Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mariaai, the Goddess of the people (also called Renuka, Yellamma, Mariamman, Ekvira)

- By Deepa Krishnan

I was walking along Dadar Kabootarkhana yesterday, and I spotted someone going from stall to stall, with the Goddess balanced on the head. 
It is summer now, and this is the time of rashes and other skin ailments. Mari-aai, also called Mariamman, Renuka, Ekvira or Yellamma, is a major folk goddess in the Deccan/South India. She is very powerful - her wrath can bring disease, but she is equally capable of blessing people. She cures all ailments, especially the pox, she blesses the infertile with children, and brings prosperity to the village.

There are several temples to this powerful goddess in Maharashtra - but if you cannot make the journey to the temple, then "no problem" !! You can get the blessings of the goddess right where you are, because she comes a-visiting, assisted by nomadic intermediaries.

The person carrying the goddess was a hijra, a third gender person. In exchange for a few coins, many stall-owners at Kabootarkhana were receiving benedictions. Some were offering food products from their stall (fruits, lemonade, etc) instead of coins.

The Mariamman/ Renuka/ Yellama legend has particular relevance to the hijra community.  The story begins with a Brahmin sage called Jamdagni. He ordered his sons to kill their mother Renuka, who he suspected of infidelity. Four of his five sons refused, and were burnt to ash. The fifth, the legendary hero Parasurama, agreed and beheaded his mother, but accidentally also beheaded another low-caste woman in the process. After the beheading, Jamdagni offered Parasurama a boon, and Parasurama asked for everyone to come back to life. His five brothers came back to life from the ashes, but they emerged as hijras. For the two women who were beheaded, Parasurama wrongly mixed up the heads and bodies, thus creating Brahmin-Untouchable hybrids. This is the origin of the Renuka-Mariamman entity. While Renuka in her changed form went back to her husband, Mariamman or Yellama remained behind to be worshipped by all. The hijra brothers also began to worship this goddes; so even today there are hijra priests in some Mariamman temples. 

The photo below is from the temple at Sion-Koliwada, which I visited one evening. In this temple, the officiating priestess is a hijra, and several hijras live here. They speak Tamil, so I enjoyed my evening here, chatting and photographing.
To me, Mariamman is extremely powerful because she allows for social norms to be subverted and taboos to be broken. She also provides a place in society for those not strictly adhering to traditional gender boundaries. Here is another photo from the Koliwada temple, with a beautiful hijra holding the goddess trident.
The goddess goes by many names, and is worshipped in many forms. Typically there are animal sacrifices, as well as other less bloody offerings. Here is the Ekvira temple at Karla, which I visted a couple of years ago, and their sacrificial altar.
On the day we went, there were no sacrifices (we went right after a major festival day), but the remnants of the previous day's worship were still there. Typically chickens and goats are sacrificed to Ekvira.
For those who want to read more, I wrote something about the Mariamman festival that I attended some years ago at Dharavi, along with my mother. In that festival, the Andhra community made offerings of a gruel (kanji) made of ragi (millet), flavoured with neem leaves (for protection from disease). There were also sacrifices of chickens and goats.

Clearly this sort of folk culture is at great variance with the "high brahmin" version of Hinduism. And it makes many upper caste people uncomfortable. But this is what I believe gives Hinduism its diversity and uniqueness; that it amalgamates all these variants and allows you to pick and choose what you wish.

Often, when I spot goddess figurines in the market and I ask people about it, they only say "Devi", the Goddess. Sometimes they say Mata, sometimes Aai (both mean mother). To me it is proof that there is a fundamental sameness that Indian people understand instinctively. Whether Ekvira or Renuka or Mari-aai or Yellamma, whether Mumbadevi or Golphadevi, the message is clear - there is one Mother, and she is the energy source of all living things.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Kamathipura through Olwe's eyes

- By Deepa Krishnan

Yesterday I took a friend to Jehangir Art Gallery, to see Sudharak Olwe's photos of Kamathipura.
These photos took him 10 years to produce. They are gritty and truthful and painful; they are also a starkly beautiful, aesthetic commentary on Mumbai.
Sudharak has photographed 11th Lane, Kamathipura and the people who inhabit it. There are street scenes, portraits, photos of daily life, festivals and events. There is joy, intimacy, bravado, sullenness and despair. Above all, there are stories. Each photograph feels like a frame in a movie - it makes you stop and think about what is happening in the scene, or has happened just before.
As I saw the photos, I remembered my visit to Pune's Budhwar Peth red-light district with a non-profit called Saheli. It was about 5 years ago; but it's not the sort of thing you forget. Seeing the brothels - the narrow dirty stained beds sandwiched between thin wooden ply partitions - was a misery and trial beyond words. 

Unlike other non-profits, Saheli is collectively run by the commercial sex workers themselves. There are a couple of social workers, who help with the day to day affairs, document the work, intercede with the police, etc. But the primary decisions regarding all key issues are taken by the women sex workers.

I learnt about the different ways in which girls end up in prostitution. Most had been trafficked. In many cases, the brothel owners had loaned or paid money to the girl's family, and the girl was the guarantee/pledge. The girl must first repay her family's loan if she ever wants to leave. I also learnt how impossible it was to repay the debt. The earnings from prostitution were meagre (rates began at 20 rupees), and half of that went to the brothel keeper. The women had to pay their own living expenses, pay for their children, and often send money back home. The interest rates were very high, and the debt usually just kept piling up astronomically. Finally, it was all about money. If you had money, it was actually possible to leave.

When Saheli was formed, the first thing the women did was to organise a community kitchen. I learnt that real estate in the brothel area was so precious that every six foot area possible was converted into a bed. The restaurants in the area had also been converted to brothels. Hence the community kitchen, which cooked home-style food, and also provided an alternative occupation to some retired sex workers.

After setting up a community kitchen, the next thing the women put in place was a creche for their children. A commercial sex worker is usually a single-parent, working in a dangerous environment. Children are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, so they badly need facilities to keep the children safe. The Saheli creche works as a Day and Night creche.
Photo source: Saheli
The photo below is from my visit to the Saheli office. The woman in blue is Tejaswi, she is one of the social workers at Saheli, and she did most of the talking. That's me in the brown saree, listening to her. The girl in yellow is also a volunteer with Saheli. I have not posted photos of the sex workers that I met. Behind us are crates of condoms.
Walking through the brothels of Budhwar Peth was truly difficult. Even though we were escorted by one of the senior sex workers who worked at Saheli, I felt like an unwelcome intruder (which is exactly what I was). Being able to speak Marathi helped a little. I was at least able to sit down and talk to people, rather than just walk around staring. 

During one of the chats, a brothel 'madam' gave me one of her big red bindis. She impulsively stuck it on my forehead (you can see it on the photo). I walked through the rest of the day feeling like I had been branded. In the bus back to Mumbai, I did not dare take the bindi off. It seemed as if by the act of taking it off, I was telling myself to forget Budhwar Peth. The bindi stayed stuck on my bathroom mirror for a year, reminding me of that dark world which 'respectable' women don't acknowledge.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Dharavi Art Room

- by Deepa Krishnan

I went to Bandra yesterday to see an exhibition of photographs clicked by children in Dharavi.

I confess I did not expect much. But I was blown away by what I saw.
The first thing I realised is that this is a very different sort of story-telling: it is an inside and intensely personal viewpoint, rather than an outsider's temporary peek into Dharavi (which is what you usually see in the press). 

The second thing I realised is that the photos themselves set a high aesthetic standard. Meaning, it is not a bleeding heart exhibit where you put up with poor output simply because of the background of the artists. They don't have the slickness of professional photographers, yes, but they are very good.
Third, I couldn't help responding to the sheer emotion in the photos. They go straight to the heart of the subject. Perhaps this kind of directness can only come from children. There is innocence, grace, beauty and the sheer magic of childhood shining through the photos. Collectively, the photos provide a unique insight into daily life and community as seen through young eyes. My phone camera really doesn't do justice to them, so go take a look yourselves and see if you agree with me.
The exhibition also had other things that were produced by the kids, like the charming Meow Book, which has colourful illustrations of cats with lots of stuff about the secret lives of cats :) There was another beautiful book wiith personal stories of women. There were postcards, notebooks, and so on. Those were high quality as well.
The exhibition was organised by Dharavi Art Room, which provides a space for the children of Dharavi to express themselves and explore issues through art. Recently, they've started working with women as well, teaching photography.

I spoke to Himanshu who founded The Dharavi Art Room 8 years ago, and to Akki, who joined a year ago. They're passionate about what they do - and what's more, they bring excellence into it.

Recently, they've run into funding problems,  and lost their permanent space in Dharavi. I've offered to sponsor a new space for The Art Room, and am now actively looking for space in Dharavi.

They need lots of financial assistance as well. If you can help, let me know, I'll send you their budget.

More updates soon on my space hunt in Dharavi.

Meanwhile: how to get to the current exhibition:
The Hive, 50 - A, Huma Mansion, Opposite Ahmed Bakery, Chuim Village Rd, Khar West, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India 400050. They will be there all of this week.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Turichya Shenga - a winter delight

- By Deepa Krishnan

With the winter season gone, it is time to say goodbye to the last of the "turichya shenga" - the green pods of tuar dal. 
The English name for this most basic of Indian dals is pigeonpea. I find the name both prosaic and beautiful :) 

There is archaeological evidence of tuar dal in India from nearly 3500 years ago. Two Neolithic sites from Odisha - Gopalpur on Sea and Golabai Sasan - have shown evidence of tuar dal. In fact, Odisha still has wild strains of tuar growing it forests. Tuar has been found at Sanganakallu (near Bellary, Karnataka), another Neolithic site where extensive excavation work has been going on. Another Chalcolithic site in Maharashtra, Tuljapur Garhi (Vidarbha district) also shows tuar dal. 

There is some dispute around whether tuar dal is native to India, or came here from Africa. However, the more accepted understanding by researchers is that tuar went from India to Malaysia and East Africa, then on to West Africa and finally to the West Indies, where in 1962 it was named pigeonpea. Pigeonpea then went to the New World (America etc) through the slave trade from Africa. 

Today it is grown in more than 25 countries, but India has a giant share: we produce 80% of the world's tuar dal. We import tuar dal from Africa because we cannot meet our domestic consumption needs. 

I went to the Indira Market at Sion last week and bought a quarter kilo of fresh tuar pods. It is an expensive vegetable, typically selling at Rs 100 a kilo. The simplest way to eat it is by cleaning the pods, and steaming them whole in a vessel with salt and turmeric. You can spend some happy "timepass" hours shelling them and eating the sweet pods inside.
I decided to make rava-bhaath with the rest of my fresh tuar. Here's a quick recipe: Take two tablespoons of oil, and temper with mustard seeds, green chillies, curry leaves and asafoetida. Add rava (semolina) and saute some more until it turns a light brown. Add salt. Toss in fresh pigeon peas, then add boiling water, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Turn off the flame, squeeze lemon juice and garnish with fresh coriander leaves before serving. We ate it with yoghurt and amla (gooseberry) pickle. Here is what it looked like:
Tuar is grown primarily in Maharashtra, which accounts for nearly 35% of India's production. The other somewhat big producers are Orissa, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, which together account for another 40%. It is a kharif crop, so we see fresh tuar coming into the market in the winter season, from December to March. After March, you can't usually get fresh tuar. If you love the taste of fresh tuar, you can shell them like peas, and put them away in the freezer for use later in the year. 

I haven't frozen any fresh tuar, so for the rest of the year, I've got to eat the dried version. 
Here's one of my favourite recipes of dried yellow tuar dal with kasuri methi (fenugreek leaves): 

In a kadai, add a tablespoon of oil. Add jeera (cumin), dried red chillies, finely chopped garlic and half a chopped onion. Saute until you get drunk on the aroma :) :) but don't allow the chillies to blacken (keep the flame low). Add cooked tuar dal, and a little bit of turmeric. Let it boil for 5 minutes on a low flame. Add a handful of kasuri methi (dried fenugreek) and switch off the flame. Stir the fenugreek in, garnish with coriander, and serve piping hot with basmati rice. Enjoy!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Karela chips - Bitter-Batter-Better!

- by Janaki Krishnan

The bitter gourd (karela) is an unpopular vegetable, but I love it. I cook it in many different ways to remove the bitterness and make it tasty. My favourite way of using karela is to make karela chips. I wait for summer, when karelas come to the market in large quantities.
Karela being sold in Matunga Market
I buy three kilos minimum (two daughters + me). Since I have a vegetable vendor at my doorstep, I get them early in the morning, even before breakfast. All through breakfast, the karelas sit on my kitchen counter, dominating the space, calling out for attention!

As soon as breakfast is over, I begin the process of making them. First they have to be washed. Then any ripe ones are to be separated. The seeds of the ripe ones can be planted, and will grow into a beautiful creeper. We have a creeper growing nicely in our verandah.
Karela creeper in my verandah
The first step in making chips is to cut the karelas into round slices.
At the chopping board - the slices don't have to be very thin.
Place the slices in a thick bottomed broad vessel. Add 3 tablespoons of salt to the slices and let it rest. After an hour and a half, you will see that the karelas have released their liquid, and you have a salty liquid at the bottom of the vessel.

Transfer this liquid into a smaller vessel and add tamarind to it. You will need lots of tamarind, around the size of three lemons. After 15 minutes of soaking in the liquid, the tamarind will soften and you can extract the pulp. To this salty-sour mixture, add half a table-spoon of asafoetida and turmeric, and one and half tablespoons of red chilli powder.

Pour this liquid on the karelas in large vessel, and mix the karelas in this liquid thoroughly. Add half a glass of water.
After this, it is time to semi-cook the karela. This is a tricky process, as you need to ensure that all the slices in the vessel get uniformly cooked. You need to either turn over the slices gently with a spatuala, or shake the vessel in a circular upward movement (like you would do with a sieve) to move the slices around. You have to do this repeatedly to ensure all the slices are evenly cooked.

Once the green colour changes (it is semi-cooked), drain the water. Do not throw away the liquid, because it may be necessary to use it later.
Here is how it looks after it is semi-cooked and laid out to dry on a moram (sieve):
Before you put it on the sieve to dry, taste and see if the salt and chilli are adequate. At this stage the chilli taste should be more dominant, since it will become more salty when it dries. Add more chilli or salt if necessary after tasting. If you find the taste bitter then you can do another round of soaking in the tamarind solution.

Place the sieve in a sunny area and dry for 2 days. Taste it at the end of the first day's drying process. If you want to make changes to it, you can again put it in the tamarind solution, and then dry it again.

Once it dries, then it can be fried in oil and made into chips. Perfect with dahi-rice or with rasam-rice! You can also store it for future use, in a dry air-tight container.