Popular perceptions are funny things, especially in art.. You don’t realise how deeply entrenched they are in your mind till you see something that is different. So much so that it forces you to re-look and re-imagine the perception in a new context. No matter how much of an open mind I keep and think I am aware of internalising popular perceptions, I am surprised every now and then. This blog post is about one such incident.
It had been a regular day — there was nothing special or extraordinary about it. Just one of those ordinary days. As I got off the bus from work that March evening, fond thoughts of spending the evening with some music, popcorn and books accompanied me as I walked home. As I passed the local vegetable market, I saw a large tableau set up by a local organisation, which depictedLord Vishnu reclining on Sheshanag in his characteristic pose.
At first glance, the tableau looked normal and I would have passed it without a second glance if I hadn’t looked at the face. And that’s when I stopped !
I loved travelling by the tube in London as not only did it get me from point A to point B at the shortest possible time, I always delighted in seeing something new or unusual. It was not unusual to see people travelling with their pets, but one day I met two Leonbergers on my way to the university.
20 May 2009: Leonbergers in the London tube
Like most big dogs, they were extremely friendly and only wanted to climb on to my lap ! The only problem was that they were big, really, really big. I spent a happy 20 minutes admiring them and photographing them till my stop came.
I was about 9 when I first experienced the claustrophobia associated with restrictions. We had recently moved to Ahmedabad from Mumbai and were still in the process of settling down in a new city, getting to know our neighbours and expanding our social circle through contacts and extended family members already living in Ahmedabad. One such family we met were the Iyers, who were introduced to us by an uncle of mine.
One Saturday afternoon, the Iyers came visiting. I was listening to Vividh Bharati and singing along with the old Hindi film songs being played when they arrived. The collective looks of disapproval on the faces of the Iyers—Mr. Iyer, Mrs. Iyer and Two Miss Iyers—was enough to make me stop singing mid line.
Mrs. Iyer said, “Please turn off the radio. We do not listen to the corrupting influence of Hindi film music.” Even today, after so many years, I can still hear the stiff, cold voice ordering me to switch off the radio. This opening comment set the tone for the surreal visit that followed.
After, the initial “how nice it is to meet another Tamil family” and “which part of Tamil Nadu are you from” and other similar “pleasantries”, a lesson on the Iyer family’s restrictions philosophy of life began, which can be summarised in one sentence—Tamil culture is the best and anything detrimental to its growth was banned in their household.
A quote that I use quite often is, “Just when I knew the answers to all of life’s questions, they changed the questions”. The reason is, now and then, the quote comes true for me—especially when I am feeling a little smug and contented with life—shaking me out of a self-induced “all iz well” feeling. One such change in life’s questions happened about two years back, on a cold windy day in January. It disturbed me then, and it disturbs me even today, and will probably disturb me for a long time to come.
I was studying in London at that time. Winter break was nearly over and I was waiting for the second semester classes to resume. I was also looking forward to meeting my classmates, especially Erab, who had gone home to occupied Palestine for the winter break. While she was there, Israel had launched an offensive against Gaza, and though Erab was not a resident of Gaza, I was still concerned about her safety and that of her family and friends. Though I had kept in touch with her through emails and text messages, I wanted to see her and reassure myself that she was fine.
Erab returned safely to London and I met her the day classes resumed. As I hugged her with relief and asked after her family and the situation in Palestine, she started crying. She told me that she had received a text message from a colleague in Gaza that morning about the bombing of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society Hospital leading to several casualties. We couldn’t talk any further as the teacher walked in, and we scrambled to take our seats.
After a round of “hiya” and “how was the vacation”, our class of 32 students from 18 different countries settled down to some serious teaching–learning. Or at least tried to. Erab had retreated to a corner of the room and was crying softly. Though this obvious distress did not go unnoticed, neither the teacher nor the other students intervened. The class continued and after a while Erab composed herself. Even after the class got over, no one went up to Erab and asked her what was the matter or how she was. A week passed, then another, and before we knew it our class settled back into the punishing routine of lectures and assignments, normal for a postgraduate programme. Erab never showed her distress in class again, though the situation in Gaza continued to be grim.
I am an occassional, rather than a regular, temple-goer. And when I do go to one, it is to the Sharadamba Temple in Chembur, Mumbai. I like this particular temple because it is quiet, peaceful, and most importantly, very clean—it is a pleasure to walk on the cool granite floors. Another reason I go to this temple is because it is never crowded, except on festival days like Navratri and Mahashivratri, and even then it is never unbearably so.
The Sharadamba Temple is one large hall with the entrance at one end and the Sharadamba deity at the other end. A simple wooden barrier separates the devotees from the sanctum sanctorum. Like in most temples, the men flock on one side of the hall and the women on the other side, though there is no physical barrier to separate the two sexes. The children, of course, keep running between the two sides.
Over the years that I have been going to this temple, I have noticed something very curious at this temple. After the aarti is over, the priest always offers it to the assembled men first, in particular the office bearers/trustees of the temple. Only then does the aarti thali come around to the women’s side. This is the case with the teertham (holy water), the prasad, as well as the flowers.
I wonder about the concept of “faith” sometimes. Faith in a belief, faith in a religion, faith in people, faith in relationships, faith in God… Faith. An abstract, nebulous concept for some; yet, a strong, clear path for others.
My faith in the concept of faith was tested during my recent trip to Pune, when the annual Palkhi Festival of Sant Tukaram and Sant Dnyaneshwar passed through the city on 5-6 July 2010. The palkhi or palanquin of Sant Dnyaneshwar carries his footwear on a silver bullock cart; I am not sure what the palkhi of Sant Tukaram carries.
A group of varkaris singing abhangs (devotional songs) around an idol of Sant Dnyaneshwar
According to the Maharashtra Tourism website, the Palkhi Festival is a 1,000 year old tradition where devotees/pilgrims, known as varkarisaccompany the palkhis on foot to Pandharpur over 22 days in June (the Hindu month of Jyeshta)–July (the Hindu month of Ashada). The Palkhi Festival ends on Ashada Ekadashi.
Thousands of devotees make this annual trip every year. This year, the ToI has estimated that 3 lakh varkaris joined the 2010 Palkhi Festival. On the day the palkhis pass through Pune, roads get blocked, traffic diverted, and schools and colleges declare a holiday.