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Retaining the good from our traditions

Bringing back some of the old and traditional elements into festive celebrations may not be such a bad idea, after all, for enriching modern lifestyles that are increasingly getting dominated by technological sophistication marked by clicking a button for everything from choosing a menu to selecting a bride, says Sakuntala Narasimhan

The second half of the calendar year brings a series of festivals – from Ganesh Chaturthi to Varalakshmi Puja, Dasara, then Deepavali and Christmas, New Year. In the Indian tradition, most festivities  usually have a component of charity – it is customary to feed the poor, organise free food at the local temple or hold rituals that include  free feeding. It used to be customary in villages, also to place an earthen pot of cool drinking water (or sometimes even lassi or buttermilk) at  the entrance (thinnai, or sit-out), to slake the thirst of wayfarers; anyone passing by, could help himself or herself to it.

It was also customary to feed birds and animals – my music teacher would never start eating his lunch till he had placed fistfuls of cooked rice for pigeons and crows at the entrance. If the crows did not come, he would wait before he started on his own lunch. In my marital family, it was never done to polish off the food on one’s plate during meals  (“thodachusaapidathey” meaning don’t polish off the last morsels on your plate in Tamil) – one always had to leave at least a morsel  of food which was then given to the cows (most rural families had cows in their backyards).

Nothing was wasted. Of course, we do not have cows in urban households now, but there are still residents who place a fistful of cooked rice for the birds and squirrels every morning, in their garden or balcony. It is not a superstition, but a habit born of concern for non-human life. Crows and other life forms have a role in the scheme of the universe – crows, for example, are scavengers, and birds help spread seeds of fruit  after they have pecked off the edible portions, for them to germinate again. It is nature’s way of scattering and spreading the seeds for re-growth.

Charity likewise served an important social purpose. Every religious ritual included feeding. Most of those customs have been dumped in the name of ‘modernity’. In fact, even the observance of religious rituals, especially in memory of the deceased, is now given up, especially in urban households.

There is a Sanskrit verse warning that just because something is old, it does not mean it is laudable (or worthless). With social patterns changing, some of our old customs and beliefs are bound to become irrelevant, anomalous or inappropriate. At the same time, just because something is old, it does not mean that it has to be replaced by something modern. Not always. What we need to do is to sift the feasible and appropriate, from the no-longer-appropriate.

Once upon a time, the older generation used to consult a panchangam (almanac) and on certain days of the month, observe a fast (usually once a month, on ekadasi days – the eleventh day of the monthly lunar calendar). The modern medical opinion now is that occasional fasts are healthy. Almost no one observes ekadasi fasting these days. There are proven health benefits.

The daily ritual  of drawing rangoli (kolam, in Tamil, muggu in Telugu) was a custom that brought multiple bonuses — it catered to the creative impulses in housewives, there is even one theory that the powder used (it used to be rice flour) fed the ants (not sure if the modern trend of using some inedible power serves the same purpose now).

I remember my mother drawing, on our doorstep, rangoli designs that were sometimes (especially on festival days) more than six feet in diameter. She would even improvise, adding a peacock or parrot on either side of a geometric design. Then there was bead work, crochet and embroidery, all of which provided outlets for improvisations and outlets for creative expression. Not to mention even dancing like Kummi-kolattam  (group dancing by both children and adults – which reminds me…).

My grandmother was a very conservative, diminutive woman, married at age eight and clad always in a traditional nine yards sari with the pallu drawn decorously across her shoulders. When she was well past sixty, she suddenly sprang up one day while narrating some fable for her grandchildren, and whirled round, clapping her hands and singing a ditty. I can never forget that sight. Yes, theirs was a tradition-bound, conservative lifestyle and routine, but it was not without its share of occasional fun and frolic. 

She was also, I am told, very adept at playing the game of pallaankuzi (played with seashells for counters, and needing sharp and quick calculations to defeat the opponent). Sure, that generation of women never went to clubs and parties for entertainment or diversion, but they had other outlets for diversion to be sure. Kummi, kolattam and pallankuzi are all forgotten today, replaced by table tennis and badminton.

The forms change, but not the underlying rationale. Which is diversion. Each generation found it in a different form. Who knows, some day kummi and kolattam may also become ‘fashionable’ and a craze. Celebrating festivals by eating out or ordering food can never provide the same kind of multi-layered diversions.

I remember how me and my siblings used to fashion Ganapati idols from clay dug up from our garden. It used to be great fun. We put mustard seeds for the eyes, and curved broomsticks for tusks. Today one just buys a Ganapati idol from the market – or better still, clicks on the laptop to order one online. Less effort, true – but also, less fun, surely? Buying a readymade rangoli sticker and pasting it at the doorstep can never be the same as drawing a rangoli design, right

(The writer, based in Bengaluru, was a recipient of the Media Foundation’s Chameli Devi Award for Outstanding Woman Journalist 1983. Her fortnightly columns on gender issues and consumer rights ran in the Deccan Herald for 27 years. She had earlier worked for The Times of India Group in Mumbai.)

July – September 2022