Odissi, Ganesh, and complexity of Indian culture

IMG_1106India has long intrigued the Western imagination. Ancient, colorful, and intense, it is a beacon to those seeking a place unlike anywhere else. People often rave about the country’s “exotic” culture and downplay its negatives, such as rampant corruption and abysmal infrastructure.

But even the culture, as practiced today, is thorny. Here are two examples. First, on Ganesh Chaturthi, I was treated to a wonderful impromptu Odissi dance done for me. In Mumbai, Hemali Talsania, the Bravo Bombay tour guide I met in July, invited me to her home south of Crawford Market. Amid narrow, bustling lanes that confused even my cab driver, her house is an old, fifth-floor walkup, above weathered, retro storefronts selling medical/surgical supplies. Her husband’s family has lived there for five generations now.

IMG_1094I met her pretty 16-year-old daughter, a lively conversationalist without the reticence I expect from most teens. They both study Odissi, the oldest surviving Indian dance form, which Hemali compared to Iyengar yoga: both are traditional, precise, strict, and untrendy. They danced for me in everyday clothes, but in performances they were specially designed costumes and hundreds of bells on their ankles.

Later that afternoon, we walked next door to see their neighbor’s shrine for Ganesh Chaturthi: an elaborate flower backdrop, a vividly painted Ganesh, special foodstuff for offerings. I copied the others in doing a mini puja.

1504082_10152269411145956_815607489_nGanesh Chaturthi has become a huge festival in Mumbai, with blaring music from morning to night on loudspeakers, random firecrackers, and traffic-snarling processions lasting for days, even weeks. While Hemali’s neighbor’s family seemed sincere in their celebration of Ganesh, the festival is probably mainly party time for the masses (the way Christmas has become all about shopping in today’s secular world).

Initially I didn’t understand that to “immerse” the statues meant leaving them in the ocean. I smiled as they explained the meaning of immersion: to symbolize creation and dissolution; to purify the water with a sanctified Ganesh.

IMG_1122Sadly, today’s statues are made in China of non-biodegradable plaster of Paris and toxic paints, unlike the original mud-clay versions–and they’re adorned with synthetic decorations. Objectively this is trash that destroys oceans and rivers and kills wildlife. I was incredulous that tens of thousands of households would purposely decimate their water bodies this way.

I suppose that the Indian mindset is decades behind that of Westerners regarding environmental issues. But even Lonely Planet India is blithe about the festival, calling the mass immersions at Girgaum Chowpatty “joyful mayhem.” Me? I couldn’t witness the festivities without thinking of the Arabian Sea facing another unnecessary assault in the name of Ganesh.

1 comment

  1. Death by sanctification. Man, there’s gotta be some lessons in there. Maybe this is what happens when intention loses depth? Spiritual understanding fades, leaving the ritual? First thing I thought was, How do I step back far enough to see a way to reconcile this? But India is an extreme place in so many ways. As an American yogi, I keep wanting India to be better than me. Anyway. This is the kali yuga, after all. Good spying. Thanks.


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