There’s a price that we pay for city living, losing out on our traditional festivals being one. I remember Poush Sankranti as an important occasion growing up. Mom and my grandmother would get up early, take bath and pay homage to the sun. We were pulled out of bed asked to bathe and wear fresh clothes before eating anything. The temptation of yummy khichuri, labra (mixed veggie) and bhaja would make us hurry.
Sankrati or Makar Sankranti is one of the few Hindu festivals that is observed according to the solar cycles, thus falling on the same date as per the English calendar every year (it’s usually on Jan 14th except in some years it shifts by a day to Jan 15th). It is said that the Sun enters the Capricorn (Makar) zodiac on that day, marking the end of the winter solstice as per the Hindu calendar. While most Hindu festivals are set by lunar cycle, Sankranti celebrates Sun and the solar cycle.
It could be because Sun or the right amount of sunlight is so important for a good harvest. Hailed as the harvest festival Sankranti is celebrated across India in different names – Magh Bihu in Assam; Maghi (preceded by Lohri) in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, popular amongst both the Hindus and Sikhs. It’s Sukarat in central India; Pongal in Tamil Nadu; Uttarayan in Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh; Ghughuti in Uttarakhand; Makara Sankranti in Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and West Bengal; or as Sankranthi in Andhra and Telangana. Irrespective of the many names feasting is an integral part of this festival, preparing a lavish meal with fresh yields from the field. We urban souls off course depend on the yield transported to our markets and mandis.
Makar Sankranti or Poush Sankranti is also called Pithe Porbon in Bengal as we prepare a range of Pithe (sweet savouries made out of rice flour, gur, coconut or khoya) on that day. However, in my family there would be no Pithe made on Sankranti as a little child once (generations back) accidentally choked on rice flour while his mother was making Pithe. Since then, the family decided not to make Pithe on Sankranti day. We would stick to khichuri and its accompaniments. My mother would make Pithe and payesh a day prior to Sankranti so we could have Pithe on that day, yet the tradition would not be broken.
Chitoi Pithe with jhola gur (liquid jaggery), pathishapta, dudh puli, malpoa and off course nolen gurer payesh (kheer made with rice and date jaggery) are made in most household. Sharing an image from my friend Swadhinata’a Instagram account who keeps the tradition alive even in Grenoble. “My childhood used to be closely associated with this day when my mother used to make varieties of pithe, and we all used to have fun eating them. To commemorate this festival, I made 3 varieties of pithe namely dudh puli pithe with narkel and nolen gurer pur (semolina/rice dumplings with coconut and jaggery filling), narkeler gujiya/bhaja puli (fried rice flour/wheat flour dumplings with coconut and sugar filling); and shukno sujir malpoa/poa pithe (fried semolina pancakes). It was awesome to see them come out so well and I got nostalgic,” says Swadhinata. (Swadhinata delights us with her culinary posts on her Instagram page bobbysaha).
Back home my sister Miki too made a range of pithes. The pictures that she shared on WhatsApp did make me very nostalgic. And thank God for Roy Meshomoshai and Mashima who live in my society I could savour the flavours of Poush Sankranti. I just hopped over to their place and had my fill of khichuri, labra, pathishapta and payesh. Their children who happen to be my very close friends were also there. Good food, great company and Old Monk was the flavour of Poush Sankranti this year.
Have you ever felt the urge to do absolutely nothing? Just lie on the bed for as long as you please or sit idly with a cup of coffee. No emails that need your attention, no phone calls, no meetings, no deadlines that beckon you. Do what you please with your time or do nothing at all.
The thing about nothing is it takes us years to realize that it’s perhaps the greatest luxury, the one precious thing that we are all running after. Having to do nothing or rather having our days at our beck and call, idling away, or doing what we please. It’s the joy of being a ‘Superannuated Man’, were Charles Lamb revels in his new-found freedom, of having done away with the routine of a job. It’s on the one hand about doing away with the mundane and tending to tasks that have long been left unattended, things that give us joy. To write, read, paint, cook, travel, or maybe teach the not so fortunate children. But then, nothing doesn’t pay. While the tasks that we choose when we bid goodbye to the mundane may sustain our soul, our bodies demand more, so back we go to the mundane.
But a routine job may not always be that mundane. We do enjoy our jobs and it’s not fair to term them as dull – the short deadlines, the challenges, rushing through the days juggling between different tasks does give us an adrenaline rush. And trying to steal a few moments from our busy days to do the things that are close to our hearts, or just, do nothing. I have often wondered if it’s the elusive nature of ‘nothing’ that makes it so precious. Once I decide to give up the mundane, will nothing come back to bite me? I will read and write, translate all my crazy ideas to beautiful pieces, I will travel as much as I please, such tempting pictures my imagination paints. But is it the mundane routine that prompts my muse? What if nothing or the freedom to do anything I please is not as inspiring?
As 2021 walks in with many hopes, a few questions and uncertainties still hanging in the air, I ponder upon nothing. And these rainy, gloomy January days that the year opened with in Gurgaon seem perfect for lazing and doing nothing. But the new year brought newer challenges. So, every morning while my heart desires to do nothing, my mind restlessly scans through the to-do list pushing me out of my warm winter bed. A long winter break is all my heart desires as I rush through my daily chores and phone calls and zoom meetings, I yearn for a day to do nothing.
It’s 2021 finally! You are not yet another New Year, so much rests on your shoulders – our hopes, our dreams, our wishes for a better tomorrow. As if with a magic wand you will shoo away all our woes that 2020 brought along. We are no fools, our optimism keeps was going…
Ah, 2020. What can we say about you that has already not been said so many times over? We complained bitterly and then we just accepted you. Now we are glad that you are gone, for you were one harsh teacher. You took so much from us, you locked us indoors, tried to discipline. You showed us we have so much that we may never need and care so little about things that really matter. You taught us the value of life, of love, of relationships.
So when I stepped out gingerly on the last day of the year, I decided to savour the little things that I so missed – walking through the lanes of Khan Market, basking in the winter sun, window shopping and of course sipping hot coffee and mulled wine and hot toddy. I spent the whole day there, starting with coffee and the walks and then the hot drinks and good food. Masked of course for that is a legacy you left behind. When we finally called it a day my friend wished me a happier 2021. ‘At least 2020 is over,’ he said.
We welcomed 2021 with open arms. With a few close friends who made 2020 bearable. And delightful it was!
I don’t think 2021 will take all our worries away with so ‘may be’s’ still hanging in the year. But I do hope we remember the lessons that 2020 taught us as we walk into 2021!
Lipstick, dear lipstick, you who added so many vibrant shades to our smiles have been swept away by 2020, veiled and shoved in some corner amidst COVID concerns. Once a ‘must-have’ in every girl’s purse, lipstick has been replaced by hand sanitisers and masks. It may not be farewell forever my dear, but we have been compelled to take a break from you for sure, for how long we don’t know.
Once our look was not complete without you. You brought a sparkle to our face and an appeal to our pout. Your lively hues added to our confidence and our sprightly gait. But now alas, we put on a mask to hide behind a tiny virus, a virus so small yet so fatal. We may have survived, but 2020 has for sure trampled over so many things that we held dear. We lock ourselves in, hide behind masks, cringe if someone extends their hand for a shake and run away from the warmth of a loving hug. What we have we don’t need, what we can’t have our heart craves, the human touch we sorely miss. Our wardrobes, full of clothes, shoes, jewellery and so many knick-knacks, mock us. Frequent travels are a thing of past and we plan endlessly to go out for a cup of coffee. Even after we enter a coffee shop, we can’t rest till we have thoroughly sanitized our surroundings. Sitting with apprehension, maintaining a safe distance, we gingerly remove our mask to sip our coffee. Dear 2020, you have added a flavour of caution to the hot and once carefree cup of coffee.
Like scarves and belts of times erstwhile, masks have become an accessory we can’t step without. From surgical mask, we have graduated to colourful masks in different textures to match our mood and attire. We have simple cotton masks in black & white, coloured masks, printed masks, fun masks and glittering masks. Now there are designer lines of masks even. With our lips and half our face hidden behind the masks, lipsticks have become a thing of past. 2020 is definitely a year lipstick makers’ will forever dread.
We look at a world so changed, wide-eyed, from above our masks. We have learnt to gesture with our eyes and smile with our eyes. Very soon we will pout with our eyes. And dear lipstick, what you have lost eyeliner, eye shadow and mascara have gained. We have started dressing our eyes, experimenting with eye make-up, wearing coloured eye shadows and contact lenses to add more allure to the language of eyes. With our lips covered and limited hand contact (lest we catch the virus), we rely heavily on our eyes.
Fear not, oh lipstick, this is just a temporary setback. We can never bid you adieu, we are taking a break at best. No matter how gloomy the year may have been, our spirit is indomitable and soon we will make transparent masks to show off your vibrant shades. Dear lipstick, you will shine bright even under our masks.
Winter and peanuts share a strong bond, or at least they used to once upon a time. As a girl I remember sitting on our terrace in Agartala with my sisters or in the courtyard at my grandparents’ place in Lucknow with my cousins, the winter sun on our back, shelling peanuts over idle chit chats. The warmth of the winter and freshly roasted peanuts, what an intoxicating combination it was!
Peanuts, commonly known as china badam in Bengali, is a popular winter snack. In the winter we would find vendors in every corner roasting whole peanuts in a huge iron kadai placed on the warm sand. Wrapped in old newspapers in small conical packs we would buy those peanuts for a few pennies, shelling them and popping the nuts in our mouth of lazy winter afternoons. Though I can’t figure why peanuts are china badam, there seems to be no connection with China and peanuts in Bengal.
Also known as the groundnut, goober (US), pindar (US) or monkey nut (UK), peanuts are one of the world’s oldest crops. The only nut that grows underground, peanuts were first cultivated in Brazil-Bolivia-Peru region about 5000 years ago. In the 15th century, Spanish and Portuguese explorers shipped peanuts from South America to Asia, Europe and Africa. An American named George Washington Carver is considered to be the ‘Father of peanut industry’ as he researched and developed more than 300 other uses for peanuts and improved peanut cultivation. It is believed that Jesuit Fathers introduced peanuts to India in the first half of the 16th century. Portuguese got peanuts to Goa around the same time, their colony then. From Goa peanut travelled to China. Peanut cultivation is big in China and India today.
A popular on the go snack, especially in winters, roasted peanuts are enjoyed in parks, in a stadium during a cricket match or any other sporting event or during any outdoor activity. Called ‘time pass’ in Mumbai people munch peanuts or moongphalis in local trains. We Bongs also enjoy fried peanuts with our muri makha or chire bhaja. Chirer pulau (bong poha) is made with peanuts and boiled potatoes. Our delicious samosas have peanuts in them with aloo. In small restaurants or food joints, they put peanuts in biriyani as well. And of course, badam bhaja or fried peanuts with a cup of tea and beer!
Peanuts are very popular in Gujarati and Marathi cuisines as well. Guajarati’s use peanut in roadside snack Dabeli to Gujarati Dal. In Maharashtra, it goes hand-in-hand with another favourite sabudana. We also enjoy peanut chutney or salad tossed with roasted and crushed peanuts. And nothing can beat the sweetness of badam patti or chikki after a winter meal. I am a big fan of American peanut butter and Thai cuisines in peanut sauce as well.
We grew up munching peanuts, celebrated with them, gossiped other hot freshly roasted peanuts or china badam. These nuts bring so much to table, add to the flavour and the mood. And to forget the immense health benefits of peanuts. I sometimes wonder why Peanuts are considered humble at all!
Picnic or Choruibhati is something that we Bongs indulge in, especially in the month of December. Many of us usher the New Year by heading out for a Picnic, Boro diner (New Year’s) Picnic as it’s popularly called. When we were growing up, Choruibhati or Picnic meant a big group of friends and family heading out in a minibus to the outskirts of the city early morning, to a riverbank or forest land, making a makeshift clay-oven, gathering woods and then cooking and eating a meal out in the open. We carried the ingredients and the utensils with us. Of course, there would be a lot of fun and games, singing, dancing etc. in between cooking and the meals. Late afternoon lunch would usually be hot dal, bhaja, mutton and rice served on disposable plates. There was something special about those freshly prepared Choruibhati meals that we would sit on the grass and eat!
Since we went for Picnics to idyllic locations away from the city, Bonbhojon (feast in the forest) is another apt Bong term for Picnic. Bengali zamindars or aristocracy added flavours of hunting and boat riding as well to Bonbhojon. Often, they would shoot a duck or a bird to be cooked in the open and stroll the river in their boats. But for a long time, I couldn’t fathom why we Bongs loved to call Picnic Choruibhati, that literally translates to Sparrows Feast. What does a cute little sparrow have to do with Picnic? Only recently I learnt that Chorui also means open space while bhati means feast, and Choruibhati thus translates to a grand feast in the open.
Interestingly, in its early days, Picnic was an indoor affair that originated from France. It is speculated that French Pique-Nique may have been derived from verb piquer (‘to peck’ or ‘to pick’) and the noun nique (‘a small amount’ or ‘nothing whatsoever’ in the mid-18th century. By late 18th century Picnic or Pique-Nique was a fashionable affair – a dinner to which each guest would contribute, very similar to potluck lunches. It was a favourite pastime of genteel, sometimes involved singing and dancing but was always indoors.
Picnic travelled to England after the French Revolution, where many from French aristocracy fled fearing for their lives. It soon gained popularity amongst the English upper class. A Pic Nic society was founded in 1801 by a group of 200 wealthy young Francophiles.
Sometime in 20th-century Picnic travelled outdoor. It was supposed to be an outdoor meal in idyllic locations, an innocent pleasure that aristocracy indulged in. Picnic basket for packing in cold lunch came into being. Soon wine found place in the Picnic basket. Eventually, it also became more mass, with the working class enjoying their own Picnics.
From England, Picnic travelled to America. I assume Britishers’ brought Picnic to India and genteel Bongs embraced it. Kolkata being the British capital then, Bongs did enjoy certain proximity with the British Colonial rulers. Though we adopted the concept, we packed more punch to it. Rather than carrying packed food, we decided to cook out in the open. Bong food tastes best when freshly cooked.
We modern Bongs sometimes become lazy though and, we just drive to a Picnic spot that serves cooked meals. Though it is fun, it can’t match Choruibhati – the excitement of gathering woods and a cooking meal in the open!
To me, for a long time, Chhath was a religious festival largely celebrated in Bihar, they worshipped Sun, had something to do with river, as I would see a lot of people walking to Yamuna on those days. I didn’t know much about Chhath or didn’t bother to find out till Puja joined my team and came to office after the Diwali break with so many goodies – Thekua and sweets – prashad from Chhath Puja. Every year, since then, she would go home for Chhath and come back with delicious Thekua that her mother made at home for the Puja. Missing it this year as Puja has decided to extend her stay in Patna due to her impending wedding. Happy occasion indeed!
Chhath Puja is a festival that falls in the fag-end of the Indian month of Kartik (late October/early November), after Durga Puja and Diwali. Since it commences on the 4th day of Shukal Paksh and culminates on the 6th day of Shukal Paksh it is called Chhath Puja. Surya Dev or Sun God is worshipped for granting the gift of life to us on earth. Unlike Durga Puja and Diwali, this festival does not involve idolatry and is dedicated to the worship the Chhathi Maiya (Shashthi Mata) and sun God Surya along with his wives Usha and Pratyusha, the Vedic Goddess of Dawn and Dusk, respectively. It is believed that the main sources of Sun’s power are his consorts Usha and Pratyusha. Therefore, during Chhath, both his wives are worshipped along with Sun. In the morning, we worship the first ray of Sun, Usha, and in the evening the last ray of Sun, Pratyusha. This is the only festival where the sister of Sun, Chhathi Maiya, is worshipped and offered an Arghya or Prashad.
The festival is largely celebrated in Bihar, Jharkhand, UP and Madhesh region of Nepal, and of course now, owing to globalization, the residents of these states scattered all over the world celebrate Chhath. Celebrating the power of Sun, or oneness with nature, this is considered to be one of the most eco-friendly festivals. If we were to truly embrace the spirit of festivals like Chhath, most of our environmental woes would probably be addressed and the pollution wouldn’t be choking us every year.
The festival doesn’t distinguish between caste and class. Every devotee, rich or poor, offer the same Prashad to Sun God and follow the same rituals. A reminder that Nature or higher power doesn’t distinguish basis our birth or social status. Though a gender neutral festival it is largely celebrated by women and the rituals are to be strictly adhered to
The four-day festival, that comes six days after Diwali, starts with Nahaye Khaye (first day) when every member of the family along with the pavnitan (the one who performs this puja or devotees) have their food after taking bath.
Kharna (Second Day), is the second day of Chhath Puja. Kharna means fast the whole day, and on this day the devotees don’t drink even a single drop of water. In the evening, they can eat gur ki kheer (jaggery kheer), fruits and chapati loaded with ghee.
Sandhya Arghya (Third Day) falls on Kartik Shukla Shashthi and an Arghya is offered to Sun god on this day. Devotees stand in the river/ pond or a water body to offer Arghya to the setting Sun after fasting through the day.
Usha Arghya (Fourth Day) – On the last day of Chhath puja, in the morning, an Arghya is offered to the rising Sun. After the worship, devotees drink sharbat and raw milk, and eat a little prashad to break the fast, traditionally termed as Paran or Parana.
Thekua and Kheer made of rice and jaggary are the main prashad of this festival. Delicious Thekua is made out of wheat flour, chasni (melted sugar) and ghee. Jaggery can sometimes be used as an alternative to sugar. Dough is prepared using these four main ingredients and cardamom can be added to enhance the flavour. The oval shaped dough is then deep fried in ghee or vegetable oil till it turns reddish brown. It is soft when hot but hardens after it cools. It is absolutely preservative free and lasts for days.
Chhath is a post-harvest festival and is celebrated after many agricultural produces like wheat, rice, sugarcane and so many fruits and vegetables, have been reaped. Devotees offer all these to Sun God, as according to them, without the benevolent rays of Sun cultivation and harvesting would not be possible. Hence, it is our very own thanksgiving festival, thanking the all mighty Sun God for bestowing and nurturing life!
I have known Seema for years now. When I first met her, I noticed the beautiful Katha Silk Saree that she was wearing. “Wow, such unique work. Where wear did you pick this saree from?” Seema loves wearing traditional sarees and whenever I meet her, I admire the saree she’s wearing – the colour, the weave, the texture. Being a saree lover myself, I decided to talk to Seema about her saree collection and more.
Tell us about your love affair with saree?
I would say that it started with wearing sarees occasionally during my college days. Those were of course borrowed from mom. Got married soon after college and simultaneously started working for Fab India. This series of events and gradual transformation from wearing sarees occasionally to regularly at work started my love affair with sarees. As a manager with Fabindia, I would wear a different saree every day. There was a time when customers and other people would visit Fabindia store just to check out the saree I was wearing. My colleagues and other people would do the same whenever I visited head office.
I worked with Ritukumar and Good Earth as well and the love for continued as all these brands support craft. My journey to different brands brought more knowledge and the passion continues.
I love traditional sarees with different weaves and different dyes. There should be a cultural story behind the weaving and dyeing of sarees. As these sarees are completely handwoven you may find the weave or the dye uneven at times. But that’s the beauty of these sarees. That’s what makes them unique!
What are the different types of traditional sarees you have?
You name a saree, and I would not disappoint you. I have sarees from all regions and some of them were specially woven for me by weavers which came in the market later after weavers were satisfied that I loved those sarees. In fact, I also keep distributing sarees to my friends and loved ones. So, my collection keeps depleting and replenishing.
Being a Bengali, I have a good collection of Jamdani and Katha sarees. In addition, I have banarasi, kalamkari, Maheshwari, Chanderi, Ajrakh, Bandini, Bhagalpuri, Tussar and others which I have picked from weavers. Also Banarsi is one weave I love,.
Being connected to Gujarat through marriage I also have some sarees, Patola, which I inherited from my mother-in-law and they are very close to my heart. My mother has passed on her beautiful Baluchari to me.
Tell us more about beautiful Ajrakh sarees
Ajrakh is a treasure. It is rich, it is old. Historians have associated it with Harappan civilization which means over 3000 years old treasure. The art of Ajrakh is till today practiced in the areas of Kutch and Sindh. It is double sided block printing. Ajrakh fabric or sarees are made in traditional ways using natural dyes. Artisans use natural dyes to obtain various colours like iron for black, pomegranate for red while making Ajrakh. Indigo is a primary and a conspicuous colour in Ajrakh sarees and fabric.
It takes days to make an Ajrakh saree. It is said that after one layer of printing is done the saree is kept aside for that day to dry – ‘aj rakh’ or keep it today. Next day a fresh set of blocks are printed on the dried blocks and this continues for 17 days. Polishing the saree and finishing it takes a few more days. When you think about the time and effort an artisan puts in making one saree you know they are priceless. Yet what annoys me is people complaining about the price of these beautiful sarees and opting for machine printed fabrics.
Experiences that you have encountered while buying sarees
Once I went to a weaver in a village close to Jodhpur to buy block printed sarees. It was his workshop, and the blocks were lying around. I asked him if he had metal blocks. His eyes lit up in joy, “Madam aap ko pata hai,” he said smiling. He then took me to a room which was full of metal blocks of different shapes and sizes. ‘Nobody makes these blocks now’ he said, ‘most people don’t even know that originally metal blocks were used for block printing.’
The block prints that we see now are usually done using wooden blocks and they are not as fine and sharp as those printed with metal blocks.
What about chiffon and georgette saree? What do you think about cocktail sarees?
I am more a traditional saree person, though I feel great that women have started wearing sarees for cocktails and dinners. But why can’t we wear a chanderi instead of chiffon? Chanderi or organza sarees are light and transparent and come in lovely shades. Just team them up with a sexy blouse and wear a long earing.
What about maintaining sarees?
To increase the longevity of sarees you need to take them out of the wardrobe occasionally and leave them in the sun for a while. Change the folds of the saree and put them back in the wardrobe after they have cooled. Put neem leaves between the folds, that will keep the pests at bay.
Any last word for saree lovers
To all women, whenever you wear a saree, you become one of the most beautiful women in the world. That’s the magic of saree. Sarees can be worn on all occasions. It is one of the most graceful attire that accentuates the beauty of Indian women. Try wearing sarees more often to work, believe me, it doesn’t take long to drape it. It is just a matter of getting used to wearing it. Once you get you used to wearing sarees you can be comfortable in them for the entire day. And remember, when you buy and wear traditional sarees you are supporting a poor weaver in some remote village.