Mumbai Memoir 18- Eat, Pray & Dance!
For centuries together, Mumbai primarily has been home to natives of Marathi origin, but after Indian independence, people from all over India have migrated and settled here and are proud ‘Mumbai’kars’(citizens of Mumbai). As is the case worldwide, the migrants bring along with them their respective culture, thus creating a sense of adventure among the natives who are open to mingle and receive a cross-cultural experience.
The monotony of the known world can slow down the pace of life and there may come a point when one instinctively decides to backpack and set out on a journey into the unknown. By doing so chances are that one discovers the self in a better way. I see many foreign tourists exploring Mumbai and in the process discovering themselves. On a normal busy day, a tourist won’t be able to notice the diversity of Mumbai’s cultural fabric. But if one visits the city during the Navratri festival, various cultural facts unveil off Mumbai’s face.
The festival of ‘Navratri’ is celebrated in the month of September-October. Navratri literally means ‘nine nights’. The night life of Mumbai comes in full traditional bloom during the festival. Mumbai is tolerant to cultural practices from all directions of India and the best evidence of this fact is seen during ‘Navratri’.
The Navratri festival is celebrated to acknowledge the divinity of Goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. Goddess Parvati is referred as ‘divine feminine energy’ (Shakti) of the universe. According to Hindu mythology, a powerful demon, named ‘Mahishasur’, had to be defeated to restore peace & prosperity on earth and heaven. Goddess Durga, an avatar of Goddess Parvati, thus was born. The Gods empowered Goddess Durga with their respective powers and offered her various weapons to combat the demon. Like a mother passionately set to protect her children from evil forces, for nine days and nine nights Goddess Durga ceaselessly battled with the ruthless demon and finally was victorious in her mission. On the 10th day there was rejoice and celebration in the heavens above, calling the day as ‘Vijaya Dashami’, which means the day of celebrating victory of good over evil.
Abiding to the ancient mythology, modern Mumbai’kars celebrate the nine days and nine nights with traditional fervor. As a Mumbai’kar of Marathi origin I was always fascinated of how people from other Indian states, particularly, Gujrat and West Bengal, have added their respective touch to the celebration of the nine nights.
Inspite of being born and brought up in Mumbai, it was just few years back that I realized certain cultural facts about Mumbai, especially when I stepped out of my own cultural cocoon and explored the unknown in my own city.
During ‘Navratri’, most Mumbai’kars of Gujrati origin resolve to fast by following a strict diet and thus invoke the energy of the mother Goddess Durga in them. A burning oil lamp is kept in a perforated earthen pot called ‘garbo’. The lamp is kept burning throughout the nine days. There is a cosmic symbolism associated to it. It signifies eternal knowledge and the kindling of life at birth. After sunset men and women gather to dance ‘garba’ around the earthern pot on the beats of drums. The circular movement of the dance indicates the life cycle of creation, maintenance and destruction. Garba and Dandiya are traditional dance forms that hail from Gujrat, a state in Western India. Irrespective of their State of origin, energetic Mumbaikar’s attend events that organize these dance gatherings. On this occasion families, friends and well-wishers meet and join in to shake a leg. Here is a link to a Bollywood film song that features the ‘garba’ dance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pww-d4bYQOUhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fysIgn-AZQ
As the dance and music ripens at the gathering, foodies feast on typical Gujrati vegetarian food like ‘dhokla’, ‘khandvi’, ‘Muthiya-nu-shak’, ‘Kadhi-rice’, ‘sabudana wada’ & ‘thepla’.
Besides the Gujrati community, starting from the 6th day of ‘Navratri’, Mumbai’kars of Bengali origin, begin their independent celebrations in various pockets of the city. The Bengalis refer it as ‘Durga Pooja’ (worshiping the power of Goddess Durga). Huge sets hosting statues of Goddess Durga, Goddess Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge), Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth), Lord Ganesh and Lord Kartikeya (children of Goddess Parvati) are installed for people to worship and to make offerings.
The tradition of publicly celebrating Durga Pooja was set in 1910 at Belure monastery (West Bengal), by none other than the world famous Hindu monk, Swami Vivekanand. His main purpose, to institutionalize the worship of the goddess, was to symbolically propagate the message of ‘women empowerment’ among the then masses. Those were the dark days for Indian women, who were treated as second grade citizens by the conservative Hindu society that prevailed during the colonial rule. Following the century- old tradition, Bengali Mumbai’kars continue the legacy of worshipping Goddess Durga for 5 days, starting from ‘shashti’ (6th day of ‘Navratri’). During the five day celebrations, there are various cultural programs organized that involves dance, music, food and community events. I have always enjoyed watching the ‘dhunuchi nach’ (traditional Bengali dance) that’s performed on the beats of the ‘dhak’ (huge drums) at the Bengal Association at Shivaji Park. Here’s a glimpse to the dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIsxXRQBf1c
After initial days of fasting, the Bengalis later feast on non-vegetarian delicacies that are offered at food stalls around the pandals (place displaying the statues). Egg roll and Hilsa fish dishes like ‘ilish paturi, ‘illish macher jhol’ & ‘shorshe ilish’ are relished by even a non-Bengali like me. For dessert, sweet dishes like ‘sandesh’, ‘gaja’ and ‘roshogulla’ give the taste-buds a heavenly experience!
On the 10th day, before the idols are immersed in a water body, married Bengali women apply vermillion on each other’s forehead and cheek. This activity is called ‘Sindoor Khela’, which is a playful way to wish each other prosperity and marital bliss. Here is a glimpse to ‘Sindoor Khela’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56DMB3ZZIh4
As I was returning back from Durga Pooja celebrations this year, I was wondering if Swami Vivekanand’s vision about women empowerment has bore any fruit. As I reflected on this thought, a deep sense of pride dawned on my mind as I thought about all those modern women of India or of Indian origin who have contributed internationally. Indra Nooyi (CEO, Pepsico), Arundati Roy (Writer/Environmentalist), Mary Kom (World Boxing Champion) and the Late.Kalpana Chawla (Astronaut) to name a few. Though there are still more milestones to achieve, but definitely the purpose of establishing certain cultural practices has made a difference to uplift the standards of Indian women, for sure. Besides being a medium for social change, such festivals subtly condition the masses to live a qualitative life.
Fasting and dieting disciplines the mind, and dancing on rhythmic beats tones the body. Thus culture and tradition act as a working model to invoke the required positive energy to face life.
Lastly, as I enjoy the Navratri festivities along with the Gujrati and Bengali community, I feel deep sense of oneness. This is because the festival is a celebration of victory of good over evil, of acknowledging motherhood, of creativity and of saluting the powers of feminine energy. The values thus associated to the festival is not limited to just one community, rather it holds universal meaning which I believe the whole world can relate to, may it be Mumbai or London!
Photo edited by Aditya Chichkar.