What's in the pot?
A new documentary examines the rationale behind the Dahi Handi festival, asking whether it really represents Maharashtrian culture, and at what price
On every Krishna Janmashtami day, Mumbai’s young ‘Govindas’ form human pyramids to reach suspended earthen pots, symbolizing the pot of curd (dahi handi) that the young Lord Krishna had tried to steal. Can this annual ritual be categorized as a sport? Why do political outfits invest huge prize money in the Dahi Handi festivities? What protection is given to the Govindas who precariously negotiate high altitudes to keep the show on?
A just-released 38-minute documentary titled Dahi Handi Sathi Vattel Te (Anything for Dahi Handi), asks all these questions, presenting a range of perspectives. It has real-life photographic footage of the colourful Govindas reaching for the prize, but the high-decibel documentation leaves out one crucial question - how can a progressively commercial venture be symbolic of Marathi culture and identity?
Dahi Handi Sathi Vattel Te, soon to be shown in Mumbai’s educational institutions as part of cultural orientation, is a collage of views. These views represent various players like the Govindas who risk their lives, the parents of the risk-takers, the event managers who arrange the dahi handi blitz in their localities, the politicians who sponsor the prize money, media intellectuals opposing as well as supporting dahi handi, and the common people who see this festival as an icon of native pride. The makers of the film -- director Siddhesh Sawant, screenplay writer Dakshata Thasale and cinematographer Avadhoot Rane -- regurgitate the views one after the other, ending with celebratory music.
Sawant justifes the non-committal stance. “We are amateurs, mostly students of media. We felt that Dahi Handi, despite its popularity, has not been documented in any form. So we paid our homage to the courage of the multi-layered Govindas of this city. We admire the Maharashtrian youth which feels the need to keep the tradition alive. It is a skill that has remained undervalued.”
While watching the documentary, some questions recur in the viewer’s mind. If Dahi Handi is being venerated as an ancient ‘tradition’, how does it make room for corporate sponsorship of consumer brands (during the festival) that are harmful to the youth, particularly gutkha products? In which way do drunken Dahi Handi revellers represent Marathi culture? Doesn’t the noise and traffic pollution caused by Dahi Handi further harm the city’s resources? Sawant feels these ‘negatives’ of the festival have been covered in the documentary. “Our job is to present all the sides. We do not have views on whether the corporate and political involvement is good or bad. But we have registered the mega Dahi Handi events. And we have honoured the common Govindas on whose shoulders rest the events.” Sawant has publicized the film on various social media tools. He is also networking with the 600-odd Dahi Handi Gopala mandals which organize the annual handis in Mumbai and Thane. “We want to tap the strong network of these mandals, so that they know that we care for them. This is another way of telling them that we are their fans and that we are worried about their well-being.”
Celebrated photographer Sandesh Ghosalkar, who has captured many Dahi Handi festivals in his career (and has been witness to the accidents therein), does not agree with Sawant. He has two objections to the documentary. First, the film glamourizes the ‘climbing Govinda’ act, thereby encouraging the mandals to indulge in Herculean feats like ten-layered pyramids. Second, it equates Dahi Handi with Marathi pride.
“The Dahi Handi festivity seems to be overestimated. All Maharashtrians don’t feel the same about the festival. And even if the festivity has a large following, there is no denying its association with unpleasant facets like drunken revelry, late-night high-decibel extravaganzas, eve teasing and stampedes resulting in law and order crises. I am a Maharashtrian myself and I have great respect for the human pyramid, which is a superb organic symbol of unity. But there is no reason to make it a token of love for Mumbai,” explains Ghosalkar who has one more issue with the documentary.
“The film speaks to an insider. It presumes an inner coterie of fans and admirers who feel personally attached to Govindas. But it alienates the other inhabitants of the city. The documentary has some weird quotes from interviewees who feel that Dahi Handi, Ganpati festival and dabbawalas represent Mumbai. This is a stereotypical and simplistic view of Marathi culture, which leaves out a lot unexplored.”
Politician and member of the state legislative assembly, Bhai Jagtap, who has supported huge Dahi Handi gatherings in the suburb of Jogeshwari, feels the festival is a much-maligned event. “Drunken revelry and gutkha ads are not exclusive to Dahi Handi. All cultural activities and sports have an anti-cultural side to them. But should that stop us from honouring those traditions? Have we banned cricket because it encourages betting and late-night partying? Isn’t the discipline of the Govindas an awe-inspiring phenomenon for our youth? It elevates the festival at a different level and encourages community participation.” Jagtap and some other legislative assembly members recently met the State Sports Minister urging him to declare Dahi Handi a sport with definite parameters. Jagtap feels the documentary is a step in the right direction of legitimizing the sport with state funds. He says Maharashtra can follow the example of Spain, which has formalized the human pyramid sport.
Atmaram Dharne, maker of the recently released feature film Govinda (whose protagonist is a Dahi Handi participant) also feels that Dahi Handi Sathi Vattel Te serves a social purpose. “Just as there are those who glamourize it, there are those who ridicule it. I think both the views are wrong. The film does not sit in judgment. It showcases the Dahi Handi for future reference.” He says the film has good footage of the tall nine-layered pyramids built in the recent past.
Dahi Handi Sathi Vattel Te was premiered at the Ravindra Natya Mandir recently. ‘Govindas’ from different parts of the city were invited to attend the screening. Members of the audience cheered at every frame of a climbing Govinda.
As the noise levels wafted out of the auditorium, the management needed to rein in the youthful zest. One of the members questioned the management directive, “What’s the problem? We are enjoying. This is our film.” Someone in the audience said, “Yes, that’s the reason why you should reflect on it.”
It is indeed the time for real-life Govindas to reflect on the metamorphosis of a popular phenomenon into an event management exercise. It is the time to see if they are pawns in a larger game plan.
The documentary, unfortunately, does not do this job well.