Meenakshi Shedde: Looking for Papa
Bolava Vitthal, organised by Pancham Nishad's Shashi Vyas, at Shanmukhananda Hall, is an old family tradition. It was started when my father, S Rammohan, was alive, and has continued over the years
Last week, on Ashadhi Ekadashi (July 23), I attended Bolava Vitthal, with abhangs — Maharashtrian devotional poetry sung in praise of Lord Vitthal — sung by Rahul Deshpande, Anand Bhate, Jayateerth Mevundi and Kaushiki Chakraborty. Bolava Vitthal, organised by Pancham Nishad's Shashi Vyas, at Shanmukhananda Hall, is an old family tradition. It was started when my father, S Rammohan, was alive, and has continued over the years.
Every year, on Ashadhi Ekadashi, I especially remember my late father. Papa was a sweet, gentle man, and one day he told me he would like to go on the Pandharpur wari. He was then 77, and I said, 'chalo, I'll take you'. Over a million pilgrims make the annual wari, a 16 (or 21) day pilgrimage, traditionally from Alandi to Pandharpur, covering about 225 km on foot. The wari honours bhakti saint-poets and devotees of Lord Vitthal, including Dnyaneshwar, who lived in Alandi in the 13th century, and Tukaram, a 17th century shudra trader from Dehu. Over 700 years later, their devotees carry their padukas (footwear/footprints) in palkhis (palanquins) from their shrines to Lord Vitthal's temple in Pandharpur, so their pilgrimages can continue.
So, off we went, Papa and I, in 2002. We bussed it from Pune to Alandi, and started walking at 4 am with the other varkaris. The varkaris, devotees who regularly go on this pilgrimage, are dressed in a simple dhoti-kurta or sari, carrying nothing but faith; perhaps a cloth jhola at most.
As we left behind the temples, priests, rituals, donation boxes, CCTVs and walked in Maharashtra's rain-washed countryside, in step with a million other pilgrims chanting Gyanba Tukaram, I was deeply moved by the conviction that this simple faith was the true essence of Hinduism. I stepped aside to take photographs of the pilgrims, and in an instant, I lost my father in the crowd. We had no mobile phones, and I looked for him everywhere, racing ahead and behind the crowds, scanning hundreds of faces with mounting despair, and making police announcements at scores of wayside stalls. I feared the worst, and prayed desperately for his safety. After four of the most agonising hours of my life, a volunteer told me "a six-foot-tall Rammohan was waiting at Camp 1". I raced back all the way, dodging wave upon wave of pilgrims. When I finally found Papa, we just burst into tears and hugged each other in a lingering embrace, simply unable to let the other go.
With hindsight, I am certain the Lord was testing me.
Tukaram says that humans often believe we are in control of our destinies. Usually, it is only in moments of despair, that we remember God. As poet Dilip Chitre writes in Says Tuka, his wonderful translation of Tukaram's poetry: "There are no larders in the nests of birds/Narayana bears their burden." It is only when I abandoned myself to Him completely, that I got my father back. It was an experience of utter humility and gratitude I will never forget.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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