The Beautiful Indian
Dussehra is celebrated with much fanfare in India. Chitra Singh ushers the readers to a tiny hamlet in Doon Valley, to take part in the celebrations.
‘Frame your mind to mirth and merriment, which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life’
The sonorous voice of the singer rang out melodiously in the still night, loud and clear, and cast a spell over the listeners. Everyone was huddled in their quilts because the night had suddenly turned chilly, yet every one’s attention was riveted on the make shift stage from which the voice flowed mellifluously and enraptured the receptive gathering. It was as if they were at one with each other. The night had a magical quality about it. Stars glimmered in the clear sky, and a Milky Way swept across in an arc casting a ribbon of light on the distant firmament. The dew hung heavily in the air wrapping everyone in its fold, but the atmosphere was electric. There was anticipation and awe because all eyes were on the stage, totally rapt in the on-going performance of an episode of the Ramayan. It was autumn and the time of year of the ten- day festival of the ‘Ramlila’, which culminated in the celebration of Dussehra.
Due to unforeseen circumstances we had been constrained to stay with relatives in a small hamlet on the outskirts of Dehradun in pursuit of our education, in the early independence era of India. The country was going through a transition, but old ways and customs were so deeply entrenched in the populace, that they still hadn’t been able to emerge from the shackles of serfdom. It had not quite registered on the populace that independence offered whole new opportunities for all to make head way in life. British rule was still deeply ingrained in the psyche of people. Everyone went about their daily business stoically. Poverty did not appear to affect them and they were content in their humble existence.
Yet it was amazing how they rallied together to celebrate a host of occasions with an infectious abandon oblivious of any constraints. Weddings and festivals were a source of great camaraderie and bonhomie. The whole village converged to celebrate with gusto. As small kids the novelty of it all wasn’t wasted on us and we looked forward to these occasions with full enthusiasm, and willed them to happen. In spite of the fact that we were having a full blown ‘Westernized’ education, the joys and pleasures of our own culture were not lost on us and were a source of great pleasure and inspiration. The lack of electricity in the village and a dearth of any form of extraneous stimuli, in no way hindered the villagers from celebrating and merrymaking and engaging in an amazing ‘joie de vivre’. Innovations and talent were abundant, there were all kinds of songs and dances, skill in musical instruments, theatrics, spontaneity, picnics arranged on bullock carts, rustic art, and gourmet cooking. The repertoire was complete.
As soon as Autumn approached, bringing with it a nip in the air, we knew it was time for the annual ‘Ramlila’ performance. However, the showing started only at nightfall, and we knew that would present a problem. With great difficulty we persuaded our uncle to take us for it, after assuring our mother that it would be only for the first half, so that we were not jaded for school the next morning, along with the assurance that we would do full justice to our homework.
The event was held in the village square which was about two hundred metres from our house. It was a clearing of about hundred feet square, with a row of two or three shops on one side which catered to the daily needs of the inhabitants. In front of the shops there was a round platform, with a luxuriant banyan tree at its centre. You could always find two or three villagers lounging under the shade. It was a great meeting point.
Preparations for this annual event started many months prior and were the undertaking of some kind of committee, but for us children, the end result was all that mattered and what our young hearts desired. The stage was erected in the middle of the village square and was decked up with the paraphernalia of curtains, brilliantly painted partitions and screens and a place for the musicians in the front. The grassy land all around it was left bare for people to assemble. In the initial years all stage lighting was by gas lanterns but by 1954 electricity came to the village and a more appropriate lighting system was set up. People sat around on the grassy verge on mats, a few chairs for the elderly were scattered around, while the rear area was taken over by ‘charpoys’ which provided excellent viewing for the families. Not taking chances people brought along blankets and quilts to cover themselves, as the night became progressively chilly. In those days, Dehradun used to become so cold in the winters, that any water left in buckets outside used to freeze over with a thin layer of ice. Most families bought a bag of monkey nuts to munch during the performance and a couple of hawkers did brisk trade, vending them among the assembled crowd. Practically every family of the village was represented there.
The opening bars of the harmonica of the live quartet positioned near the well of the stage, alerted everyone to the commencement of the evening’s entertainment and a hush fell over the audience. So familiar was everyone with of the episodes of the Ramayan, and so well acquainted as to how the chapters were divided into ten equal parts, that everyone knew how the evening’s entertainment would unfold, Tulsidas’s Ramayan is composed in verse form, and a live performance required actors to be proficient both in acting as well as singing, as many of the couplets were sung in melody. A difficult role to fill as the artist had to be indigenous. The coveted roles were vied for and painstakingly cast. Unfailingly the whole ensemble was put together, rehearsals held and the show put on. Without doubt the evening was magical because the quality of singing was pure and powerful and full of soul. The night reverberated with the clear notes as no extraneous sounds interfered or marred the quality of the singing and acting. It was truly a labour of love and deep faith, and while the performance lasted, everyone was transported to a different world. For as long as the character was on stage it was the wilful suspension of disbelief and the character of Ram was perceived as the embodiment of God.
Tucking ourselves deep into our quilt on the charpoy we emoted along with the characters, the bag of monkey nuts quite forgotten. We cried when Ram was banished, gloated with glee when Surpnakha’s nose was sliced, hated Ravana for abducting Sita, marvelled at Jatayu in his bird costume, and were thrilled to bits when Hanuman set Lanka on fire with his tail. Though there were no elaborate sets or lighting, the fervour of the acting was enough for us to revel in the scintillating performances. They were a treasured ten days of unparalleled entertainment.
Though Dassehra was the high point of the village entertainment, other festivities were celebrated with equal enthusiasm. The rainy season brought in welcome relief from the summer sun and ushered in two eagerly awaited festivals. The first was ’Teej’ or the festival of the swings. This added romance to onset of monsoons or the month of ‘’Saawan’, a favourite of every Indian. Teej is celebrated on the third day of the dark fortnight of the lunar month and denotes the union of Shiva and Parvati. It is mainly a festival for ladies, both married and unmarried, and an occasion for great festivity. In the village all women wore festive clothing in bright colours, put henna on their palms, and decked their hands in brightly coloured glass bangles. A swing was put up in practically every house hold, either from a beam on the roof of a veranda or in the branches of a Leechi tree in the compound. Thus decked, the ladies moved in a procession, visiting each household, singing popular ‘geets’ (songs) in gay unison, and swinging on the swings in utter abandon. These festivities were topped up with a wide array of delicacies for the gathering. Each woman competed to show off her culinary skills. Sweet meats were made with the seasonal gourds and caramels were served laced with the dried seeds of melons. The concept of slow cooking was very much prevalent in those times, where a dal simmered over a wood fire for practically twenty-four hours before it was ready to be consumed accompanied by crisp chapattis baked on a coal fire. Move aside the Sheratons of today!!!
Following on its heels Janmashtami or the birth of Lord Krishna held pride of place amongst the celebrations. This festival brought in a note of sobriety, because the women fasted on that day. Yet it was an expression of deep devotion. The women folk of practically every household went about glorifying the Lord in her own signature way. Apart from the prayers and chants it was customary to decorate a tableau or ‘Jhanki’ about the life and times of Lord Krishna. The prayer area was meticulously cleaned and decorated with creative flair. Imagination and artistry ran riot. Silk sarees were used as backdrops. Brilliantly coloured small card board jail houses were made and strategically placed in the tableau. A curving blue river made with dyed flour was artistically shaped. Thick slices of dark green moss were shaved off from the outside walls and laid in profusion to demarcate green fields in which Krishna’s favourite cows grazed. Tiny ones were bought from the village clay artisan; a tribe which is virtually extinct now; who skilfully designed and coloured them for Janmashtami. Small little cardboard or mud huts were arranged to signify a village. Many tableaus had a small cradle for the baby Krishna. We children ran around all day, following our elder cousins bidding, who oversaw the activities.
All in all, these tableaus were a visual delight, and we wandered from home to home in the evening, checking them out. Each one was unique and reflected the personality of the devotee. For the children, a preview of the various ‘prasads’ lovingly made by the ladies of the household, was the most exciting. These comprised ‘panjiri’, flour 'laddoos' and a delectable sweet curd, called ‘Charnamritya’, that was laced with honey, tulsi leaves and ‘chironji’. The fast was broken only at midnight with much fanfare, clanging of bells and the chanting of ‘Bhajans’. Dinner was rounded off with the mandatory sweet dish of mouth -watering ‘makhana’ (fruit of the lotus plant), kheer.
And so it went on. The list was endless. The occasions were infinite. All it required was a willing spirit and a heart that desired.