April in India is pretty amazing for how many famous birthdays from myth and history fall in it.
There’s Ram Navami, Hanuman Janmotsav and BR Ambedkar’s birthday (he was born on Baisakhi, April 14, 1891), and later on this month is Parshuram Janmotsav and the jayanti or birth anniversary of important medieval saints like Vallabhacharya and Surdas.
There’s Easter (a rebirth) and, by calendar chance, it was also Hazrat Ali’s birthday on Hanuman Janmotsav, which brought back thought of the old syncretic custom of saying both ‘Ya Ali’ and ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’ to get something done well.
Did you notice that I have learned to say Janmotsav instead of Jayanti for Hanuman and Parshuram? There’s a special cultural nuance hidden there that makes charming mytho-sense.
We normally use ‘Jayanti’ for the birth anniversary of an important religious or spiritual figure that passed away. But both Hanuman and Parshuram are believed to be still in our midst and here to stay until the end of time. It’s said that their avatars never left earth, that while Parshuram is lost in deep meditation in an icy Himalayan cave, Hanuman is around as a guardian angel (hence the Hanuman Chalisa ‘safety prayer’). So it’s appropriate, I learned, to say not ‘Jayanti’ but ‘Janmotsav’ or ‘birthday festival’ for their astrological birth anniversaries.
As a matter of course, the month began with the Navratri festival of the super-shaktis. I had to recount them on Ram Navami in an FB live chat-plus-quiz on the Ramayana with India’s quiz king, Siddhartha Basu. I was impressed that a ninth standard schoolboy in Sikkim was one of the bright young quizzers who had many of the answers.
If you went to temples in north India, you’d see the Devis in a beautiful row, all neatly labelled. Conceptually, the Navdurga or Nine Devis tell the story of Parvati, the supreme Shakti. Their names are as evocative as the dainty costumes that vary with the season and the festival: Siddhdhatri, Kushmanda, Brahmacharini, Shailputri, Mahagauri, Chandraghanta, Skandamata, Katyayini and Kaalratri. In this order you can see the Adi Parashakti as the source of all things; the sun-dweller; the story of Sati followed by the story of Parvati, daughter of the mountains; the birth of Kumar, the killing of Mahishasur and of Shumbha-Nishumbha.
So a statue is like a book. It tells us stories. In the old days, cultural literacy meant that you only needed to see an image, be it on paper, cloth, wood, metal or stone, in order to recall at least a dozen stories and decode several moral messages.
Frequent performances by talented kathakars and spiritual discourses at temples kept everyone clued in. Regular people still know many of the stories. Some of us may know what’s happening in America better than our own stories. It’s not the fault of the stories. It’s only that times have changed and we need stories in our voices too, not only in dialect or bhasha.
And a month like April, which brings us so much to celebrate, and a new year, positively cries out for us to reconnect with our cultural heroes.
(The views expressed are personal)