Hari Potter

Magic creeps up on you slowly as you walk through the village near Madurai called Vilachery. People who asked us to visit this place told us that it was a potter’s village. Initially that conjured up images of potter’s wheels, and ranks of pots and jugs. Then, slowly, as I began to realize that Tamil visual culture is steeped in clay images, a vague other image started taking shape in my mind. Sathiamoorthy parked the car in a widening of the dirt road through the village, and we started walking. The first indication that something sparkled in the air was the door in the featured photo. Headless angels and a madonna with a hidden face? “The game is afoot,” I told The Family.

I need not have bothered. She’d already found a workshop behind blue doors. “Who’s next?”, she asked. We peered through the door. Nobody was home. The whole row of houses here had workshops attached to them. We walked on, peering at courtyards piled with large and small statues. In a very real sense, this was the heart of Tamil culture, at least its visual expression. I was glad we had decided to come here.

In another lane in the village we came to the workshops of those who use clay. In a little opening around which two of these workshops clustered, we found a smoking heap of straw. In the straw were many different kinds of figurines, but several of each type. Again, economics dictated that multiple copies of each be made.

This row of workshops seemed to specialize in moulded plaster. I guess the ability to make many copies with molds is way to make a steady income. I peered into a workshop and saw a whole battalion of the figures that you see in the photo above. A woman sat near them and was hand-painting them one by one. She had several day’s worth of work ahead of her, I guessed.

I looked through an open door and found a workshop of a slightly different kind. Two large Ganesh sat here. They were clearly individually crafted, since their postures were slightly different. The master spoke only Tamil, but with Sathiamoorthy as an interlocutor I figured that a framework is built first in bamboo and straw, and then clay is applied over it. Similar techniques are in use everywhere in India.

This was a two storied house. I’d assumed that the ground floor was the workshop and the upper floor was where the master and his family lived. As I wandered past the blue Ganesh, I saw the marvelous sight which you can see in the photo above: a large clay statue of Ganesh in a kitchen. Where is the mouse, I wondered. Has it wandered off into the kitchen?

Even though the master worked on such large pieces (individually commissioned) the workshop did not disdain the plaster figures that others made. In one corner of the workshop there was a company of figures, made up of small platoons of several different kinds. The history of globalization since the 16th century can be seen in these figures: they bring together influences from India, Europe and China.

First stop in Tirthan Valley

Instead of going through the tunnel to Aut, we crossed the Beas at the Larji barrage, and turned into the valley of the river Tirthan. The traffic eased off instantly. We passed a point where the road was under repair, and decided to stop for tea. There was little roadside shop. As is usual in these parts, behind the shop front was a terrace where you could sit, and below that, tucked into the slope, was the owner’s house, looking towards the river. From the terrace I saw some butterflies hovering around fruits on a parapet at a lower level. When I climbed down the butterflies were gone, but the peaches remained. Two beetles and many ants were busy eating the peach. This looked like a holiday where I would meet many unknown insects; I was happy.

I could see more interesting things at this level. The peaches were placed near a little shrine made out of a shiny cloth draped over a curtain rod and weighed down by stone idols. I could not recognize the idol. I found later that stone craft in this region is still is alive, and people carve local deities for use in homes. This could have been such a piece. The silvery idol of Durga on her lion seemed to be a mass-market piece made in a distant workshop. The niche and the shrine had an aesthetic which I’d not seen in a temple in the plains. This looked closer to Himalayan Buddhist sensibilities. Perhaps they have a common origin.

I turned around and saw an idol of Ganesha tacked up on a tree. Ganesha comes in a variety of forms; in the last couple of decades I’ve seen a lot of experimentation with the form of this idol. This one seemed to be quite mainstream, except for the belly. What was more unexpected was the XXL sign stuck on the same tree above the idol. I looked around to see whether there was any explanation for this. If there was, it did not leap out at me.

I climbed a set of stairs back up to the road, and I noticed another object which was completely unfamiliar to me. A tree by the road, next to the shop, had been turned into some kind of a shrine. The red cloth and the garlands are typically seen at religious spots. But what were the other things doing there: hub caps, locks, a hammer and a jack do not usually go together with religious flags. There was something deeply different here. I found later that every village has a traditional diety, and its own special festival. Spiritual beliefs in these isolated villages are different from the mainstream. I never got to ask questions here and find any answers. I suppose The Family would tell me “Another reason to go back.”

That time of the year, again

It is the middle of an unusually dry monsoon in Mumbai. But when it rains it seems the traffic becomes even worse. Stuck in traffic last week I edged past the obstruction and noticed at the last minute what it was. As the featured photo shows, a huge image of Ganesha was being transported, wrapped up in plastic sheets to protect it from rain.

Gauri-ganesha visarjanNow the roads are full of images being taken from home to be immersed in the sea. A speciality of the Ganesha festival is that different people keep it for different durations: starting from a day up to eleven days. Over the years the management of traffic during the festival has improved. This year seems to be the best in recent memory. There were little slowdowns as we passed groups of people like the one shown here, but no blocks at all. This one was large, so it was clearly something a neighbourhood had got together for. The crowd with it was also of a corresponding magnitude.

Two thirds of the year are over. The eleven days of Ganesha will be followed by the festival of Durga, and then Diwali. Before you know it, December will be on us. January seems just like yesterday. Did the year really pass by?

The one who removes obstacles

The end of the monsoon brings the season of festivals across India. Everything always begins with the god who removes obstacles: Ganesha or Ganapati. This is probably Mumbai’s biggest festival. Many homes have their little idol, and then there are the huge idols which bring together whole neighbourhoods. Hindu rituals involve an invocation which imbues an idol with the spirit of a god. After the spirit departs, the idol is immersed in water. For the Ganapati, this may happen after a day, three days, five days, or ten days, according to the ritual used. If you stand by the designated spots where idol immersion is allowed, you get a sense of how many Mumbai holds.

A large idol of Ganapati waiting to be immersed

I walked up to the immersion point in Colaba on Saturday. Colaba is a small place, with a population roughly the same as of Paris, and the number of idols brought for immersion on an odd day is not large. Even so, these used to cause traffic jams in the neighbourhood a decade back. Over the last few years police arrangements have become much better. Traffic flows smoothly, if a little slowly, and the crowd which gather to watch the immersion is kept under control (see the featured photo). I slipped past a waiting ambulance, and walked through an outer cordon of police. With my camera in hand, I was inspected, and found to be harmless. I could walk past the police and take up position just inside the police cordon, before the line of lifeguards. I was told not to obstruct anyone.

A family's ganapati idol is taken for immersion

This was a good point to watch the proceedings from. On a day like this no one spares attention to the fact that this is the ramp where terrorists came ashore eight years ago and launched a concerted series of attacks across the city. Now the area is full of Ganapati idols, big (photo on top) and small. The big idols take up much space in the public imagination. Even here they are surrounded by crowds. Children especially, seem to be mesmerized by these large idols. I prefer the small ones, the ones which belong to a single family.

A family returns after immersing their idol in the sea

The police let in two or three men from the family with each idol. The women, children, and other men, if there are any, stay at the police cordon. Often the men forget some ritual item or the other, and the group left behind pleads with the police to hand it to them. The idol is not thrown into the sea. People walk with it into the water and, when it is deep enough, just let it go. The idol sinks into the sea. I took a few shots of people coming back from the sea after the immersion (see photo above). There is a little emptiness about them. The excitement of the previous few days has been washed away.

Later there will be a muted attempt to clean up the sea. The baked mud of the idols will sink into the bottom of the waters and eventually be pulverized. Some of the plastic and wood used in the frame and decoration will be thrown back by the waves. This will be collected into huge heaps which will be removed to landfills. Next year the idols will come again, but hopefully with less plastic around it.