine days of Navaratri, complete with famous singers, season's passes, food courts lining the premises; in anticipation of ban on loudspeakers late at night, several folks even announced a head-phone system where you wear headphones that pipe the music into your year, to which you dance.

Thats almost like e-navaratri.

The Navaratri of my childhood was a different thing all together, and was probably a carryover from the time (first quarter of the 20th centry), that girls grew up in a "protected" environment, assiduously learnt the home crafts, and got married early , (to be thrown into dicey family situations, sometimes with senior management problems :-)), when they should have been having a great time playing with their friends, only to rush home and be cherished by their parents...

And so a festival was celebrated where the young girls could be themselves.

Not being subject to digital time ticking away all the fun in milliseconds etc, life was about the sun entering constellations , and exiting constellations.
Navaratri happened when the Sun moved to the thirteenth constellation of the zodiac called "Hasta" (Elephant).

My earliest memories are those of celebrating "bhondlas". Nine days when you went visiting in your neghborhood, to participate in very women specific song and dance celebrations, in honour of the Goddesses..

"Paat" or a wooden "flat" was cleaned well, and a picture of an elephant was drawn on it. Decorated and placed in the centre . A whole bunch of us girls, held hands in a circle and went around this "paat" singing various traditional songs. The first day we sang one song, the second day 2, and so on till we had 9 songs on the last day. Boys strictly never participated, though assorted cranky younger brothers who held along to our skirt-tails were tolerated.

Everyday , at the conclusion of these songs, we had to guess, what was called the "Khirapat" ...... this was some real great fresh foodstuff prepared by our mothers, offered first to the Goddesses, and then distributed amongst the girls as a blessing. The first day, there was one khirapat, the second day , two, and so on till we had 9 khirapats on the 9th day.

My aunt had a big swing on a largish patio, which was just outside her kitchen area. The "paat" would be kept on the swing and we girls, wearing our traditional best, would circle around it singing our songs ,
with one eye and one nostril directed towards activity in the kitchen. Since it was a get together of many neighbours, as the number of khirapats increased, various other mothers would offer to bring pot luck style khirapats, and their arrival, with tins emanating whiffs of great food, was carefully and secretly monitored. Once the khirapat was correctly guessed, it was time to enjoy the fruits (of our mental and physical labour). At this point, assorted brothers and other males of the family sort of joined the going ons, and were roundly ignored as we proceeded to devour the wonderful stuff....

What was interesting is the songs to which we circled the "paat". It was a reflection of society and life of young girls as it existed then. A lot of the songs had to do with a young girl's perception of her new family as she entered her husband's home and began a new life. A lot of songs empathized with the girl's childish firmness as she clearly played favourites in her new family.

The songs were about the little girl sitting all upset and aloof, and various members from her mother-in-law, father-in-law, sister-in-law, brother-in-law etc offering her all kinds of material inducements to returning home with them. She would keep refusing, only to answer in a charmed affirmative when the husband came to ask.

Another song played upon the traditional mean image of the mother-in-law , when she guided her daughter-in-law, through planting the bitter gourd plant, watering it, watching it grow, to harvesting it, washing and cutting it, finally making a curry out of it, then eating it, and even washing up afterwards. The song ended in an amazing turnabout, where the mother-in-law, fully aware of the age of her child-in-law, would ask her to get a comb and come get her hair braided, sending her off to her parents, for a visit,
in what was probably then considered, style.

The songs had tunes that were very group-of-girls specific and repetitive and easy to sing. Contrary to actual society where the girl dare not open her mouth, look up, or dare to answer unless asked, in front of her senior in laws, the songs had her dealing very playfully and being demanding, and them being indulgent. Maybe wishful thinking in those days.

main song was always an invocation to Lord Ganesh, to come and bless the new set up the young girl was entering, and this was always sung first.

What was interesting was to note how this festival was a great mix, of a realization of a young girl's need for recreation with her friends, her introduction to what would be her responsibilities in her new house, and the benevolent presence of the Supreme Being, who guided you through all your life stages.

In the olden days, patriarchal habits entailed that the men of the house ate first and got the choicest stuff, routinely.
Women of the house quietly ate, whatever remained, later.

In an age where social customs were strictly followed, and willful disobedience, be it from a little girl, was frowned upon,
this celebration of Bhondla songs and the guessing of the Khirapat goodies, was probably a custom initiated to allow these young girls to "officially" enjoy their teenage years, full of friends, companionship with other girls, and great food, even if for 9 days a year.

Times have changed. Like everywhere else, money rules. In an increasingly globalized world, exclusive womens' festivals end up being in a minority, except in cases displaying the genetic male chauvinistic streak in our society, where it has to do with the continuing good health and life of the husband.
Bhondlas are now celebrated by some very dedicated people in large towns, who strive to keep the old customs and songs alive. In smaller towns in Maharashtra, bhondlas are still held. In some places they are called hadgaas, but are basically the same thing.

Worshiping God has now advanced from being a personal quiet tete-a-tete to a public display of dedication, hiding private deals for self welfare. Religion really doesn't matter. There are temples, mosques, dargahs, and churches, where people of all religions flock. You have something to ask of the Lord, and the particular place of worship is known to answer prayers. So we have Hindu's flocking to churches and dargahs, Christians visiting temples and dargahs, and Moslems who wait to honor the Ganpati procession as it winds it way to the sea on immersion day.

Prominent personalities make 3 am visits to places of worship, walking barefoot en famille, to ensure success for their children and themselves. The Z-plus security granted to them by the country ensures that the entire retinue walking around at 3 am attracts sufficient publicity. Some walk backwards all the way. Some write letters to God and put it in the offerings box. Various offerings are promised for certain events to happen in their lives.

It's a good thing, Gods do not draw up comparative statements of deals offered. And , then decide.

Somewhere up there, Someone must be shaking His or Her head, surely wondering what the world is coming to, and what happened to that innocent get together of little girls, singing and skipping around an elephant drawing, innocently praying, with a keen eye on the side, on certain mouth tickling things being made in the kitchen.......

Happy Navaratri.

An article by Suranga Date aka Ugich Konitari who blogs at Gappa

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