The sound of drumming and jazz drew me to a street near my home. The road had been blocked off and a party atmosphere was evident as people gathered, brought munchies, drank beer and jived to the tunes. It was a hot and muggy New York Saturday and as I soaked in the atmosphere, the scene made me cast my mind to Pune and street festivities.
This is the time of year when the unrelenting cacophony from Ganesh pandals causes noise pollution indicators to rise sky high. The difference is Indian street festivities tend to last through the day and late into the night. In contrast, street jazz festivals in NYC only tend to last until early evening and mainly on weekends, in deference to respecting a citizen’s right to peace, privacy and quiet. Of course that said, I do sleep and wake to the sound of ambulances in New York City. Luckily, there is burgeoning awareness about reducing the nuisance factor of Pune pandals. After all, festivals are fun but should not create an impediment.
Ganesh festival is also celebrated in North America. Sai Samsthan in Warrenville, Illinois is said to have one of the largest celebrations while Philadelphia has one of the larger publicly funded celebrations. In New York, The Hindu Temple Society of North America holds elaborate celebrations for the entire period with pujas, daily chanting and a chariot procession on the last day. The chariot procession has everyone out on the streets joining in the singing and dancing. Many non-Indians can be seen participating in the celebrations.
In India, immersion is one of the highlights bringing the festival to an end. In this country, pollution rules often disallow immersing the statue in any stream, river or the ocean. At this temple in Flushing, Queens, the Ganesh statue is immersed in a makeshift pool in the temple backyard and once the statue has disintegrated, the remains are scattered on the lawns of the temple. Sanitation levels are rigorously maintained all through the festival. In fact, eco-friendly Ganesh celebrations are also becoming the rage in India. Pollution is the bane of modern times and it is heartening to see this step in the right direction.
Ganeshotsav kickstarts festive fever. Next on the agenda is a festival close to my heart: Navratri. I have attended more Navratri celebrations in North America than I ever did in India. Communities and local organisations plan small and large scale celebrations. MetLife Stadium in New Jersey has one of the largest ever turn out of desis whirling and twirling to garba and dandiya music. In smaller towns, local school gyms become the default venue for dandiya and garba. People come decked out in their chaniya cholis and bandhni sarees. Gujjuness is trendy during this period.
Another popular festival is Diwali. In New York, Diwali on Times Square, Diwali on the Hudson, Diwali at South Street Seaport are just a few of the well-attended celebrations. A mela environment is created with Bollywood celebrities, dancers, musicians, henna artists and Indian street food. Most of these celebrations are planned around the period leading up to Diwali and could be held as much as a month in advance, since permissions are needed. Weekends are preferred and other local conditions need to be met too.
A popular celebration that has no socio-religious connotations but is a huge draw is the Independence Day parade. They are called India Day parades since they are not held exactly on August 15 but generally on a Sunday close to that date. Bollywood is in full evidence and depending on budgets, the celebrities are topnotch or simply B-grade movie stars. But that does not kill the enthusiasm and the floats and food are a huge draw for non-Indians too.
Festivals are celebrated for many reasons. There is a huge socio-cultural element but on another note, the vibrations created by the chanting and music is also said to be beneficial. Celebrating these festivals makes Indians feel connected to the motherland. It is an excuse to get together and be Indian in a way most do not do on a day to day basis. People revel in the food, clothes and music while reconnecting with other Indians.
While nothing can ever replace the celebrations in India, the bonhomie and feel good factor will continue to ensure the popularity of these community celebrations, far away from India. The Ganesh festival is just a kickstarter. Festive fever is in the air.