30 September 2007

Not just a dupatta

This beautiful photo is by Lakshmi Prabhala.

I love Indian clothes. They’re so colourful, comfortable and classy. The sari is of course probably the best-known Indian garment, but nowadays it’s mostly worn by older women or on special or formal occasions. Most young Indian women prefer to wear salwaar kameez, a long tunic worn over loose trousers. To complete the ensemble, the long scarf-like dupatta is draped over the shoulders and down the back. The purpose of the dupatta is to ‘preserve a woman’s modesty’, but I’ve discovered that this very versatile garment serves other perhaps more practical purposes.

The dupatta is not only a fashion accessory; it’s also a protective shield for the face and head from the sun, rain and wind. It becomes a shawl during the chilly monsoon evenings, or if I’m in a place where the air-conditioning is on full power. It’s also serves as a bed sheet on sleeper trains; or it can double as a blanket, or folded to make a little soft pillow. It becomes a scarf that keeps my neck warm when I’m coming down with a cold. It’s an excellent mosquito swatter. It can also be used as a towel or sarong at the beach. These are only some of the multiple uses for this simple piece of clothing. Now I know why Indian woman don’t leave home without it!

21 September 2007

Ganesh Chaturthi

Above: Ganesh statues for sale.

Ganesh has been keeping me up at night. Yes, Lord Ganesha, the elephant god. Last Saturday was Ganesh Chaturthi, a national holiday in his honour – but little did I know that the festivities would last the whole week... Every evening I’ve been kept awake by noisy processions, loud drumming, fireworks and brash music coming from the main road.

It started late on the Thursday night leading up to the holiday when I was woken up by loud cheering and shouting in our usually quiet and sleepy street. I looked out my bedroom window to see a huge two-storey high Ganesh statue moving past the house! The next morning I saw that the statue had been erected on a makeshift stage at the end of the street. A large curtain was covering the face of the idol.

Above: Preparing for the festivities. The Ganesh statue is in the background hidden by a curtain.

Walking around the city with a friend on Saturday afternoon, we came across several other equally gigantic statues. It seems that each locality had it’s own. In one neighbourhood, we saw locals decorating and garlanding the idol and stage in preparation for the festivities which would start that evening with the unveiling of the statue. Children dressed in their finest followed us around with curious looks and shy smiles. When my friend pulled out her camera, a little girl timidly asked: “Auntie, photo?” As she and her friends proudly posed for the camera they were suddenly joined by other neighbourhood children and soon a small crowd was yelling “Auntie!! Auntie!! Photo!!” When they saw their images mirrored back to them on the LCD screen they screeched and laughed with delight. A tall, visibly drunk man stumbled up to us and struck a pose for the camera with a goofy grin. “Don’t mind him, he’s drunk. He’s an ex-military man,” a young man apologetically informed us. The drunk staggered away before letting us know that we should come back in the evening to see him “dance for Ganesha”.

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, Ganesh statues of various sizes and colours were on sale on almost every street corner. Each family buys a statue to take home and offer prayers to. Ganesh is a very popular god all over India. Prayers are offered to Ganesh as the Lord of auspicious beginnings and the remover of obstacles before starting any kind of undertaking. Statues of Ganesh are often found in the doorways of houses or businesses and in temples.

Above: My neighbours' Ganesh statue decorated specially for the occasion.

On Saturday evening we went to see what was happening at the end of the street. The huge statue was already unveiled and a small crowd watched as a magician in a top hat entertained them. A woman stepped into a tall wooden crate. When the door was shut we could only see her face and hands through the cut-outs. The magician then proceeded to slide metal plates through the crate (and seemingly through the woman). This was taking some time and in the meantime the crowd started to dwindle as loud drumming and shouting coming from the main road roused peoples’ curiosity more than a women being cut into pieces. A gigantic Ganesha statue was coming down the main road accompanied by loud drumming and a frenetic crowd of men dancing wildly. Once in a while they stopped to set off firecrackers.

On the third day following the feast day, the huge statues were led in processions to various lakes and other bodies of water of the city where they were immersed. A neighbour told me she simply dunks her statue into a bucket of water instead. She explained that the water then becomes sacred and instead of emptying it into the street, she uses it to water her plants. Another neighbour told me her sons take their family idol to Ulsoor Lake where a section has been cordoned off specially for this purpose. When I asked her why women don’t do this, she said it’s because Ganesh was a brahmachari (unmarried). My landlords told me they don’t have a tradition of celebrating this festival because in Kerala, where they come from, it’s not as popular as in other states.

Above: Drumming for Ganesh. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Evrard.)

The procession of huge Ganeshas continued all week. The police cordoned off roads to let them pass. Even heavy rain did not deter the crowds and the loud drumming, chanting, music and fireworks. Last night the noise and ruckus seemed to end earlier than the other nights. Tonight I’m hoping to get a good night of sleep!

09 September 2007

A heavenly perfume

Now that the monsoon season is almost over, it feels like spring to me. Temperatures are rising again and the trees and plants seem even greener and lush thanks to the daily rain showers they’ve received. The plants on my terrace have grown by at least a foot. And all of a sudden there’s a heavenly smell in the air… I discovered that this divine perfume was coming from a tree down the street.

A smell can take you back to somewhere you’ve been before. In this case it was Pondicherry and La Marsa.

I thought maybe it was honeysuckle but wasn’t sure. Then I got the answer from a short article in Thursday’s paper.

This enchanting perfume comes from the Ylang Ylang or Canaga Odorata, a flower of the Canaga tree. These yellow flowers have six long stem-like petals which fall to the ground creating a scented carpet. These fragrant flowers are used to produce perfumes and essential oils.

Though I can easily bring you the colours, sights and sounds of India via the Internet, smells are a bit more challenging. So just close your eyes and imagine a sweet, heavenly perfume and you’ll be instantly transported to a tiny corner of Bangalore.