The Diwali Hangover

Delhi and most of North India is still hung over from the Diwali revelries. The end of four-day partying, drinking and other festivities does leave a vacuum, on top of it the trauma of returning to work. The depressing fog caused by post Diwali pollution and crop burning doesn’t make things any easier.

Diwali in Jaipur
Photo courtesy Riti Chakraborty

Diwali or Deepavali or the Festival of Light is the most important festival in India, celebrated across the country with much pomp and show. According to Hindu mythology, Diwali is celebrated to commemorate the homecoming of Lord Rama after vanquishing Ravana. To celebrate the victory of Rama over Ravana and welcome their king back home along with Lakshmana and Sita, people of Ayodhya lit up the city with earthen lamps, diyas

As per another popular belief, Lord Krishna killed the Demon Narakasura, the evil king of Pragjyotishapura, near present-day Assam and released 16000 girls captivated by Narakasura. In Karnataka Diwali is celebrated as Naraka Chaturdasi, triumph of good over evil, observing Lord Krishna’s victory over Narakasura. Interestingly, both Rama and Krishna are incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

Across north India, Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha are worshipped on the night of Diwali. Houses are cleaned and lit up. Though artificial lights are more popular nowadays, people still light diyas. New clothes, feasts, card parties, rangoli, flower decoration, crackers are important part of Diwali celebrations. However, there are lot of variations even here. For Marwaris it’s not just Lakshmi and Ganesha, they worship gold and silver coins on the night of Diwali. “Every Dhanteras we buy coins and add to our existing collection that are kept in the puja room or asana along with the deities. We worship Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha, and these coins on Diwali night,” says my Marwari friend Poonam. Largely a trader community, Marwari’s observe Bahi Khata Visarjan on Diwali (closing the old ledger and opening a new one). Thus, Diwali marks the beginning of a new financial year for this community. Marwaris also light up diyas with different oils on each day. “On Dhanteras we light up diyas with ghee, on Choti Diwali sarso ke tel ke diya and on the day of Diwali we light up diyas with teel tel.” says Poonam.

For us Bengalis, Diwali is about Kali Pujo. We worship the fearsome incarnation of Durga on the dark Diwali night. We do follow the tradition of decorating the house with diyas and lighting crackers. After moving to Delhi, I started buying clay idols of Lakshmi and Ganesh and decorating the house with flowers on Diwali. Assimilating whatever appeals to us, brings about a feeling of positivity, that’s the beauty of our traditions!

Jaisalmer

In Rajasthan, Diwali is a five day affair that starts with Dhanteras and ends with Bhai Dooj. Diwali in the cities of Rajasthan is an unforgettable experience. I was in Jaisalmer this Diwali, the golden city lit up with diyas was a sight to see. Diwali in Jaipur is a grand affair.

City Palace Jaipur
Photo courtesy Riti Chakraborty

The appeal of Diwali goes beyond religion. It’s a festival which has different cultural connotations, yet the spirit of festivity and optimism is something that is celebrated across the country, amongst different communities, a festival that is eagerly awaited each year!!

Ma Lokkhi: Worshipping the Golden Goddess on Sharad Purnima or Kojagari Purnima

Ma Lokkhi
Image courtesy http://www.kumartuli.com

Goddess Lakshmi, is she the milder manifestation of Durga or is she her daughter? There are various interpretations in Hinduism. Durga – also knowns as Parvati or Kali (in more awe-inspiring form) and, Lakshmi & Saraswathi are considered to be Tridevi in Shaktism. They are the consorts of the Trimurti – Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and Saraswathi the goddess of learning, are the milder manifestations of Adi Parashakti, Devi. We Bengali’s however consider Lakshmi and Saraswathi to be daughters of Durga. Daughters are manifestations of their mothers anyway, so I don’t see a problem with either interpretation.

In Bengal and other eastern states Lakshmi or Kojagari Lokkhi is worshiped on the full moon night that falls after Dashami or Dussehra. On Diwali, when Lakshmi and Ganesha are worshipped in North India, we worship the formidable Kali on Amavasya – the night of the new moon. Since this is the month of the Goddesses, Shakti or women power, I decided to pen a post on the apparently mild and quiet Goddess Lakshmi or Ma Lokkhi.

She is the goddess of wealth and prosperity, hence she is worshipped and sought after by all. Traditions may be different, rituals may vary, but Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped by Hindus, Buddhist and Jains across India. And don’t go by her benign smile and her quiet grace, she is one of the most whimsical goddesses’. Known as chanchala she doesn’t reside is one place for long. She needs to be constantly sought after, worshipped. She maybe seen sitting quietly at the feet of her consort Vishnu but don’t mistake her for an obedient wife. While Vishnu is all for Dharma, Lakshmi will grant her blessings on whoever she pleases. She doesn’t care if her devotee is an asura or a sinner. We all know that the demon king Ravana lived in a majestic palace made of solid gold.

Gachkouto

In Bengal, this whimsical Goddess is worshipped on the night of Sharad Purnima or Kojagari Purnima. Ma Lokkhi is worshipped in pandals that lie lonely after the departure of Ma Durga and in most Bengali households. Her presence brings back the festive cheer, fills the vacuum that we feel once the four-day Durgotsav comes to an end. Ma Lokkhi, we worship has two hands. Dressed in red, with a benevolent smile she comes riding an owl, holding a gachkouto (red coloured pot filled with sindoorand a silver coin) in one hand and blessing us with the other. The golden goddess is known for her beauty, her aura lights up the world.

Alpana
Image courtesy boldsky.com

Lokkhi Pujo was an important part of my growing up years. I remember going to the market with my uncle and cousins to pick up the most beautiful idol of the goddess. The house would be cleaned, we would put rangoli or alpana with rice powder paste all over the house. Feet of Ma Lokkhi would be drawn at each doorstep to ensure that the Goddess visits the household. The elaborate bhog would consist of nariyal naru, chirer moya, fruits, sweets, lucchi, khichdi, labra, chutney and kheer, and of course pan supuri (beetle leaves & nuts). Mom would decorate the vedi with flowers, a kalash with nariyal and amra pallab (nascent mango leaves) would be placed before the Goddess. The room would be decorated with alpana and flowers.

Mom and other aunts would wear fresh clothes, usually a red sari, comb their hair, put on sindoor, bindi and alta (red dye applied on the feet). Ma Lokkhi likes cleanliness, she likes well-dressed people, she likes peace and quiet. Fearing that the goddess may flee at the sight of anything untidy the whole house would be cleaned and decked up. As a little girl I would excitedly watch the preparations of the pujo, helping with the decorations and alpana. I would beg mom to put some alta on my feet and she would eventually oblige. Ladies of the house would observe fast on the day of the pujo that would be broken with Chipitak Bhakhan (coconut water and chire) after the pujo. Though the bhog laid out for the goddess is vegetarian, married women are supposed to eat fish after the pujo. According to Hindu mythology the goddess visits her devotes only very late at night, so we would wait up for her.

Though I have stayed away from home for a while, not been part of Lokkhi Pujo in years, I feel the same excitement on the day of the Pujo. I am not greedy for riches; I pray to Ma Lokkhi to bless me with enough wealth, wisdom and strength to take care of myself and those around me!

Shobho Bijoya Dhashami: Bidding Adieu to the Mother Goddess

Photo courtesey Sanjay Kumar Roy

Bijoya Dashami! Time to bid adieu to Goddess Durga, the all-powerful Mother. The day brings back memories of Dadur Barir Durga Pujo (Puja at my maternal grand father’s ancestral home). Ladies would gather before the Durga idol since morning, feeding her sweets, wiping her tears with pan (beetle leaves), trying to catch a glimpse of her feet in the water. This would be followed by Shidhur Khela – married women smearing each other with red sindoor. Once the rituals of Dhashami Pujo was complete the male members would get the Ek Chalar Durga Pratima out of the huge puja ghar. Every year the puja ghar would be decorated and a vedi would be made for Ma Durga and her children. Getting the idol down from the vedi and out of the puja ghar took a lot of maneuvering.

Ma Durga would be then placed in the huge courtyard. Sound of dhak, kashor, ghanta, conch, smell of dhoop would fill the atmosphere. The whole extended family danced around Durga, teary eyed – ‘Aami daaki ma ma, mai toh kane shone na’ (I keep calling out to Mother, but she has turned a deaf ear to me).

Finally, time to let go. The idol of the Goddess would be immersed in the pond that lay at the backside of the courtyard. Ma Durga along with her entourage being lifted deftly and carried to the pond, following the procession eagerly with a heavy heart, scampering for her jewelry and her weapons as the Goddess was immersed in the water, crying out loud as the Mother Goddess let herself be devoured by the water body…

Those were the pre-mobile camera days. Unfortunately, I have no photographs to share but the images are firmly etched in my memory…

Shobho Bijoya Dhashami, may Devi grant us wisdom and peace of mind!

Durga Pujo: soaking up in the Divine Glow

IMG-20181019-WA0036.jpgThe golden sunlight, the clear blue sky, the white cottony clouds
The gentle cool breeze, the sweet smell of shiuli, or just the memory of that smell whiffing through the air
Ears straining for the sound of dhak, the excitement of dhunochi dance
Absurd heart yearning to soak up in the spirit of Durga Pujo and the festivities
To while away the mornings, the afternoons and the evenings idly busy in the pandal
To feel purposeful, yet do nothing
To feel the nearness of the soft glow of the divine power
The positivity, the optimism and the cheer

Dressing up in best saris, suits and jewelry
Showing ourselves off in the radiance of the divine glow
Sampling the choicest delicacy
Hopping from pandal to pandal as if nothing else mattered on those four days of Matri Pujo

The carefree Pujo days while we were growing up
Memories come flooding back with the gentle breeze, the soft dew, the all forgiving smile and the golden aura of Devi
“Devi arrived on ghatak (horse) this year, that’s bad omen,” exclaims my mother
The all-powerful Mother Goddess can only be the harbinger of hope, of all the good that awaits us, protests my absurd heart!!

Goddess Durga ponders upon her earthly sojourn: the changing flavours of Sharod Utsav

Goddess Durga is getting ready for her annual earthly visit to grace the Sharod Utsav or Durga Puja that is celebrated with much gusto in West Bengal, Tripura, Orissa, in C R Park in Delhi, and in smaller scales across India. According to mythology, Durga was first worshipped in spring (Basanti Puja) by King Surath.  Advised by Sage Medha, the exiled King Surath invoked the Goddess to win back his lost kingdom. Though Basanti Puja is still celebrated, Sharod Utsav has assumed far grander proportions. Goddess Durga was first worshipped in autumn by Lord Rama who sought her blessings to defeat the demon king Ravana. Lord Rama’s ‘Akalbodhan’ (untimely awakening of the Goddess) is what has captured the popular imagination. Durga Puja or Sharod Utsav is the biggest festival in Bengal and the East.

This year, however, the Goddess seems to have lost her usual enthusiasm for her annual earthly sojourn.  As she packs her bags with her best saris and jewellery listlessly her husband Lord Shiva enters the bedroom.

Shiva: Is everything all right with you Devi? You are usually so excited about these annual trips?

Durga: My Lord I do enjoy my earthly sojourns, but of late I have started feeling its more pomp and show and the real spirit is missing. So much money is spent on huge pandals built on innovative themes, elaborate light work, decorations and loud music. But not enough attention is paid to the pujo, following the rituals and the traditions. I miss those simple ek chalar pujo (the idols of Durga and her children in one simple frame). People would make idols with clay and natural colours and adorn with shola (milky-white sponge-wood). I yearn for the beats of dhak and kashor, the deep blow of the conch. This loud music played on the music system is deafening. I can’t even smell shiuli phul (night flowering jasmine) in most places.

Earlier, before my arrival, the ground used to be strewn with shiuli phul. I hardly see those plants anymore. My pujo was mostly performed in households and women of those houses would get up very early to make all the preparations and to cook an elaborate bhog. There would be lotus, shiuli and so many other flowers. Dhakis would compete with each other, everyone would participate in dhunochi dance in those simply decorated pandals. The whole community would get together for my pujo.

Now women have no time to get into all these. They just get dressed and come to the pandal. Everything else is outsourced. People are more interested in eating rolls, chops and biriyani than bhog.

Durga sighed and sat on her bed.

Photo courtesy Sanjay Kumar Roy

Shiva: My dear I agree a lot has changed. Not many people have the time to perform elaborate pujo or even offer Anjali to you. They are too busy with their day-to-day lives, their jobs. Life is more complicated now than it used to be a few decades ago. But no matter what, your pujo infuses a spirit of festivity and celebration. Regardless of how busy these people are, they take time to visit you in new clothes, forget their worries and look forward to the future with optimism and hope.

Photo courtesy Sanjay Kumar Roy

And if you look closely you will observe a lot of positive changes, especially in women. Most women today are well educated, have a good job. They are conquering outer space, running companies, performing lifesaving surgeries. They are the very manifestation of your shakti. They may not have time to perform all the rituals of the pujo but they worship you with their spirits. Be it a pandal in Kolkata or Agartala or Gurgaon, women still gather to dance to the tune of dhak or perform dhunochi dance in a traditional manner.

The potters of Kumartuli and light artisans of Chandannagar wait eagerly for your arrival every year. Their bread and butter depend on you. With so much buying, selling and festivities you infuse positivity, you symbolize hope.

Durga: What you are saying is true. Not that I mind all the glitz and the glamour that is associated with pujo now. But with so much technology I sometimes miss the real connection. Even after coming to my Pandal people are glued to their phones. They are more interested in taking their selfies and videos with me and posting them on Facebook or Instagram. They are so governed by social media likes.

Look at our children, these trips to the earth have got them addicted to social media. Ganesha is forever showing off his wisdom on Twitter and Karthik can’t stop posting pictures on Instagram. I am told he’s trying Tik Tok now, our Karthik wants to be a Tik Tok celebrity. Lakshmi is hooked to online shopping and Saraswathi is doling out knowledge capsules on Facebook. They are preoccupied with their phones and ipads; they don’t even have time to talk to me anymore.

Photo courtesy Sanjay Kumar Roy

Shiva: My dear social media is a form of communication now; it is a good way to connect with the youth. But I do agree this generations’ focus on social media is excessive and they need to strike a balance. Maybe our children, through their posts, is trying to help them achieve this balance.

Durga: Also look at all the artificial, colours, chemicals and POPs used for my idols. Look at the pollution they are causing. My heart bleeds to see what’s happening to Ganga, Yamuna and the other water bodies. They are choking, they are dying.

Shiva: On that, I entirely agree with you. But I am also hopeful they will change their ways before it’s too late. They have already started talking about environment-friendly idols and natural colours.

Durga: They better change soon, or they will witness your thandav, maha pralay.

Shiva: Go give them the strength and the wisdom to change for the better.

Durga: Yes dear, you are right. Mankind has indeed achieved a lot. Instead of focusing on their mistakes might as well inspire them to build a better future.

Durga gets up and starts packing eagerly. Mahadev smiles, bows at her and leaves the room.

Interesting titbits

How Ganesha outwits Karthik – shared by Puja

Narada delivers a mango from Lord Brahma to Lord Shiva for his son – it’s no ordinary mango, one who eats it would gain knowledge and wisdom. Lord Shiva is faced with a dilemma as both his sons want the mango. To solve this Shiva, after consulting Durga, decides to hold a competition between his two sons – whoever finishes circling the world thrice first will win the mango. Go getting Karthik immediately sets out on his peacock. Plump Ganesha on his rat stands no chance.

Witty Ganesha requests his parents to sit together and circles them thrice with folded hands and then demands the mango. “My parents’ are my world,” says Ganesha. Touched, Shiva hands him the mango.

Tridevi

Photo courtesy Sanjay Kumar Roy

Durga Puja marks the victory of goddess Durga in her battle against the shape-shifting buffalo asura, Mahishasura, epitomising the victory of good over evil. As per Bengali traditions, Durga visits her natal home with her children – daughters Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth, prosperity) and Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge and music) and Ganesha (the god of wisdom and good beginnings), and Kartikeya (the god of war).

In Shaktism, Durga or Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati are the manifestations of goddess Yogmaya also known as Adi Parashakti. Durga represents the transformational power of divinity, the power that dissolves the multiplicity of the Hindu gods into their unity. She is the direct incarnation of Adi Parashakti.

According to Vishnu Purana, Lakshmi is the daughter of Sage Bhrigu and Khyaati and consort of Lord Vishnu. In Rigveda, Saraswati a river also personifies the Goddess, she is the consort of Lord Bhrahma. Goddess Durga is Goddess Laxmi and Goddess Saraswati in her mild form – the Tridevi.

Understand a sari, own a sari, fall in love with it – says Joy Mitra

Joy Mitra, a leading designer and a dear friend, weaves magic with his anarkalis, lehangas, kurtas, dupattas and Indo-western wear. Most of all I love the saris that he designs. He takes the traditional Indian weaves like ajrakh, kalamkari or handprinted cotton and silk and turns them into masterpieces. Being a sari lover myself I decided to talk sari with Joy

What do you think about saris? Why do your work with saris?

When I say sari, I mean drapes – the basic attire of the subcontinent that probably evolved 5000 years ago. We all know that very state has its own drape, its own way of wearing sari. The modern way of draping sari evolved 100 years ago, made popular by the women of the Tagore family. It’s a beautiful attire that complements the Indian body type.

Sharmila Tagore in a Joy Mitra

However, over the years we have seen a dip in the popularity of sari. There was a time when Indian women flaunted sari. Even girls of senior schools and colleges would wear sari, were encouraged to wear sari. This changed 80s onwards with sari becoming just another outfit. And now I hardly see modern city women wearing sari, it has been reduced to a costume for special occasions. There are various reasons for this change. Modern city life doesn’t encourage sari. Many women don’t know how to drape a sari anymore, western outfits are much easier to wear. Therefore, it is important to first understand a sari, own a sari, fall in love with it. Give sari a chance and you will see how much it can change you, add to you.

But coming back to saris, they will always be there. The number of people wearing sari may vary, the number of sari lovers may rise or fall, but sari will never die.

We have seen 100-day sari challenge bringing back some excitement around draping a sari

There’s always excitement around any movement, be it bringing back the handloom, or planting more trees or saying no to plastic. We create excitement around things or issues that we as a society want to push, to make them for relevant for the time. Of course, there is a group of people who love sari, swear by sari and want to wear a sari. They want to bring back excitement around saris, not only because it’s a beautiful outfit but also to encourage our weavers. Our banarasi, kanjivaram, ikat and tangail weavers. That is also our job as a society.

When you started, and I have seen you right from your first show, you used to make those beautiful cotton saris in ajrakh and kalamkari. I absolutely loved then, but then you stopped. So, it’s good to see you bring them back again. Can you tell me about your kind of saris, what makes them different?

I like working with traditional saris, I have a very earthy taste. I love these rustic Indian colours, natural dyes, Indian prints, block prints, kalamkaris and ajrakhs, these have always been my first love. Of course, I am also in the trade, in the business of selling garments so I keep changing and evolving and coming back. It’s a cycle. It’s not that I stopped, it’s just that I was not doing that many ajrakhs and kalamkaris for a while. I am back to ajrakhs, kalamkaris, sanganeri and bagh prints again because I genuinely love them.

Is there a taker, especially in a place like Delhi where we see more georgettes and chiffons?

That can be a challenge. I invest a lot of money in some cotton saris, I find them so beautiful. But most of my clients would say ‘that but that’s a cotton, why will I wear a cotton sari for a wedding or a festival?’ And the funny part is if I don’t tell them and a show a picture after I have done a shoot, they immediately want that sari. This psychology that cotton can’t be expensive, cotton can’t be worn to weddings annoys me. I work with chanderis, silks and georgettes as well. Each has its own appeal. But as a designer, I am more inclined towards silks and cottons.

Anything different about the kind of work that you do with your saris, and the kind of blouses you team up your saris with?

I need to do something different, something that inspires me. However, I should be able to sell my pieces as well, it’s a process. For me it’s not about being different, it’s about making something truly beautiful, that’s all that matters.

I am often asked ‘Is this in?’, ‘Is that out?’ ‘Should I buy that?’, again these questions upset me. For me, a garment is either beautiful or not. If I like something, I will like it even after 10 years unless my taste has changed completely. What is beautiful is always beautiful. You don’t go to Taj Mahal and say ‘Oh, Taj Mahal was so beautiful 10 years back now I have outgrown it.’ It will always remain beautiful. Especially the Indian weaves and textiles, they are timeless.

Another worry, a lot of these prints are replicated by digital printing, which of course is faster and cheaper, and more people can wear them. But the essence is dying. The whole process to make ajrakh sari takes 40 to 60 days – so many kinds of layering and dying. Digital machine replicates it in a day and that hurts me. That’s the reason why so many of these weavers are leaving their jobs, looking for other work. I feel it is our responsibility to promote these traditional textiles and prints. Sustainable fashion it’s not just about promoting cotton or certain fabrics or a craft. It’s more challenging, it’s about sustaining the society, this whole ecosystem of weavers and dyers, all of us have to work towards it.

Aparna Badlani donning a Joy Mitra sari in Bengali style

Bengal has a very strong tradition of saris from tant to baluchari. But you don’t work with those saris?

I do, I work with these saris from time to time. Maybe if you come next month you will see many tangails and balucharis. I love these saris.

Most people feel balucharis are not in vogue, and I feel sad about it. Any particular reason for that?

We don’t see the real balucharis anymore. The whole palla and border of a real baluchari would tell a story from Ramayana, Mahabharata or Panchatantra. It was not a repeat border, the whole sari had different patterns depicting a story. Thus, weaving a baluchari took a long time and making it a very expensive affair.

Secondly, baluchari looks almost like a banarasi, just that banarasi uses more zari while baluchari is more resham. Both these saris come from the Indo Gangetic plane. Banarasi is woven near Banaras, then comes the famous bhagalpuri silks and cottons from Bhagalpur. Further down in Bishnupur where balucharis are woven and then you have the dhakais and jamdanis of Bangladesh. The whole belt is rich with variety of weaves and textiles that vary with changing atmosphere and culture.

Balucharis were too expensive and the dazzle of benarasi was much more making them a popular choice. Baluchari was made popular by the rulers of Bengal, but this beautiful sari somehow got lost and is still dwindling. Also, baluchari appeals to a certain taste and that’s another problem, you have to understand a Baluchari. It’s like a paithani, a very expensive and a beautiful weave that not everybody would like to own. Or a real kanjivaram with gold work. Sadly, there are not many takers for these saris. People are going for digital, from pure to artificial, so these real saris and the real crafts are dying

I remember our mothers had 4 to 5 expensive saris that they would wear for all occasions. Now you need a different outfit for every function.

That culture has died, and that’s not just for sari, that’s for all outfits. Our life is like Facebook, we constantly need to put something new. We can’t tell the world we have the same sari. We are fishing for something new to post every day. And that’s why we opt for those easy, faster and cheaper variants. It’s like a fast-food culture, it’s a fast-food lifestyle

But we still have sari lovers

There will always be, though the number may have reduced over the years. Maybe lesser women are wearing saris now due to financial or cultural reasons, or just practicality. But sari will never die

Women who inspired you to do sari, or you love to see in sari.

I am from Bengal; I have seen my grandmothers and mother wear the best of saris and that’s how I developed a taste for sari. The range and the variety of saris that we have are just fabulous. Even today when a client comes to me with an old traditional sari and asks me to highlight it or do some work on it, I shy away. They are so beautiful. I ask them to keep them as they are and pass them to the next generation. I want more people to love sari.

I hope with your saris will revive that love

I hope I do more saris, all kinds of saris not just handloom. Every sari looks different on different body types. I want people to experiment more with sari and drapes. It could be a cotton sari, silk or georgette, start wearing saris, start developing a taste for this beautiful drape

Your favourite drape

The modern drape is beautiful. And of course, being a bong, I like the Bengali way of wearing a sari. I have used this drape in many of my shows. I find it very beautiful and elegant, effortlessly sexy.

Thank you Joy, I hope more women start wearing saris after reading this interview.

Feeling festive, are we?

While catching up with my friend over Saturday lunch I found her little daughter busy at work. “What are you doing?”, I asked nine-year-old Prapti busy cutting coloured papers in shape of flowers. “I am making rakhi for bhaiya and dadu,” she replied excitedly with a twinkle in her eyes. My friend smiled, “She loves making things, so I thought I would encourage her to make rakhis.” With the help of her mom, Prapti made beautiful rakhis. “This is for dadu and this one for bhaiya,” she said smiling happily. “And Mamma you and Papa have to come to my school on 14th,” she added in the same breath. Independence Day celebrations in the school that she was participating, in I was told.

While catching up with my friend over Saturday lunch

It was my turn to be quizzed then, “Do you know who designed our national flag? What does colour green in our flag stand for?” Of course, I didn’t know. I tried to look at my phone stealthily to google the answers. “No, no you can’t google. Papa did that too and that’s cheating,” came the sweet retort. “Ok Prapti, I don’t remember,” I admitted. “Our national flag was designed by Pingali Venkayya, and green stands for growth, saffron symbolizes strength and white peace,” said Prapti with a proud smile. Immediately after the quiz session she turned to her mom and pleaded with all cuteness she could muster, “Mamma can I please put mehandi for rakhi?”.

Looking at Prapti, brimming with excitement for Rakhi and Independence Day, (both on the same day this year so double whammy for her), I tried to remember the days when I was as excited about festivals. Nowadays, festivals mean a few extra hours of precious morning slumber on a weekday., “Mid-week holiday, yay!!”, everything else can follow. On Rakhi I would get up early enough though to cook lunch for my cousins like I do every year. It’s always a fun, relaxed family lunch, something that we look forward to. An occasion to meet in our otherwise busy life and that does make Rakhi special. There would be tying rakhi, exchanging gifts etc. Though it comes nowhere close to the exuberance of Prapti, preparing for Rakhi days ahead, the love and the effort that goes behind each rakhi she makes.

For all my patriotism and love for my country, I don’t remember when I last attended a flag hoisting ceremony on Independence Day. I don’t even bother to switch on the TV now, just happily sleep through it. Yet there was a time when out of excitement I would hardly get any sleep on the night before Aug 15th. For we would join our father to his office for the Independence celebrations. My father would hoist the national flag, give a brief speech to his staff and we would salute the national flag and stand in attention to sing the national anthem. What a proud moment that was! After that, we were given snacks and sweets as refreshments. Those simple snacks tasted so delicious. As I grew up, moved out of home, I somehow left behind that excitement that comes with Independence Day or any festival for that matter!

Little Prapti, dancing around in excitement, reminded me of what I have forgotten, how much I have left behind!

Celebrating being a woman

A beautiful rain-washed August morning! Perfect day to usher in festivities with Teej.

Teej, a festival popularly celebrated in Nepal and across various states of North India, by married women for the well-being of their husband and by girls’ seeking a ‘good’ husband, is often scoffed upon by feminists. I didn’t have much regard for the festival either, till I delved deeper into the stories and the legends behind Teej.

The festival of Teej is dedicated to Goddess Parvati and her union with Lord Shiva. Legend has it, Parvati went through severe penance and 108 births before she could be united with Lord Shiva. Since Shiv Parvati are considered to be the ideal celestial couple, it was deemed perfect for women to pray for their husbands and marital bliss on that day and for unmarried girls to pray for a husband like Shiva. The narrow patriarchal definition of the festival naturally doesn’t appeal to many modern women. We are certainly not defined by marriage or our husbands or the lack of it.

Let’s look a little deeper. Parvati is no ordinary woman. She is the very manifestation of Shakti, the Mother-Goddess, who was invoked upon by Gods to tame Nataraja – Shiva the destroyer. Their union brought harmony to the universe – the communion of Pratriki, nature and Purusha, god that represents life.  Prakriti, who is responsible for the creation, is by no means part of Purusha. She is the energy, Shakti that even God’s invoke.

Haryali Teej and Hartalika Teej are two popular variants of Teej that welcome monsoon. Women dress up in Green (colour of monsoon, colour of nature) celebrate the festival with song, dance, katha of Shiv Parvati and other rituals. Like most Indian festivals, food, especially sweets like ghewar, gujiya, are an important part of the celebrations. It’s about dressing up, feeling good, singing, dancing and celebrating being a woman.

My Teej, my way

There’s again a very interesting story behind Hartalika Teej – a combination of “harit” and “aalika” meaning “abduction” and “female friend” respectively. Goddess Parvati, incarnated as Goddess Shailaputri, was the daughter of mighty Himalaya who promised her hand in marriage to Lord Vishnu, much against her wishes. When Parvati mentioned her predicament to a female friend, she abducted her and took her to a thick forest, so she could marry the man of her own choice. Again, it’s about celebrating choice!

Teej to me is a festival celebrating womanhood – women as Shakti or Prakriti – nature that nurtures life and creation!

Food trails and many tales: Titillating flavours of Holi!

With inputs from Sanchita Singh Roy

Memory of my dida (dadi) brings back the taste of her signature dishes – toker daal, sheem bichir torkari, kochur shaag, nobody can make these dishes like her. When I visit my didun (nani) I am immediately reminded of her musurir daal, jhiri jhiri aloo bhaja and dhokar dalna. Didun is too old now and doesn’t cook anymore. Sadly, these dishes cooked by others, even my mom, don’t taste the same. There’s some flavour missing, that I can savour only in my memories.

Dadi nani’s signature dishes! They are either no more or too old cook, and we don’t have the time or patience to recreate their culinary magic. Also, our taste buds have evolved, we have been exposed to a whole lot of cuisines and we often choose international cuisine over our own desi khana. Not just food cooked by our grand moms at home, every region of India has a huge array of cuisine that we are unfortunately losing out on – food that is so rooted to our tradition and culture. Each region has so much variety, for instance every district of Bengal has its distinct cooking style and signature dishes. Some of these tastes and flavours are deep rooted in our memories.

We Indians are food lovers, no festival or celebration is complete without a few signature dishes. I will attempt a few posts trying to recreate the taste of our authentic cuisines, both the everyday food that dadi nani used to make and the special dishes cooked during festivals. Since Holi is around the corner, the traditional delicacies served during the festival of colour would be a good place to start.

Basant utsav

HoliHoli is a festival popular across India, especially North India. There are many dimensions to this beautiful festival of colours. It is the festival of spring that celebrates the victory of good over evil. According to Hindu legend, Holi is celebrated to mark the victory of Prahlada, an avatar of Vishnu, over the evil King Hiranyakashipu. Holika Dahan the night before Holi, commemorates this victory.  Festival of love, Holi symbolizes the divine love of Radha Krishna. Lord Krishna, the purna avatar of Vishnu, was known to play with colours with his lady love Radha and many Gopinis in Braj Bhumi (now known as Vrindavan) on this festival. It is this fun, frolic and playfulness associated with the many legends of Lord Krishna colouring his women in many hues of spring and love, that captures the popular imagination.

Food served during this intoxicating festival of colours naturally captures its spirit. Bhang is intrinsic to Holi, bhang wali thandai or bhang pakora add to the headiness. Gujiya, dahi vada and chaat add to the chatpata flavour of frolic. However, not many of us know, that each state has different signature dishes that are made during Holi. In Uttar Pradesh, Holi is incomplete without gujiya, kanji vada and kanji. Malpoya and dahi vada are essential to Holi in Bihar, while in Himachal they definitely make kadi on the day of the festival, besides gujiya and dahi vada.

“Before Holi, ladies from the entire community would get together to make gujiya,” says my friend Sanchita who originally hails from UP. “With my mom, chachi and aunties from the neighbourhood working in tandem, the tedious process of making gujiya seemed so much fun.” Sanchita still makes Gujiya, kanji vada and kanji at home during Holi. Kanji vadaurad or moong dal vadas immersed in tangy mustard flavoured liquid, is a delicacy from UP and Rajasthan. Kanji is a fermented drink served during Holi, made with water, black carrots, beetroot, mustard seeds and hing. They are both tasty and healthy, so you can ahead make them part of Holi or any other festival menu.

Holi foodSharing below Sanchita’s recipes:

Kanji Vada

For Kanji
1/4 cup split mustard seeds (rai na kuria)
1 tbsp black salt (sanchal)
1 1/2 tsp chilli powder
salt to taste
For Vadas (makes 20 Vadas)
2 1/2 cups urad daal, soaked for 4-6 hours and drained (You can add a bit of moong daal if you want)
1 tsp ginger-green chilli paste
1/2 tsp fennel seeds (saunf)
1/4 tsp hing
salt to taste
oil for deep-frying

Method 
For kanji, combine all the ingredients and blend in a mixer to a smooth powder.

Transfer the powder into a deep bowl, add 5 cups of water and mix well. Cover it with a lid and refrigerate for 24 hours.

For vadas
1. Blend dal in a mixer to a coarse paste with ginger-green chilli paste, fennel seeds, asafoetida and salt and mix well. Keep it aside for an hour.

2.Wet your hands, take 1½ tbsp of the dal paste on your palm or on a sheet of wet muslin cloth spread over a bowl, shape into a 25 mm. (1″) diameter circle. Drop it in hot oil and deep-fry on a medium flame till it turns golden brown in colour from all the sides. 2 to 3 vadas can be deep-fried at a time in one batch.

3.Drain on an absorbent paper and soak the deep-fried vadas immediately in a bowlful of like warm salt water for at least 1 hour. Drain and squeeze out all the water by pressing each vada gently between your palms.

4.Place vadas in kanji and refrigerate it. Allow them to soak for at least 1 hour. Serve chilled.

Kanji (Drink)

Glass jars or jugs, Mortar & pestle or Spice grinder, Cheesecloths/muslin, Rubberbands

If you don’t have any of these, wrap the seeds in muslin cloth, place flat on a cutting board and crack them open carefully with a hammer or belan

Ingredients:
1 large beet
2–3 large carrots
1–3 tbsp mustard seeds, pinch of hing, 6–7 cups drinking water

(You can make kanji with just carrot or beet as well. Veggies like cauliflower, shalgum, raddish etc. can be added)

Method

  1. Crush mustard seeds with mortar and pestle
  2. Wash your beet and carrots and dice them into long pieces that will fit the height of your jars.
  3. Fill jars with veggies.
  4. Add crushed mustard seeds, hing and fill jars with water. Cover with cheesecloth/muslin and secure with a rubber band. Let the jar sit in a sunny spot on the counter for at least 2-5 days. Every day, with a dry wooden spoon (or the handle of that spoon), give the mixture a stir.

Once drink tastes zingy/tangy, it’s fermented and ready! Refrigerate it and enjoy the drink. You can add vodka if you want more zing! Enjoy the tangy vegetables as well

 

Happy Diwali, Mitti Ke Diye Wali!

Remember the days when Diwali was about earthen Diyas, making wicks the night before, pouring oil in the Diyas and getting them ready so that they could lit up the dark Diwali night. And of course, rangolis and home-made sweets and simple pathakas like phool jharis, charkis and anars. We would watch from a distance as mom and grand mom would make the wicks and get the Diyas ready. We were allowed to place the Diyas and light them once the sun went down, under the supervision of adults.

I remember lighting the Diyas and watching our house and the entire neighbourhood lit up beautifully the dark Diwali night. As kids our real challenge was trying to guard the flames from the gentle autumn breeze, stoking the wicks and ensuring the Diyas would stay lit as long as possible. Of course, the flames of Diyas lasted only a few hours. They were not as strong or colourful as the artificial lights decorating the buildings and houses during Diwali and other festivities these days, but their flickering flames had a beauty and simplicity that cannot be matched by these artificial lights!

So, let this Diwali be Mitti ke Diye Wali! These days mitti waale Diyas are available in different designs, wicks are readily available in the market, making it much easier to light a Diya. Let’s bring back the charm of those flickering flames and breathe life into the dying profession of pottery!

Making of Diyas & other decorative items: Project Why