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Fear in the air

PUSHPA SURENDRA

A STRING of festivals has already come and gone. The last of them — Deepavali — has just been celebrated. With most rural communities affected this year by drought, flood, many kinds of pest attacks on crops and fall in prices for agricultural produce, the festival did not create much enthusiasm.

As the monsoons fade and the dry seasons take over, this year particularly there is widespread fear and uncertainty about the future. In any case people can no longer afford to celebrate the many festivals handed down to them by tradition and for many it is just a day to rest tired and aching limbs. For the villagers around where I live, it is the beginning of the dry season when green fodder becomes more scarce, and Deepavali is a festival to bathe their cattle and graze them out in the open for the last time on green fodder. Most have already celebrated Marlami and Ayudha Pooja and only a few can celebrate one more festival after such a short interval.

Workers on my farm — all illiterate — have been paying monthly instalments for second hand TV sets and as such have been kept sufficiently ``entertained'' in the aftermath of September 11, by different kinds of fireworks by the Americans. Illiterate though she is, young Mangli tells me that unmanned aeroplanes can take off, drop bombs and come back to their base. Why the bombs are dropped and on whom is something she does not know and does not care to know. Hardly two km from where Mangli lives is a uranium enrichment plant called RMP (Rare Metal Project), which the locals have dubbed the ``bomb factory". If the rumours that the bomb factory plans to acquire vast acres of agricultural land in the near future for further ``development'' is true, then Mangli's homestead will be among the first to go.

The social and cultural context in which festivals were celebrated in the past are changing so rapidly along with the communities and people who celebrate them that folk traditions of people may gradually disappear. Festivals in rural areas in the past coincided with the onset of seasons that signalled the commencement of agricultural work. Rituals associated with ploughing and planting of rice during monsoon and then again later at the end of monsoon were occasions to propitiate the gods for a bountiful harvest. Festivals occurred once again during the time of harvests as occasion for joyous celebration and thanksgiving to gods and ancestors.

Recently on a visit to Coorg, just a few days after the Cauvery Sankramana which falls in mid October, I could hardly see any evidence of celebration. Bamboo stands on which offerings were made to the gods used to dot all the paddy fields. Offerings to gods were placed symbolically on the day of the festival on a bamboo stand by each family. If the stands were not put up it was only due to death in the family. The Sankramana was an occasion for married daughters to visit their parents and for the young to visit elderly relatives to seek their blessings. The ceremonial bathing in the river and worship of water on the day of the festival went beyond mere religious observance in a community that believed they owed their prosperity to the river. On one of my visits to the temple, a priest told me that the temple at Tala Cauvery is unique in that it is one of few instances of actual worship of water and that the image of the goddess was a later addition. Now, in place of rice fields stood yellowing ginger ready to be harvested. Farmers had delayed the harvesting, hoping for an improvement in the price of ginger which had crashed. Rotting ginger due to a new kind of viral disease had also contributed to the fall in prices. Amid all this change stood a few paddy fields and on them an occasional symbolic bamboo stand, like some kind of ode to the past.

The customs and rituals associated with the growing of rice — an all important food crop — is bound to disappear as more and more farmers abandon the cultivation of rice in favour of other crops by converting the fields to grow ginger, casuarina, bamboo, areca, coffee, or ponds to hold water to irrigate coffee estates. Cultivation of rice has become unprofitable due to various reasons. I cannot imagine a festival to celebrate the pollination of vanilla flowers, which in any case require human intervention, as the insects that pollinate them in their original habitat are absent here, or a harvest festival to celebrate the harvesting of vanilla pods, pepper or ginger. A way of rural life, arts and crafts that derived its inspiration from the practice of old agriculture have little chance of survival in the future. Puthari, the harvest festival of the Coorg people, is a festival that has been undergoing a lot of change. With each passing year a bit of the tradition is discarded because the basis for practicing them do not exist any longer. The traditions that bound the farmer to the larger community has eroded, making the celebration a very individual affair. The tradition of exchanging gifts between farmers with the local traders who happened to be Muslims from Kerala has all but disappeared because of the increasing distrust between the communities, as local communities enter into trading and see the Kerala Muslims as unwelcome competitors. Puthari was a week-long celebration in which the agricultural workers participated in full measure and ended with the gathering in village squares for harvest dances and general merriment. As the character of festivals change, all this has become a thing of the past. The resulting sense of cultural loss and alienation is then bound to take other forms of expression. New cults and cash-rich politicians seize the vacated space by organising carnival-like celebrations of the real thing, which then are used to further hidden political agendas. The celebration of Vinayaka Chaturthi is an example of such an artificial construct.

The rituals associated with the new festivals create an atmosphere of fear among the people rather than bring together communities at the village level. A new addition this year to the festivals has been the celebration of Datta Jayanti in Baba Budan hills of Chickmagalur district. The tomb of Baba Budan, revered as a holy man, is housed in a cave on the hill named after him. Baba Budan is also credited with bringing the first coffee seeds from Arabia into the country. The cave had always been held sacred by the Hindu and Muslim communities with the Hindus believing the cave to be the abode of Dattatreya. A controversy erupted four years ago backed by the Bajrang Dal and VHP for control over the cave and demands for representation in the committee that is responsible for the upkeep of the cave. Trouble started last year, and this year a festival was ``put together'' and celebrated as Datta Jayanti by the activists and supporters of political organisations. Considering that coffee was brought by a Muslim, that too from Arabia, let us hope the organisers of Datta Jayanti will not see the drinking of coffee an anti-Hindu act.

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