On a visit to the US recently, singer Kailash Kher heard about a celebration he’d never heard of before. Thanksgiving. What is it, he asked. What do you give thanks for?
“It was funny, but no one seemed to know,” says Kher. “Some people said they give thanks for their family and friends, but beyond that, they really didn’t know. I thought it was strange, and I also thought of us in India. Here, we know why we celebrate what we celebrate. In fact, we have a thousand reasons for celebrating. When it comes to festivals, we are the greatest.”
It’s hard to argue with Kher’s declaration of a festive mera Bharat mahan, especially at this time of year. From September or October (depending on which part of the country you’re in) to January at least, the streets of most cities are lit up for a three to four month-long season of non-stop festivity and celebration – Ganeshutsav, Eid, Navratri, Durga Puja, Dussehra, Diwali, Guru Nanak’s birthday, Christmas, New Year… Not to mention that, since the weather’s nice and cool in a country that’s mostly hot or wet and sometimes both, this is the season to go all out and party, never mind the occasion.
“It’s such a delightful time, this festive period,” says Kher. “From October onwards whole cities sparkle. We have so many religions and so many beliefs, but during festivals, every human being becomes the same. Amir, garib, everyone celebrates the best way they can.”
That’s the real meaning of festivals, explains Pushpesh Pant, professor in diplomatic studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. "They break the monotony of life," he says. "I may be a very poor man, living hand to mouth, but when Diwali comes, when Eid comes, when Christmas comes, I have an excuse to splurge."
Though markets and bazaars belie this, such splurging is actually less about shopping per se (though there’s no denying that that can be great fun too) than it is about releasing yourself from the day-to-day discipline of the months before the festival and the months that will come after it.
You rush around like a maniac, elbowing your way through crowded malls and bazaars, buying clothes, sweets and gifts for yourself, your family, your friends. You turn your house inside out, cleaning it, painting it, doing it up and ensuring it looks fresh, neat and beautiful enough to welcome goddesses, gods and guests. You do a quick run-through of your cultural and family traditions to make sure you’re still rooted in your community (highly necessary in these days of urban and nuclear family living). And – just as important – you catch up with members of your extended family and with friends you possibly haven’t seen since, well, the last festival.
Most festivals, even if they’re religious in origin, mark the cycle of the seasons. In a primarily agricultural country like ours, festivals have come up to mark the break between the harvesting of one set of crops and the planting of the next.
“Festivals revive the spirit,” explains Prof Pant. “Times have always been very hard for most people, so festivals have always been dutifully marked. By the time you’ve saved a little, it’s time to celebrate.”
Festivals are also ways to mark the progress we’ve made since we celebrated the last festival, says mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, author of The Book of Ram and Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata. “They are a way of both looking back and looking forward,” he says. “In any cultural concept, you have to mark the passage of time. And that applies to secular festivals as well – festivals like Independence Day and Republic Day, which are the days when we look back to the freedom struggle, look at what we’ve become now and look forward to what we can become.”
Roots of the matter
We have to admit it. When we celebrate, we really celebrate. We give it 110 per cent. That’s because, in a country like ours where the sexes tend to be separated, festivals are socially sanctioned parties.
“Except for the purely religious ones, there’s always life, frolic, food and dance in festivals,” says Prof Pant. “And that swings your emotional behaviour.”
Holi, for instance, is a sort of Bacchanalia inspired by spring – all the regeneration around you can actually arouse your senses. If that feeling is repressed, it can turn negative. So there you are – one day of the season is devoted to wild sensuality. Having let all that out, you quietly return to your work and everyday life, pretty much at peace.
Other festivals achieve somewhat different purposes. Since family and community controls are loosened a little, in many cases, public festivals become situations where boy can meet girl – and, more significantly, girl’s parents can meet boy’s parents to discuss whether a match should be made. No one can deny that that’s what happens at Navratri and Durga Puja celebrations – everyone’s all dressed up, everyone’s looking their most demure and traditional, and everyone’s checking out potential partners (or rather, in these more independent times for the young, everyone’s parents are optimistically checking out possible partners for their offspring).
But even as controls are loosened, traditions are maintained. Given that more and more of us live in cities these days and have very little contact (if not actually zero contact) with village and community roots, festivals give us a chance to reconnect with our cultures.
“Many generations of the family come together and we connect with our culture and our past. That’s what I like best about festivals,” says Amish, author of The Immortals of Meluha. “In my family, there are some rituals we do not like, so we don’t do them, but if it weren’t for festivals, younger generations of a family would probably not know the prayers or what to say.”
Mummy, Papa and all
That’s why TV actress Rakshanda Khan is so keen on festivals. Aside from the fact that they’re filled with music, fun and food, they’re also a chance for her to meet the older members of her family.
“Eid is usually a working day for me, but I make it a point to spend the morning at home, because that’s when I get to meet all the elders and make merry with Eidi,” says Khan. “When I was a child, Eid always meant biryani, sheerkorma and Eidi. But today it signifies a day that I look forward to all year because it’s when I meet all my loved ones – people we tend to forget because of the pressure of time.”
Khan is correct. For all the frenetic pace of festivals – and sometimes, they can become manic indeed – one thing they give you is time. Time for the side of your life that the pressure of work puts the most pressure on – yourself and your family.
That’s because festivals mean holidays. Schools and colleges are closed, the kids are at home, and though offices seldom close for longer than a day (if that), festive times are, for many of us, the time to travel. Either we’re leaving our homes to go home (to parents and extended family), or we’re leaving our homes and our everyday lives to go elsewhere on holiday (with our families). And this little fact can put a smile on the faces of even the most jaded of us – people who claim to hate festivals and all that’s connected with them. Because of the chance to travel, even the people who complain about incessant traffic jams, non-stop noise and over-crowded shopping areas, love festivals.
Ultimately, though, says Prof Pant, we don’t really need festivals. “If you ask me, you don’t have to wait for a festival to celebrate life,” he says. “Life should be celebrated every day, just as we celebrate festivals.”
Imagine cities that sparkle all year round…