A memorable yield

Oct 13, 2018, 10:24 IST | Snigdha Hasan

In a bid to revive East Indian traditions fading into history, gaothans across Mumbai celebrated the harvest festival of Agera. Community members say they need the cultural glue more than ever before

A memorable yield
Celebrations at Our Lady of Bethlehem Church, Dongri. Pic/Pritam Colaso

A guided walk around Chimbai or Ranwar in Bandra can be quite an experience even for a Hill Road shopper. For, at the far western end of this commercial mecca lies a world that doesn't quite gel with the buzz all around — Chimbai and Ranwar, to start with, are still called villages or gaothans. But situate the tiny hamlets' Portuguese-style houses and narrow lanes converging at a holy crucifix amidst lush paddy fields instead of the surrounding high-rises, and they may no longer seem like relics.

Agera celebrations at the parish church of Uttan. Pic/Fleur D’Souza
Agera celebrations at the parish church of Uttan. Pic/Fleur D'Souza

This, in a nutshell, is the story of many East Indians, residing in hundreds of such gaothans across Mumbai around which the city grew, stripping them of geographical, historical and cultural context. As the farmland owned by the community got acquired for development, one of their cultural traditions that took a backseat was the annual harvest festival of Agera observed every October.

"The staple crop of the Konkan is paddy. In the past, those East Indians that lived off the land, cultivated paddy. On the day of Agera, sheaves of paddy would be harvested along with other fruits and vegetables grown on the farm, loaded on a decorated bullock cart or rekla and taken with great pomp and show — with men and women dressed in their finery, and an East Indian band playing music — to the parish's church to have the first harvest blessed. Strands of paddy would then be taken home and placed at the door or the altar, while families would indulge in celebratory food. They would return to the fields in the evening to offer a prayer to their ancestors, and meet friends and relatives. But with urbanisation of land, the festival fell into disuse in most parts of the city," explains Dr Fleur D'Souza, former HOD of the Department of History and retired Vice-Principal (Arts), St Xavier's College, and a member of the East Indian community.

An East Indian procession, complete with a band, proceeds to the IC Church in Borivali during Agera celebrations on October 7. Pic/Nimesh Dave
An East Indian procession, complete with a band, proceeds to the IC Church in Borivali during Agera celebrations on October 7. Pic/Nimesh Dave

To remind the community of its culture, the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP) along with local groups and activists has been working towards reviving Agera for five years. On October 7, with over 61 gaothans celebrating the festival, it was one of the biggest revelries seen in years. "An obstacle the community faces is procuring paddy. So, we ensured the crop was made available from farms in Uttan, Manori and other villages in Dharavi island. We also issued guidelines for the celebrations. So, this year, we also saw the forming of bands, including one called Ethnic Vibes in Kurla," explains MGP spokesperson Gleason Barretto.

(From left) Audrey D’Souza, Gleason Barretto, Dr Fleur D’Souza
(From left) Audrey D'Souza, Gleason Barretto, Dr Fleur D'Souza

The festival's revival, though, cannot be viewed in isolation. "There are no farms that remain in the island city of Mumbai. Nor in suburban Mumbai. With the Dharavi island being declared a tourism zone by the state government, the existing farms will vanish very soon too," says Dr D'Souza.

Architect Audrey D'Souza, who has created a tentative design for East Indian Bhavan, for which the community has been demanding government land, points out the irony. "East Indians owned acres after acres of land in Mumbai, which the government acquired for development, paying a pittance as compensation. Today, we are battling the added threat of builders eyeing our land," she rues. "When our land is taken away, people are offered alternate settlement under slum rehabilitation schemes! Cities across the world have special rights for their original inhabitants. We, on the other hand, have been reduced to nothing." It is in this context that this renewed cultural glue to create awareness and unity among the community becomes important. "In the coming years, we hope to have 100 gaothans and 50 parishes celebrating Agera," says Barretto, adding to the community's hope of a new chapter being penned in its history.

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