Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Further Celebrations

      At ten thirty pm, I’m curled up on my couch, alone for a few hours.  I’m working on some recent photographs, my computer overheating from the task.  In the distance, I can hear the tempo of elaborate drumming.  I ignore it for the time being.  The celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi is still in full swing, and every day the gaiety of the festival seeps into my apartment.  Firecrackers go off at any time of day, their explosive booms causing my heart to skip a beat.  After nightfall, multicolor fireworks burst above apartment complexes and company buildings miles away.  A few days ago, well into the night, I watched a group of 15 men and boys celebrating courtyards over.  The quick drum beat music quickening to a climax over and over.  Full of energy, they danced wildly, bodies outlined by a tungsten lit shack housing a Ganesh idol.  Yesterday, while visiting Hosa road’s market, the street reflected the ongoing celebration.  Amongst the fruit and vegetable vendors, a large corrugated metal structure covered in plastic loomed.  What it contained wasn’t a mystery to me, I touched the plastic outside cover as we drove by on the bike and twisted around to see a dizzying display of colors inside.  Ganesh in all his splendor, drawing Hindus from every angle.  On the opposite side of the street, where alleyways between the small business shops lead to apartment villages, clusters of women were gathered around on the pavement, crafting deeply colorful rangolis (freehand design of sacred shapes using natural sand-like ingredients).  Children squatted around the finished designs, laughing and playing.  Above them, thin strings of blue, orange and green lights zigzag across the alleyway’s gap between apartments.  In the fading cloud diffused light, I stood watching them, cursing myself for not having brought my camera for fear of rain. 
      Back in the present, I’m analyzing a photograph I took on Ganesh Chaturthi during my visit to the temple, a close up of a bronze color metal entryway, Ganesh’s image imprinted alongside another God.  As I play with the sepia tint, the drumming gets louder, harder to ignore.  The bass resonates through my windows and walls, the rhythm filling me with an irresistible urge to move my body in tandem.  I toss my computer aside and run to the southwest facing windows of my bedroom pull back the curtains, and slam open the window.  I’m struck by the cool night wind, tainted with the fresh scent of rain, and further excited by the sharp increase of the drums echoing across the distance, and reverberating around the walls of my room as if it were a cave.  The subtle glittering lights from the hundreds of apartments outside provides the room’s only illumination as I search in my closet for my camera and zoom lens. 

      Camera assembled by feel, I pad across the icy marble floor and climb onto my bamboo chair propped against the wall.  I start video taping the scene before me, my camera unable to perceive the light that my eyes still see; the image grainy from pushing the ISO.  Although I could only dream of catching the constellation of Bangalore lights outside my wind at night, what I really want to document are the beat of drums.  Ten stories below, on the small road running parallel to my apartment, and disguised by the deep shadows of the buildings, I make out a tractor slowly pulling a flat trailer with a ten-foot high Ganesh idol.  A group of performers surround the idol, entranced by the rhythm of their music.  I make out the sound of South India’s classic bronze cymbals known as elathalam.  They complement the sharp and impossibly fast beat of tasha drums.  Several people make a shrill whistle common to popular Punjabi songs.  The most overwhelming sound is a deep base drum, its eerie thum thum… thum thum….thum thum… beat booming through the house and my body, reminding me of the alien heartbeat of a monster.  As Ganesh is escorted down the road, random spectators dance in celebration.  The tractor comes to a halt under the orange light of a street lamp, and passersby stop their motorcycles to observe and pray.

      Two days later, the celebration is repeated at 11:30 pm, this time the escort includes several idols of Ganesh, with a larger crowd of drummers.  A small goods truck carries an idol backdropped with a flat display comprised of small neon lights.  It reminds me of a large light bright display, the bulbs illuminating buildings with unnatural florescence in passing.  As they reach the intersection of the dirt road with Hosur main, a series of firecrackers are set off, and the beat of drums quiet for only a few minutes, before another three displays roll through.  Each night’s celebration, I spend it half hanging out the window from my vantage point, shooting the scene and attempting to keep the heavy camera body balanced and still.  I am utterly enthralled by the display, moved, and energized by the archaic sounds of exotic drums.  When both groups meet at the intersection, they meld into one giant and bedazzling herd of noise.  As they head back to their village their images slip into the night, though windows closed and wrapped in my blanket, I can still hear them playing into the distance

Check out this video, it is a closer look at a similar drumming celebration:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

गणेश चतुर्थी Ganesh Chaturthi 2013

     Yesterday, September 9, 2013, India celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrated across the central and Southern India as the birthday of Ganesh, one of Hinduism’s most beloved lower deities.  Ganesh – also known as Ganapati – is the elephant-head God, son of Lord Shiva and Parvathi.  As the “remover of obstacles,” Ganesh is prayed to for blessings of good luck and for help in overcoming difficulties throughout the journey of life.  Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated differently according to region.  In Karnataka, on the day of Ganesh Chaturthi, each Hindu family buys a clay, hand-carved and painted Ganesh idol and displays it in an area of their home devoted to puja ceremonies.  Doing so is said to invite Ganesh into one’s home, where he stays as the center of worship for 9 days.  In exchange for their daily offerings of incense, fresh flowers, and devotion to Lord Ganesh, the Hindu family is believed to be graced with his blessings.  On the ninth day, traditional religious ceremonies are conducted and the Ganesh idol is immersed in a natural body of water where his divine essence returns to the Earth as the clay disperses in the water. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     Although the festival is primarily celebrated in the home, like most other Hindu festivals, Ganesh Chaturthi is also publicly celebrated on a grand scale.  In Mumbai, where this festival is most elaborate, the clay Ganesh idols scale as high as twenty-five feet requiring the strength of a dozen men for its immersion into the Arabian Sea.  Millions of people flood into parts of the city to participate in the festivities.  In Bangalore, weeks prior to the event, goods trucks that look like tiny auto rickshaws converted into goods carriers can be seen traveling all avenues.  Ganesh idols carefully wrapped in plastic, neon colors still evident beneath cloudy covers.  Men and women hoping to make extra income arrange for several dozen idols from handicraft workers, and display them in order of size atop wheeled carts for purchase off the street.  On the day of the celebration, local temples set up ornately decorated abodes to house their own Ganesh idols.  Individuals on the street stop and pray, providing offerings of jasmine flower garlands, coconuts, and bananas. 

     Over the years, as the business of idol making grew, new materials other than clay, and brighter, more vivid paints began to be heavily utilized.  Ironically, the act of worshipping a beloved deity and participating in a major cultural event celebrating life has subsequently resulted in an environmental issue.  The millions of Ganesh idols immersed into India’s major water bodies have created heavy water pollution; lead and mercury amongst other heavy metals and poisons leach into water, which result in sedimentation, the poisoning wildlife and degradation of fragile ecosystem health.  Each year in Bangalore, a city already struggling with an inadequate and polluted water supply, the issue grows worse.  For years now, environmentalists and activists throughout the country have waged an awareness campaign to effectively curb the pollution by encouraging individual homes to purchase eco-friendly idols that are created according to traditional practices: hand-carved out of natural clay, and adorned with natural paints like red earth and turmeric powder. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     This year, Sanjeev and I found a skillfully crafted natural Ganesh idol at our local mall’s grocery store.  For 500 rupees we happily escorted our eco-friendly Ganesh home and displayed him on our puja counter.  His presence is so welcomed in our home that I refuse to let him leave.  There will be no immerse or dispersion for this fellow despite being no threat to the environment. 

     In celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi this year, we decided to join a group of friends who planned to visit the evening puja ceremony at Raggiguda mandir located in Jayanagar.  On the drive over, the streets were eerily vacant, evidence that a large portion of Bangalore’s residents returned home to their respective states to celebrate the festival elsewhere.  Despite the significantly lower population, Jayanager was alive and brilliant with the senses of life.  Through a sudden mess of traffic, and crammed down as smaller side street, we finally catch sight of towering entrance gate to the festivities, warmly lit and portraying deities.  A plastic banner with Kannada text apparently identifies it as the local Ganesh Chaturthi celebration.  We park in the lot of the huge Central mall next door, its walls and entrance over-lit with harsh florescent lights.  The busy mall stands in contrast to the gate, modern and traditional India existing side by side. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     We make our way through the side street, blocked off to traffic and littered with people and small side stands selling food, idols, and small trinkets.  At the end of the road, we finally come to the temple grounds and its tall gates.  Seeing it, I now recall having been to this temple before, in 2010 with my friend Balaji who used to accompany me on outings to see some of Bangalore’s best temples.  Memories like photographs pop into my mind, and I remember the second temple at the top of the large rock hill, and sitting inside, lotus pose, absorbing the positive energy on a monsoon afternoon much less populated by devotees.  Amidst the other people dressed in their nicest outfits, Sanjeev and I slip off our sandals, place them in a woven bag, exchanging the bag for a token from a man who carefully files the footwear away during our visit to the temple.  The grounds are filled with devotees, families and friends gaily talking and moving single file through the maze of a walkway that leads one around the grounds and up to the temples built on top of the rock mountain, wet with the afternoon’s rain.  The daylight is fading and I have to push my camera’s sensitivity to its highest ISO in order to capture the scenes before me.  Waiting for the line to move, I watch people posing for pictures taken with mobile phones before a manmade waterfall carved into the mountain rock, painted and complete with idols.  We move slowly, the ground is wet and cold on my bare feet, and I try not to pay attention to the grit and wet leaves sticking to them.  As we move up the ramp walkway, I see that I am the only white person amongst hundreds of Hindus.  But in my new and elaborately colorful kameez suit outfit, complete with all the dressings right down to the toe rings, I am comfortable, a misfit perhaps, but an expert at being so.  We wind through the maze, and I feel as though we are in a line at an amusement park waiting to try out a new ride. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     After about ten minutes of foot traffic, we finally arrive at the entrance to the temple.  We give 100 rupees donation to a man sitting at a glass table, who types the amount into a little calculator which spits out a small receipt.  The donation sponsors the rice the temple acquires for the next day’s prasada – the food offerings to the poor from the Gods.  People push past me in the line, anxious to perform the darshan – the viewing of the Gods in idol form.  Finally at the end of the walkway in the center of it all, we are instructed to take two large red fabric bags of rice.  We carry it over to a bronze metal idol of Goddess Annapoorneshwari – the Goddess of food. We wait for our turn amongst the people crowding around her, each in turn, dumping their own bag of rice at her feet.  One by one, they empty their bags, the tinkling sound of dry rice flowing down the statue and into a large barrel.  I manage to push my way to the front and dump my rice feeling rushed and overwhelmed in the room.  We turn back to the primary idol, of Ganesh of course, give a monetary gift to the aarti tray, and run our hands through the diya flame, covering our eyes for blessings of insight and enlightenment from the Gods.  

© Rebecca Delekta
      Upon leaving the temple, we are again herded into another walkway that leads to marble stairs carved into the mountainside, and up to the temple at the peak.  I hold on to the railings as I climb, avoiding puddles, and feeling the threat of leg cramps as we move.  At the height of the climb, we enter an even more densely crowded temple that houses the idols of Shiva, Rama, and Hanuman, the three idols placed strategically around the corners of the temple, with Hanuman, the monkey God at the center.  Moving in line again, I watch an elderly lady wound in a peach color sari no taller than four feet, perform her prayers, moving swiftly despite her age.  We pay our respects to Shiva first, moving single file down the hallway that circles the idol, and do the same for Rama, where we catch up to the small aunty and watch as she prostrates before the idol.  The darshan complete, we slowly head down the marble stairway, stopping to stretch my cramping legs. 

© Rebecca Delekta
     During our lengthy expedition to the two temples, the sun has given way to dusk, and in the quickly failing light, I attempt to catch some shots of the temple’s features.  At the bottom of the rock mountain we gradually follow the flow of people to a courtyard area decorated with multicolor strands of lights.  Small benches line the area in rows, and we watch individuals enter the courtyard from the entrance path carrying their Ganesh idols, ringing small bells to awaken the spirit of Ganesh as they walk.  Each family places their idol on the bench, lights incense, and an oil lamp, and begins to perform their personal puja to invite the spirit of Ganesh into the idols.  I watch two elderly men wrapped in a traditional white cloth perform their ceremony, snapping their photos from a distance. 

     As darkness settles in, Sanjeev and I sit on a granite ledge lined with plants and wait for the rest of our absent party to show.  Over time, the flow of families bringing their idols for awakening increases, and the air begins to crackle with energy.  The idols come in all sizes, some fitting in the palm of the hand, others need to be carried by two or more people.  We take note of the small amount of people using the natural clay idols, most everyone has purchased the neon colored, chemically laden statues.   

© Rebecca Delekta
     In droves, they march down the entrance walkway, the sound of hundreds of bells overwhelming and accompanied by the sharp beat of hand drums.  Young men and children happily shout phrases in Kannada honoring Ganesh, running alongside the person who has the honor of escorting the God.  A father yells in Kannada “Il nodi Ganesha!” (Look! here is Ganesha!)  His children yell back, “Al nodi Ganesha!” (Look there is Ganesha!) “Ellakadi Ganesha!” (Ganesha is everywhere!)  Others yell in Hindi, “Ganesh Maharaj ki jai ho” (Hail the king Lord Ganesha!).  Tonight, women don their most beautiful silk saris reserved for special occasions, their array of tantalizing rainbow colors still evident in the lamp lit night.  Their little girls follow them down the path, clad in heavily adorned and glittering ethnic wear, attempting to keep their dresses off the dirt ground so as to not trip.  Each family makes their way through the swarm, their festive spirits adding to the positive energy.  The sounds of the pujas, the riot of colors, the smell of burning incense on the moist cool air, the movement of every individual, all coalesce, creating a sea of life.  With each passing moment, the river of people increases, joining the tides of energy.  I remain seated in awe of the intense cultural moment I am experiencing, a persistent smile of enjoyment on my face.  I absorb the energy, feeling as though my skin might glow with its life seeping into me.  There is no place I would rather be at this moment, and I remain there, immersed in the tide of sentience. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013


     On any given night, I fall asleep to the gangs of local street dogs barking out their territory claims.  Occasionally a fight will ensue, with sharp yelps and growls echoing off the concrete walls of our apartment building, leaking through the windows and into the dark space of my bedroom.  At night, Bangalore belongs to the dogs.  In the beginning of my time here, the sounds of the random fights of angered canines vying for space I could not see perturbed me.  It served as a reminder of the cruelty of life here – the absence of love, food, and shelter for hundreds of thousands of dogs in this city.  In my sleep, their animal cries would seep into my dreams, drawing up images of feral street mongrels directing their grievances of injustice at me.  On the nights when their repetitive yelps refused to give way to the otherwise peaceful night, I wondered how I would ever fall asleep.  Over time though, their canine theatrics became just another set of noises I subconsciously learned to block out. 

      Around four a.m., human life in Bangalore begins to stir.  The first to come is the sound of increasing traffic, drawn long out over the stretch of Hosur road, only marginally populated in the early morning hours, and duly taken advantage of.  The drone of tires on pavement is accompanied by the sounds of short bursts of shrill car horns, and the obnoxiously elaborate songs of bus horns piloted by impatient and jaded drivers.  The gaps of silence are filled with the whirring sounds of heavy transport trucks driven too fast through the streets by cross country drivers wired and determined to escape the city before the morning rush hits.  Early morning risers, exposed to the cool and less polluted air contribute the nagging whines of mopeds and the putt… putt… pop sounds exuded from the tiny tailpipes of auto rickshaws.  Like the echoes of the dog brawls, the mechanical sounds of traffic blur away into nothingness as I sleep. 

      A couple hours later, after the sun has risen, the locals outside of our towering apartment complex have begun their day.  The steady thump…. thump… thump sounds of women beating wet soapy clothes against worn stone plates reverberate through the walls. The courtyard children commence their day of play with excited high-pitched voices, calling out to one another, laughing, screaming.  On the dirt road parallel to my bedroom windows, the heavy breathing sound of a tractor carrying its load over uneven terrain fills the air.  Metal shop workers begin shaping their work, the screech of saws and the clang of metal on metal sharp and intense.  Plots over, the gypsies work on the construction of several new apartment buildings.  The sounds of scraping metal on wet concrete join together with the pounding of carved wood supports into place, blending and carried on the wind over the distance to my windows. 

      As the mid morning hours come around, residents of my apartment head off to school and work, car alarms go off accidentally, and random arcade like tunes play as indicators to cars backing out of their parking spaces.  The first water tanker arrives for the day, diesel engine revving as the lone driver skillfully backs the clumsy truck up to the water well ten stories below my bedroom window. 

      Pigeons land on the air conditioner outside my unused window, concealed behind the thick yellowish curtains permanently closed.  They coo to one another, feathers swishing against metal and glass as they perch.  Their strange and soft murmuring sounds lost to my world of dreams. 

      As I slowly stir and become aware of my surroundings, I usually see Little Pup watching me from his bed, patiently waiting for the first signs of life from me.  I close my eyes again and wait for a few moments, absorbing the soft comfort of my camel printed Rajasthani blanket before I rise for the day.  Doggie breakfasts served, I pull back the curtains of the living room patio doors, and open the smudged glass wide to the sudden rush of life in full swing.  I sit down on my cotton sheet covered couch and drink my morning tea, the beats of the city, and the cool breeze inescapable but welcomed guests in my home.