“You must visit us during Yelamas,” Mohanabai Mahalangrekar insisted when we met a decade ago. The 62-year-old retired lavani performer is now a farmer near Latur in Maharashtra.
Yelamas, also known as Yelvas or Wel Amavasya, is a popular harvest festival and is celebrated with much enthusiasm and fanfare in a few districts of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana. Local governments declare it a holiday as people spend the day at the farm and take part in feasts. If one doesn’t own a farm, they are invited to those belonging to relatives and friends. The new moon day in the Hindu month of Margasheersh calls for an elaborate, pre-fixed meal, and it falls on January 2 this year. I was fortunate to have witnessed this celebration during a visit to Mahalangrekar’s farm exactly a year ago.
The morning I reached her roomy house in Latur, we had plenty to catch up on. Over multiple rounds of creamy chai, green peas appe and sushila—a popular poha-like snack made of puffed rice—I was heartened by her warm hospitality. The tamarind and peanut chutney, that accompanied them, reinvigorated my palate with its piquant and spicy flavour. It was prepared by Mahalangrekar who usually doesn’t cook. Lavani artists are the breadwinners; kitchen and housework are not their responsibility. “Imagine how easy it would be that even I could make it in less than five minutes,” she quipped.
“The real taste comes from the blend of raw items like onion and tamarind pulp,” she shared, and added, “rookie chefs should make it to impress their loved ones just like me.”
We headed to her farm by mid-morning. All farmers in the region celebrate this festival despite their caste and religion which highlights the syncretic nature of harvest festivals. Mahalangrekar comes from a matriarchal community called Kalwat that follows Islam. The farmers build a small conical structure of jowar hay and decorate it with flowers and a shiny cloth. Clay idols of the five Pandavas and Laxmi are placed under the structure and worshipped.
We were invited by several families whose farms we crossed to reach Mahalangrekar’s. “People eat multiple times and at different farms, but the feasting doesn’t end and over-eating doesn’t upset the tummy,” she said with a smile.
A group of 45 comprising her close family and friends gathered under the canopy of a huge Babul tree at her farm. I was eager to see the menu, but there was no sign of cooking. We played some games with the children, swayed on the swings and sang songs.
Finally, it was lunch time and there was a large spread of jowar and bajra rotis, sesame and jaggery stuffed wheat rotis, yellow garlicky dal, sticky rice, papads, pickles and the key attractions of Yelamas—bhajji and ambil.
Bhajji is a thick mixed vegetable curry and ambil is fermented buttermilk. Mahalangrekar’s brothers and their wives had cooked everything early in the morning, while the ambil was made the previous night and allowed to ferment. Although nothing was re-heated, each morsel was filled with flavour.
The ambil—with coarsely ground garlic greens, dry red chillies, cumin seeds, salt and a pinch of turmeric powder—is left to ferment overnight. In the morning it’s tempered with mustard seeds, crushed garlic and served.
“Some people add jowar flour too,” Mahalangrekar’s sister-in-law said, and added, “But that may give you a buzz.”
I was already feeling a bit buzzed.
“How many glasses did you have?” Mahalangrekar asked.
“Four,” I replied.
“Who gave him four glasses, have you gone nuts?” she scolded her grandchildren: “This is fermented buttermilk. It does contain a bit of alcohol.”
In that hazy state, I recalled what she told me 10 years ago: “I have done plenty of lavani (the art form) on stage, now I want to try my luck at the lavani (sowing) in the farms.”
I looked at the large, lush green farm. She had achieved the difficult task of succeeding in an unfamiliar territory in less than 10 years. It definitely called for celebration. “One more glass of ambil please,” I requested and lied down in the shade of the humongous Babul tree.
Bhajji for Yelamas
1 cup peanuts, boiled
1 cup green peas, boiled
1 cup green chickpeas, boiled
1 cup pigeon peas, boiled
1 cup carrots, cubed
1 cup eggplants, cubed
3 cup fenugreek leaves, cleaned and plucked
3 cups spring onion, chopped
1 and half cup tamarind pulp
1 and half cup besan
1 and half cup water
1 and half cup curry leaves
1 and half cup oil for cooking
Salt and red chilli powder to taste
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 cup paste of garlic greens, garlic pods, cumin seeds and green chillies
Heat oil in a pan. Add mustard seeds and curry leaves, tip in the garlic-chilli paste. Saute. Tip in the vegetables, add turmeric powder and red chilli powder. Let it simmer for 5 minutes. Mix in the boiled peas. Add salt and tamarind pulp and let it cook. Meanwhile, mix the besan with water. When the cooked peas and vegetables start releasing oil, slowly pour in the besan slurry while stirring continuously. Let it come to a rolling boil. Take it off the heat and serve hot. It can be had cold too.
Mohanabai’s Tamarind Chutney
1 cup tamarind pulp
1 and half cups raw peanuts
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp red chilli powder
Salt as per taste
Put all the ingredients in a mixer and blend till you get a nice coarsely-ground texture. Traditionally, sugar is not needed, but adding it may enhance and balance the taste.
Bhushan Korgaonkar is a Mumbai-based writer.