Month: November 2020

Chhath Puja – the desi Thanksgiving! With inputs from Puja

Puja celebrating Chhath

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!   

Puja’s mom in a traditional attire performing Chhath Puja

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 being fried on a traditional chulha at Puja’s place

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!

‘There should be a culture and story behind the weaving and dyeing of sarees,” Seema Shah

Seema in a beautiful Jamdani

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?

In a Sharnachari

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.

Ladies in saree. Seema in a Kalamkari

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. 

This time last year by Titas Mazumdar

It now seems like ages with restricted movements within a circle, restricted friends and family visits, restricted festival celebration and just no vacation/travel since March 2020. Living with the hope that all will end soon but when will that time come, no one is certain about it. Everywhere there is a talk of second lock down, second wave which will be even more devastating. We all are scared, a sense of choking, a suffocation is slowly surrounding most of us. When will all this nightmare end?

Talking to my aging parents in Kolkata saddens me more. Regular health check-up, mandatory tests, urgent visit to clinic for regular wellness has become the biggest challenge. The only fear is that will I not be infected if I go to the regular place where I used to go to cure my infections? No right or wrong answer to it. Aging population needs health check-up and frequent medical monitoring which has become the scariest part in today’s time.  Depression is hitting all over the place, we are seeing it in aging population, couples, mood swings in kids – What next?

People like us whose major Oxygen was travelling round the year in search of unknown doesn’t know how to breathe now. Turning the Facebook albums and Instagram photos, reminiscing on old memories is what we are left with now.

Every year around Diwali we try to run away from NCR majorly due to bad air quality and smog which anyways forces the schools to keep shut and makes office travel miserable. Last year on Diwali night when the city was glittering like a newlywed wearing a white veil of smog we fled to far south to the beaches of Andaman. Unlike Goa, Andaman beaches are around tiny villages, with simple people, simple food, and clean water. Every house decorated with those terracotta oil diyas (mitti ke diye), no Chinese sparkling magic lights anywhere. It reminded me of my simple childhood Deepavali days. Those thatched roof mud houses resembled Gharonda (Doll houses) which we used to make with our tiny hands with shoe boxes plastered with mud. Far far away from the hustle and bustle of the cities these Islands are serene and pristine mostly inhabited by the families of our freedom fighters or those refuges who sought shelter after partition of Bengal. The beaches there fall asleep by sunset and wake up before the first ray of the sun to amaze tourists with their beautiful sunrise, coral mountains & water activities. The white beaches, mangroves, tropical rainforest and under water coral reefs created a mystic around me.

Southern Andaman has most tourist foot fall. Places like Port Blair, Neil Island, Havelock are the most crowded ones. Me and my husband are not much fond of touristy places but again can’t delete them from our list too being the major attraction on internet. So, we did a quick 1 day halt at each of these places and completed our to do list to head towards our main attraction- The Baratang Island – part of North and Middle Andaman. To get into the ferry to Baratang one has to cross the famous Jarawa Land. We booked a private car and crossed the Jarawa land in a convoy of cars with local police escorting us from front and rear. Guess what? Not to protect tourists but to ensure complete protection to Jarawas – the indigenous people of Andamans from us the civilized people. Yes, mostly they are harmless. They speak Hindi, English and Bangla. We were stopped thrice by them for Biscuit packets, chips, tobacco and bottled water. We were strictly instructed not to give them any processed food which we consume as processed food are poisonous for them. In the past for years coming in contact with people from outside world and eating their food had caused severe health issues and sometime leading to death in this community. Today we are left with just handful of people from this tribe who thrive mostly on fruits from the jungles and fishes caught from the seas. Photography was strictly prohibited just to protect them from the outer world. Crossing this area was thrilling no doubt and meeting them was exciting. We reached Nilambur jetty to board a local ferry along with the car which took us to Baratang Island. This Island offers Mangrove creeks, beaches, limestone cave and Mud Volcanoes.

       Trip tales are never ending…I can keep writing for pages, and especially during this time of the year when I am almost house arrested for 8 months now….But as I always say there is a good side of everything…learning to wait for some scientific miracle to happen soon which will take away all the  cuffs from our hands and legs and soon we will be on the roads driving or flying to our dream destinations to breathe in a different air again. This wait time is not bad either…