This Phagwah morning, I noticed something different in my village: the streets were not as thronged with young people going from house-to-house with their buckets and water-guns, ensuring that no one was left high and dry. It’s not that the streets were deserted or anything…but the hubbub, jostle and bustle with children and youths already drenched and besmeared with colours, which signified Phagwah morning for me, just wasn’t there.
What was going on? The night before I’d gone with my family to watch the burning of the village Holika in the Mandir compound. Even with females now permitted to the ceremony (had they been prohibited because of the festival’s connection with fertility rites?) the gathering was very small. The pandit, a temple official and I commiserated over this fact as the Holika pyre burned itself out. We’d have to do more next year to bring the people out, we promised.
But with the precipitous decline in the water-throwing brigade the next morning, I became really worried. During my boyhood, Phagwah had been the festival of youths. We’d gather at the Mandir and sing (more like ‘shout’) chowtaals with gusto to the sounds of the clashing brass ‘jaals” (cymbals). At the appointed hour, we males would troop off behind the pandit to the Holika mound: our din ensuring that the rest of the village knew what was going on.
At the site, we’d tie our coconuts and corn-on-the-cobs with wires and hurl them into the flames for their ‘ritual’ roasting: but the fun was in the sharing and eating. Early the next morning we’d return to collect ashes from the fire to smear on villagers as we cavorted around with our pails of water. Sometimes there was a horse-cart corralled into the ‘sport’, to transport the chowtaal singers.
As I reflect back, I can see the great role that Phagwah played in helping to build a community consciousness. We were all one on that day. Sure there would be a few spoilsports who would protest their dousing. But they were berated by one and all for being just that – spoilsports. Some boys would specifically target them just to provoke an eruption. Phagwah Day was when all divisions were broken down – and the ‘big’ and ‘little’ ones of the village were as one.
I suspect that as boys, we particularly enjoyed the breakdown in the very strict barriers to interacting with the girls of the village. This was an integral aspect of Phagwah and reflected, I now suspect, the festival’s origin with fertility and its overt association with Kaama, the god of love. In Ratnaval, the 7th century Sanskrit drama, Phagwah is described:
“Witness the beauty of the great “cupid” festival which excites curiosity as the townsfolk are dancing at the touch of brownish water thrown from squirt-guns.
They are seized by pretty women while all along the roads the air is filled with singing and drum-beating. Everything is coloured yellowish red and rendered dusty by the heaps of scented powder blown all over.”
Today, however, there is a new development which I believe might be contributing to the decline of Phagwah celebrations in the communities. This is the ‘mega” Phagwah events being organised at various venues. I do suspect that the organisers are very well-meaning folks who might be reacting to the emerging less localised lifestyles with the decline of traditional bonds and are trying to replicate the ‘village togetherness’. But I really believe that the way to go is to work to facilitate the local communities (be they rural or urban) to celebrate Phagwah in their locales. The most effective cohesion schemes are always those that are owned and organised by local people – those that are done by them, not to them.
More fundamentally, these ‘organised events’ encourage the belief that merely by showing up we have ‘observed’ the festival. This is even more pronounced at the Divali mega-events (which have been going on for a much longer time) where we have been reduced to being spectators and observers and not as subjects that obtain good karma by our own actions. If the present trend continues, I can see us eventually ‘celebrating’ Phagwah by watching actors on a stage throwing water, powder and abeer at each other.
And of course we would have descended by then into the anonymous and faceless ‘modernity’ that is characterised by its own term of illness in every social science: alienation, anomie, angst etc…I call upon all concerned citizens, not just Hindus, to save Phagwah from this fate: let us work to strengthen our communities. Phagwah is not a spectator sport.
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