Celebrating the margins

At the edges of festivals I find interesting human stories, the sort that I like to capture in photos. The last couple of years have not exactly been productive times for street photography, so I’ve rescued some photos from the dark depths of a hard disk. The featured photo is from the end of the Ganapati festival. Families from a fishing village gather at the shore of the sea to watch large images of the god being brought for immersion in the waters at the end of the festival. The children had created a viewing platform to watch from. I backed up against the crowd-control barrier at the edge of the sea to take this photo.

Around every religious place you find commerce in the necessities. Outside a Durga puja, I found this young man trying to sell flowers to visitors. I hung around across the road, sensing that a teenager at a repetative job would give me a good shot at some point. It wasn’t long before he started showing signs of boredom. I got my shot.

There are families who hop from one Durga puja to another, eating dinner at food stalls around them. I like to hang around these stalls, and not only because I like a snack. You can see interesting stories build and resolve at food stalls and the nearby tables. Festivals are times when families eat much more than they would normally do. Late one night I found this sleepy child apparently abandoned by his family at a table piled with the remnants of a feast on the go. The father came back soon with another fizzy drink for the child.

Diwali is a private time, spent with families. It doesn’t give you too many opportunities for a camera roving the streets. Instead I spend time at the pre-Diwali markets. Families are out buying lights and decorations for the home. The strange forms of these long stems of artificial lotuses created an interesting forest for shoppers looking for something new and different, and salesmen trying to convince them that they have found exactly what they are looking for.

The six seasons: 4

Sharad follows varsha. Sharad is often translated as autumn, but this is incorrect. It is still astronomical summer in the northern hemisphere when the season starts; the sun has yet to cross the equator on its southward trend. This is what the British called Indian summer. It is an uncomfortable time, since the monsoon has left the air full of moisture, and the weather warms up again. At this time the weather in the Himalayas is turbulent, there are dramatic cloudbursts and floods, and passes are closed. But also this is a time when nature reawakens in the plains, with warmth and water in plenty. On the coast the monsoon storms have passed, the time of the spawning of sea life is over, and traditional fishermen take their nets out to sea in newly painted boats. The featured photo was taken in Goa.

On land, I would scour the countryside in this season with my camera for wildflowers and insects. This photo of a chocolate pansy butterfly (Junonia iphita) was taken in the comfort of a garden. Even here photographing insects involved keeping a steady hand on the camera if a mosquito bit it just as you were about to release the shutter. When you look around you, it is clear that sharad is not autumn. Nature is bursting into renewed life. The fruits of this season are specially sweet and flavourful, the late medieval imports of chikoo (Manilkara zapota, also called sapodilla, or sapota), sitaphal (Annona squamosa, known elsewhere as sugar apple), and Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana, which has no local name although it is so widespread). I love these fruits just by themselves, or in jams and ice creams, or in rum based drinks.

But most of all, this is the season of festivals. It starts with the Ganapati festival, and culminates with the Navaratri, or Durga puja. There is an almost continuous stream of festivals from Ganapati to Christmas. It is a part of the year when your resolve is badly needed. The weather is uncomfortable, and you are tempted to forgo the daily exercise that had almost come to a halt in varsha. And now there’s the tempting food, from the wonderful fresh catch of pomfret (Bramidae, also called pamplet or paplet) to the special sweets of the many festivals. Everything conspires to force you to put on weight. It’s the season to be careful.

Durga Puja

We are past the middle of the season of festivals now. Ganesha showed the way at the end of the monsoon. Now Durga is gone for the year. This season is the Indian summer, the muggy period which sets in after the end of the monsoon. The season will end in another couple of weeks, when Diwali swings around again, and signals the beginning of the winter.

I took the featured photo at a puja in Powai. I love the sight of people taking selfies in front of the idol. The Family’s Instagram stream was full of such photos.

Fire and smoke

One of the biggest festivals of India is the Durga Puja. One part of the festivities is a dance to the goddess performed with live coals in earthen pots. There was a time when only men were allowed to perform this. The times are changing. At least in one place in Mumbai this year the only dancers were women.

Behind the scenes

This is a season of festivals in India. It started with Ganapati a couple of weeks back. Now the festival of Durga just got over. In one form or another Durga’s is a pan-Indian festival. A few more smaller festivals, and the season will end with Diwali. The Bengali version of Durga puja is a grand party. Like all grand events, it requires many hands to make sure it goes off satisfactorily. Drums and drummers are an important part of the ceremonies. The featured photo shows a couple of drummers waiting for their cue.

Durga puja food

Food is a large part of a festival. Crowds which come to see the puja and the associated amateur singing and plays stay on to eat. The crew in the photo above are making the rolls and wraps which are an important part of the meal.

Durga puja toys

Cheap little toys have been associated with these festivals for as long as I can remember. I used to beg uncles and aunts to buy me tops at such places when I was a pre-school child. I wonder if children still want these things. You see little families hawking them late into the night, so there must be buyers.

Durga puja ride

Fairground rides have become popular over the last decade or so. It must have become easier to hire out or assemble some of these rides. This one was waiting for customers even after midnight.

Durga puja balloons

You see sleepy children drifting in the wake of their parents at these pujas till the early hours of the morning. This balloon seller hopes to snare the attention of a few who are awake enough to buy one.


After Ganesha clears the way, other gods and goddesses arrive. Perhaps the biggest festival across the country are the ten days of Durga. This female aspect of power is also associated with the legendary king Rama and his war against Rakshasas. The only exception to this countrywide celebration used to be Maharashtra. Not any more, since the churn of populations which is now more than a century old brought the north Indian Ramlila, the southern Dusshera, and the Durga puja of the east to Mumbai. The weekend was a good time to join the huge crowds at these pujas.

Durga idol in the Bengali style

The largest Durga icons in Mumbai are in the Bengali style. Durga in the center, on her lion, killing a demon who has emerged from its form as a water buffalo, flanked by the quartet of Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartikeya (from left to right). One of the interesting customs that the Bengali puja has is that of the banana tree as a deity: visible in the photo above to the left of Ganesha. The tree is covered in a sari, and most Bengalis interpret this as Ganesha’s wife. There is an older, and now almost forgotten, interpretation of this as symbolizing the power of Durga in the growth of plants. A trace of this is left in the ritual that the banana tree has to be decorated with other plants.

A spectacular tradition in the puja is the dance with censers.Playiing with fire: dhunoochi naach As you can see clearly in the featured photo, the censers used are vessels with open mouths. So there is an element of danger here, requiring skill. The dance used to be performed by the traditional male drummers. The featured photo shows one of them. Now it is not uncommon for others to perform this dance: see the photo alongside.

But the one thing that makes the Bengali puja accessible to everyone is that there is always more going on. The puja is part of a fair in which food stalls are prominent.Egg rolls being made in a Durga puja You can stand in the crowd around them (the stalls have inefficient service, so you do stand around a lot) and overhear comparisons with the food at other pujas. There is costume jewellery, clothes, sometimes even books on sale. I saw a placements agency doing walk-in interviews at one of these fairs. There is amateur music and theatre at most fairs. We listened to a rock quartet doing a very good medley of classic rock as well as Bollywood (the lead guitarist broke my niece’s heart). At other places the music is very professional, with very well-known names performing. If you don’t mind crowds then you can have a good time at these fairs.

The festival season

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After the end of the monsoon till the beginning of winter, the time that would be called autumn in the north temperate part of the globe, is the time of festivals in India. In Mumbai the season opens with Ganapati. In most of the rest of the country it is Navaratri, or Durga Puja, which is the beginning of the series of festivals which end with Diwali.

I took the photo above in one of Mumbai’s famous Durga Pujas. It is organized every year by a family which is closely connected with movies. The Mukherjee clan was established by a film producer who started working with a famous director in the 1940s, before founding his own studio. His family remained in control of the studio he started. His grandchildren include one well-known star and an up-and-coming director. I thought that this place is popular because one can gawk at film stars and other people known for being known. But the person in the foreground is praying, his whole attention on the idol, and not on the celebrities.

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