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§ September 26th, 2008 § Filed under Life, Travel, Uncategorized § 3 Comments

Two posts in a week! Truth be told, I should have posted about this year’s Ganpati festival before my jewelpron, because the festival already came and went a couple of weeks ago. What can I say, the post on earrings took precedence, and as a lover of good things, may the portly deity forgive me!


This is the first year I am in Pune for the Ganpati festival in a decade. Neighbourhood groups or mandals host the god, who visits annually for ten days during the Hindu month of Bhadrapad, in elaborate themed decorations, around which revolve a lot of cultural activities. At the end of his visit he is immersed in water, after he has promised to visit again next year. A big part of enjoying the festival is to wander around the city at night, seeing all these themes brightly lit up. The festival itself began in the 1890s as a means of bringing anti-colonial politics into the public sphere, and these themes have always been explicitly political – about history, contemporary politics, social reform, etc.


In this past decade, a lot of my research has involved examining how this region’s (Maharashtra’s) past is invoked in the public sphere – festivals like this one included. This particular installation commemorates the escape of Shivaji, Maharashtra’s most famous king and founder of its independent state in the 17th century, from the clutches of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb at Agra. Shivaji too got a festival for himself in the 1890s, but it’s really during the Ganpati decorations that a lot of the history of his times and its meanings are commemorated. A good deal of this historical imagery has very sharp Hindu nationalist overtones.


The festival, with its social history, has been in my consciousness mainly as an object of analysis, a thing. We also don’t properly celebrate it at home any more because of a death in our immediate family during the festival some years ago. Plus, all everyone does nowadays is complain – with justification – about how the loudspeakers and traffic and piped devotional music during these ten days are straight from hell. Remover of Obstacles Ganpati might be, but his annual sojourn spells chaos in the city. So I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it.

But after a long time, my mum wanted to go check out some of the historic Ganpatis in the area where she grew up, so I went with her. These historic ones are called “Maanache Ganpati” – especially respected idols that have pride of place in the city’s public immersion procession. (The term “maanache ganpati” is also colloquially used to refer to high-maintenance people, usually fussy sons-in-law!). Here is Kasba Ganpati, with pride of place # 1, in one of the 18th c. neighbourhoods:


Next is Tambdi Jogeshwari, # 2. This year, they featured women priests for all their rituals. Women priests are quite the thing now in Pune – a soft reformist move that has become very popular. Lots of institutes train women to take up historically male ritual tasks and become professional priests – some, I gather, are also open to women from all castes.


Women’s participation in this public festival is actually something worthy of more scholarly attention. On the one hand, as a classic public arena, it is heavily male, with female participation disciplined along national/familial lines. Personal safety, especially in the insane crowds at night, is always an issue, so “mandal hopping” or dancing crazily in the streets to the heady and insistent drumming during immersion, however tempting, is not always an option for women.

But of late, women’s participation seems to have swelled – not only through these priests, but through enormous public ritual chants before popular Ganpati idols that attract them in the thousands. It is tempting to immediately bracket this upsurge as part of the religious right’s reformist mobilisation of women for a very reactionary politics. But there seems to be, at least through an anecdotal glance, a wide variety of class and caste or even political backgrounds among the women who participate in this public devotion – certainly worth investigating the nuances of this “politics of piety.”


This one, above, is the Guruji Talim Mandal’s Ganpati, # 3. This one, also of 1890s vintage, was explicitly conceived as, and continues to be, a space where Hindu and Muslim folk from the city could participate in the public celebrations together, as a counter to some of the other more exclusivist and majoritarian ones. We wandered around some others that were open during the day. Directly below is the Dagdushet Ganpati, possibly the most popular one in the city, followed by the Mandai Ganpati (in the main vegetable market of the city), and a few random others that had nice installations.






My personal favourite is the Tulshibag Ganpati (the very first photo in this post), which sits amidst the oldest and best trinkets, crafts, cosmetics, undies, crockery and what-have-you market of the city. A place I adore. They had a beautiful installation about the temptation of the austere and angry sage Vishwamitra by the heavenly siren Menaka.


Much remains depressingly the same, especially the simplistic nationalism, now of course combined with a new flexing of consumerist and globalised aspirations. The scale of things has changed. Some big urban manDals are corporatised, their turnover running into millions. TV channels hook up with popular manDaLs to transmit their rituals, mobile phone companies issue fresh Ganpati devotional ringtones and a whole host of bad singers do brisk business selling off-key devotional CDs. I can’t tell if the overt religiosity on display is recent, or whether I just wasn’t that observant back then and more focused on the food and floats.


And yet, the public platform is not as politically homogeneous; the festival’s decentralized, neighbourhood format continues to allow irruptions of these large, bombastic, chauvinistic celebrations. Environmental themes seemed to be popular this year – there was a big drive to make soluble clay idols rather than harmful plaster-of-paris ones, the nirmalya (ritual detritus) was aggressively collected for disposal in large pots on bridges rather than people throwing them randomly into the river. Lots of installations about female foeticide, farmers’ suicides in eastern Maharashtra due to severe debt and agricultural decline, environmental awareness… it was most interesting to follow it in the papers and on TV. The ones we saw were mostly on mythical tales and religious themes, and it’s a pity I didn’t get to photograph these more interesting ones, some of which were in fairly far-flung places. But still, it was fun walking the crowded lanes – and down memory lane – with my mother, who hitched up her sari and biked all over the old town as a teenager many decades ago.

Ah well. When Ganpati comes back next year. Or when I do!


§ September 22nd, 2008 § Filed under Other crafts § 18 Comments

What’s that wrapped in shiny pink gauze?


On a recent trip to Delhi, a dear friend took me jewellery shopping. I am not a big fan of traditional desi gold jewellery, both for all the nauseating cultural importance it has in our society and for how literally hideous and excessive it can be. Like many Indian women of my class and generation, I have accumulated a lot over the years through various ceremonies, but have stubbornly resisted wearing it on a regular basis. I do confess to a severe weakness for earrings. But why go for gaudy gold, I say, when there is such superb, oxidised silver around?



I had long eyed the lovely jhumkas dangling on my friend’s ears over the years, and she finally consented to take me to this secret, favourite shop of hers, where she watched horrified as I went totally overboard and mopped up a good deal of it. Maybe it was the blistering, unforgiving September heat in Delhi, or our being rattled after the serial bomb blasts the evening before, but I got inordinately, obscenely fascinated by these earrings.


Before I knew it, I was practising my macro photography turning the lens love on them – for what’s a blogger to do if not to photograph something and upload it? I’m neither knitting nor cooking much these days – so here’s some stone-metal-pron instead, a few select pieces from the stuff I bought. I wish I’d taken my camera to the shop to snap the artisans deftly matching stone to pattern right in front of me. They are able to personalise your chosen pattern to a wide range of stones, and their intricate artwork is stunning.



Now I have a dreadful task ahead of me. This afternoon I have to give a few of these to my sister. She’s more fond of gold than I am – maybe she’ll just snort at these trinkets and say she doesn’t want any, you think (she asked, hopefully)?


What’s that you said about where I bought them? Alas, my friend (wisely, as it turned out) blindfolded me before taking me there. So excessive and proprietorial, I tell you! But, then again, maybe it was for the best…


§ September 3rd, 2008 § Filed under Life, Travel § 33 Comments

Hi there! Recognize me?


This is standard issue traffic-head-gear for Pune’s women two-wheeler drivers, a result of the horrible vehicular and dust pollution in this madly expanding city. I used to madly criss-cross it on a scooty when I was in college, and I still take my father’s Kinetic Honda out occasionally, but don’t really enjoy it any more. I still love the city to distraction, but its traffic drives me insane, especially one thing about it. My friends who live here rib me about my “NRI meltdowns” (expat inability to handle rough local conditions), but with honking traffic it’s different. I always hated it, still do, and will never get used to someone blaring away behind me.

It is an old cliche that cows roam India’s streets. But the bovine irritants are nothing compared to the human ones. These too, incidentally, are distinguishable by their horns. The horn is the Indian road warrior’s most important weapon. With a loud horn, you don’t have to stop and look at crossings, you can just charge into them, finger pressed. You don’t have to glance into the rear-view mirror, but just honk as you change lanes, or honk back at the guy who just did the same and cut you off. Naturally, as horns grow more ubiquitous, nobody pays them any heed. So they get louder and louder, multi-toned and customisable, to frighten the life out of you, if not deafen you outright. The horn is not to warn about danger, or to signal extreme irritation. It is to doggedly get ahead in traffic, and, therefore, indispensable.

In true academic fashion, I shall attempt a typology of horns I hear everyday, in the hope that abstracting something into an object of study might render it tolerable.


1. The Bully I: Persistent, short bursts of two honks, usually in a volley of about fifty. A well-dressed man in a large SUV or shiny new car (like the blue one above, right behind the fruit-cart), angry that while the extra money spent has got him more room for his arse inside the vehicle, it has not translated into more room in traffic. Pissed off at the roadblocks around him, he hopes his horn will make them vanish.


2. The Bully II: Same as above, but louder and more imaginative and multi-toned. Usually on a shiny motorcycle. Often customised and enhanced to suit the young driver’s belief that he is immortal, and the road is for him to weave in and out of as he pleases and terrorise other drivers out of his way. This species is easily the worst scourge on the roads.


3. Perpetual Amazement: Random bursts of indiscriminate honking. Sub-species of aforementioned scourge. Usually male on motorcycle, often with something female and squealy hugging its back, just so thrilled that something large and powerful is throbbing between legs and carrying them forward. Look at me! Look at me!! I am so cool!!! Tran-tran-tran!!!! Shall I scare you by getting too close at high speed? Yayy!! Tran tran tran!! Nowadays, with increasing regularity, this species jumps red lights with impunity, disengaging from waiting traffic at the signal like loose boulders from a cliff and scaring the daylights out of those who have right of way. Guess what those guys do in anticipation of these lunatics? Yup – they honk pre-emptively.

Some of these guys now work while they drive – ie, they talk on the mobile phone, even as they are about to plunge into an already chaotic intersection:


4. Scared: Tentative, but very regular bleat, with touch of desperation. Mild-mannered drivers fresh out of the local driving school and terrified of species # 2 and #3. They rely on the horn every time they even see someone in their entire visual range. OMG, OMG, I hope I don’t hit him, they say, eyes firmly in front of them and honk in the hope that this will make everyone else jump out of their way. Car drivers who keep their side mirrors closed because someone can hit and break them use this horn, but so do the smaller two-wheeler ones terrified of the bullies. This terror, however, doesn’t stop these lambs from honking their way through red lights.


5. The Merger: Loud and authoritative, five-six longish sounds. This one is a beauty, and it is amazing that more people don’t die on the roads everyday because of it. It signals a two-wheeler driver merging into a main thoroughfare at full speed – like an arc of vigorous and long-shackled urine. Glance back at the flow of traffic before merging – whatever for? Are you deaf? What’s that about police regulating traffic? Pune’s finest, as always, are busy earning a hard day’s work -


6. Leap of Faith: Continuous, desperate bleating. Usually in snarls and gridlocks, when it becomes absolutely clear that nobody can move in any direction. That’s when the desperate driver thinks that full-weight-of-body-on-horn, amidst all the other cacophony, is miraculously going to air-lift him out of there and into his office on time. He is not upset or anything; he is genuinely puzzled when you tap on the window and ask him what’s the point. Whattodo, he will say. Have to do something, no?

7. Matter-of-fact: Short, functional beep.Used by highway bus and truck drivers to say “can I overtake?” or “I’m about to overtake you” as a courtesy on single lane highways. The guy in front, or his co-rider then waves you on. The old custom underlying the immortal phrase painted on to innumerable trucks on Indian highways – Horn OK Please. Nowadays, though, these large vehicles don’t trust your ears and install electric horns. Just in case. So you’ll jump out of your skin in fear and right off the road. Mild exposure to these ensures that if you do have any hearing, it won’t be for long.

Today is Ganesh Chaturthi, the big festival when we welcome the deity Ganpati into our homes for his ten-day annual visit, bringing good cheer and banishing obstacles and evil. Given the decibel at which we welcome our gods, or call the faithful to prayer, with deafening loudspeakers everywhere, I doubt he can hear very well any more. But if he could, it would be wonderful if he could silence horns and loudspeakers, and bring everyone some earplugs instead of good cheer, before we all go wholly and comprehensively deaf.