Festival bonding in the city….Happy Sankranti, Lohri, Pongal! Jan 14, 2012
Festivals in cities have become an interesting phenomenon. Yesterday, we attended a friend’s daughters first Lohri and old-timers got into a discussion about what they did when they were children on Lohri. Akin to what kids in Muslim communities do at Eid and what kids in the US do at Halloween, they reminisced about how they went around the neighborhood asking for money/contributions. People gave whatever they could and the kids had a good time. We realized that many of the finer details about festivals are dying.
At the same time, festivals are being adopted across regional and linguistic barriers. In my colony, the Lohri party was a nice way for everyone to get together, meet and laugh over good food. Whether they were from Punjab or not was beside the point. In schools, especially for the younger kids, festivals have become a great way to talk about diversity, tradition, culture…and generally become a theme for artwork, drama and even hardcore skills training like reading and writing.
Because many Hindu festivals are related to seasonal changes and the agricultural cycle, usually celebrating harvest (Baisakhi, Pongal, Makar sankranti, Onam, Bihu, Lohri, etc), they coincide in many parts of the country, making it a collective celebration in a myriad different ways. Others like Diwali have more significance in one region than others (Diwali is not celebrated as the return of Ram to Ayodhya in the southern part of India and in fact Kartik Poornima is considered more auspicious).
Large-scale migration has imbued a greater importance to how festivals are celebrated in cities. Just like Chinese immigrants to the US made Chinese New Year a significant celebration of their collective identity, Bengalis make Durga Puja theirs wherever Bengali communities exist across the nation (read everywhere, to the delight of us foodies and culture vultures!) and Biharis celebrate Chhat with fervour once they have sufficient numbers to do so (Chhat has emerged as a festival of note in the NCR for instance, with thousands congregating at the Yamuna to offer prayers). Media (FM radio has an interesting role in this) and the ease of communication have made it even easier to spread the excitement of a festival among people. In increasingly cosmopolitan urban settings, our friends’ circles are diverse enough to give us a glimpse into many regional cultures. And, in the end, who doesn’t want to have a good time!
Indian festivals also underline our essentially family-centric behavior. I have felt terrible being away from my family on festivals, but someone has usually adopted me for the day, drawing me into their intimate circle and making it all ok! With the increasing commercialization around each festival (I got sms invites to random clubs for Lohri parties!), I fear a loss of this intimacy. The way I see it, family has been the traditional unit of interaction in India. With sweeping societal changes (unit families, migration, upward mobility, increased choice), community must move in to supplement the family where it needs to…or else, we would live in an unanchored world and fall prey to the worst kind of blatant, soul-less commercialization.
A part of me does wish that in all the festive bonhomie, we still make an effort to preserve the cultural uniqueness of each celebration, practice the small gestures and rituals that help reinforce the festival’s significance, rather then homogenize all festivals into a club-style drink, eat and dance party!