A group of 30 girls gather at a construction site in Vile Parle (East) every evening and take instructions from Shankar Modak, 65, a retired government employee, as they practice forming a human pyramid. Under a dimly-lit halogen lamp and with a wet mat to cushion their fall, these women govindas climb atop one another several times before they finally get it right.
The Gajanan Krida Mandal of Vile Parle is one of 21 women govinda groups in Mumbai that have started practicing for the dahi handi festivities for Gokulashtami next Monday. Since 1996, when the first women govinda group was formed in the city by Kurla’s Gorakhnath Mandal, many women actively participate in the festival.
“We watched the boys from our colony participate and have fun. So, we requested their coach to train us and that’s how it began,” said Rajeshri Bane, 24, a Vile Parle resident, who has been a govinda for five years.
Most groups have a minimum of 40 to a maximum 200 girls from the age of 5 to 60. While majority of the participants are college students and local Kabbadi players, several groups also have school kids and married women.
“Family support is very important,” said Sonali Jadhav, 41, an accountant with an 11-year-old son. Jadhav, who is a member of the Jolly Sports Club govinda group, has never missed the practice sessions from 9pm to 11pm. “I manage to juggle work, family and dahi handi practice,” said Jadhav.
With the prize money for women govinda groups ranging from Rs 15,000 to Rs 1,00,000, most groups visit only those handis which specifically invite them. Also, unlike their male counterparts, the women govindas do not form more than four or five tier pyramids. All women govinda groups unanimously endorse that safety of govindas is more important than competition.
“Keeping the girls safe is our top-most priority. It is very difficult for a young girl to live with injuries,” said Shashikala Kamble from the Sankalp Krida Mandal of Worli.
“We do not favour cut-throat competition like men,” said Shradha Tendulkar of Girgaumcha Raja Mandal. “Instead, we prefer to do different things like going to Kamathipura and breaking handis there. Nobody goes there to celebrate the festival. It is our way of making the women in Kamathipura happy and involving them in the festivities.”
While the women govindas have a great time, they wish the dahi handi organisers were a little more sensitive to their needs. “Lack of toilets is a big problem. Also, most girls cannot wear the ill-fitting T-shirts organisers provide, so the groups end up spending on separate uniforms,” said a woman govinda, who did not wish to be named, as she feared her group would be sidelined.