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This Diwali, see the festival in a new light

Experiences and objects that recreate memories fill the Lounge guide to Diwali in the year of the pandemic

This Diwali presents an opportunity to strip the festivities of mindless consumption and return to slower modes of celebration

In this extraordinary year, there is comfort to be found in the ordinary, in slowing down and taking stock, in being thoughtful rather than frenzied in our consumption. Over the months of the pandemic, many of us have noticed an increased focus and attention on the home—without the distractions of the outside world, the impulse to make the home a place of comfort and delight has become strong.

We are all nesting, say psychologists the world over, noting an upswing in the need to create spaces within our reach which offer rest to the soul through interventions that don’t spring from the wish to be featured in trending Instagram hashtags and Pinterest boards. This unique time has also pushed us to pause and introspect.

It has made us think of our roots and traditions, and how far we have come from that childhood home where, during the festive season, we would steal home-made sweets, make decorations and participate half-heartedly in the puja while waiting for the delicious spread later.

This year’s Diwali is unique. The visits to friends and family are likely to be curtailed; pujas more often than not will be a DIY affair, with family logging in on Zoom from across the world; the gifts will be cosy rather than expensive and showy.

But it does present an opportunity to strip the festivities of mindless consumption, return to slower modes of celebration, and see what has always been in front of us in a new light.

Ahead of this Diwali, the Lounge team has picked objects, ideas and activities that are a throwback to a more traditional way of marking time and celebrating.

From lamps lit with wicks made by grannies in Kerala to storytellers who revive ancient storytelling styles, from “firecrackers” that contain seeds instead of gunpowder to incense made with flower waste, from re-imagined Diwali sweets to blankets made with old saris, each object carries a story from our past.

The scent of temple flowers

Over 800 million tonnes of flowers are annually dumped into the Ganga and other Indian rivers. (Getty)
Over 800 million tonnes of flowers are annually dumped into the Ganga and other Indian rivers. (Getty)

Every year, over 800 million tonnes of flowers are dumped into the Ganga and other rivers around the country, polluting the water bodies with pesticides. Ankit Agarwal learnt this worrying statistic four years ago, when he spent time with a Czech friend on the banks of the Ganga in Kanpur on a cold January morning.

“A truck dumped huge amounts of flowers into the river. Minutes later, we saw a layer of chemical on the water surface,” he recalls. “It was the pesticide from the flowers. My friend said, ‘Why don’t you do something?’” Agarwal, an automation engineer, started looking for a solution.

In 2018, he founded Phool.co, a startup that upcycles flower waste to make chemical- and charcoal-free incense sticks and cones. From tuberose, nagchampa, nargis, tulsi and patchouli, Phool offers a wide range of Indian aromas in the form of incense sticks and cones, with a starting price of 165 for a box of 40 sticks.

The Kanpur-based startup, which also operates in Tirupati, recycles about eight tonnes of waste flowers every day.

So far, it has recycled over 11,000 tonnes. The “flowercycling”, as Agarwal calls it, is done by over 120 women who prefer working with the “religious temple flowers” to doing the caste-based work of manual scavenging. They earn 8,500 a month.

“Initially, two ammas joined me at Phool. They felt proud that they were doing something holy instead of cleaning toilets. That’s what inspired me to hire only women,” he says. “We are trying to turn waste flower into power.”—PS

To order chemical-free incense sticks and cones, visit Phool.co.

Shower of seeds

A microgreens ladi that contains seven pairs of seeds, such as red and green amaranth, fenugreek, spinach and mustard. Photo: courtesy the Gram Art Project
A microgreens ladi that contains seven pairs of seeds, such as red and green amaranth, fenugreek, spinach and mustard. Photo: courtesy the Gram Art Project

For decades, Diwali festivities have been punctuated with the loud, smoke-filled noise of the ladi, rockets or bombs. This year, you can opt for firecracker lookalikes that burst into an explosion of indigenous seeds.

These hatchers, or seed patakas, have been made by the Gram Art Project, a collective of farmers, painters, social workers and writers in Paradsinga village in Chhindwara district, on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, that offers firecracker alternatives made of recyclable material in a non-exploitative environment. “These are embedded with living seeds. Instead of affecting birds and animals, these are nature-friendly and habitat-rejuvenating. Just sow, water and see these hatchers hatch into beautiful plants,” says Shweta Bhattad, a visual artist, and the driving force behind the six-year-old initiative that works on issues such as the environment and organic farming.

The Golden Shower, which contains seeds of the Cassia Fistula tree. Photo: courtesy the Gram Art Project
The Golden Shower, which contains seeds of the Cassia Fistula tree. Photo: courtesy the Gram Art Project

For Diwali, they have created a microgreens ladi that contains seven pairs of microgreen seeds, such as red and green amaranth, fenugreek, spinach and mustard. There is a rocket containing cucumber and dill seeds, and a tikli with coriander seeds embedded in it. The “Laxmi Bomb” is nothing but a medium for Bauhinia Racemosa, or sonapatti, which is offered to Goddess Lakshmi in some traditions. It has medicinal properties and is used to treat headaches, skin and blood diseases, and dysentery. “It is not just on festivals that we do something on indigenous seeds. It’s part of our daily lives,” says Bhattad.

The creation of seed patakas was expedited by the fact that members couldn’t bear to watch the effect of crackers on sparrows, dogs and cattle that call the neem tree at the Paradsinga studio home. The pandemic has wrought a change in the way the team works. Usually during seed festivals, 100 families from around 10 villages come together to create products with seeds. However, this year, the process had to be restricted to the closest three-four villages in order to avoid long travels. “The question is whether to choose something which lacks conscious thought, is destructive and lasts for a few seconds or something that is thoughtful, constructive and can last for generations to come,” says Bhattad. —AB

For details, visit Gramartproject.org

Wicking grannies' wisdom

The Wicksdom Project, started by designer Lakshmi Menon (left) seven years ago, now supports 40-50 grannies in Kerala, and some other parts of the country as well. Photo: courtesy Lakshmi Menon
The Wicksdom Project, started by designer Lakshmi Menon (left) seven years ago, now supports 40-50 grannies in Kerala, and some other parts of the country as well. Photo: courtesy Lakshmi Menon

Before neon bulbs and fairy lights took over decorations, homes would be bedecked with ghee-filled diyas and candles. To return to those simpler times, you could opt for lamp wicks hand-rolled by grannies in Kerala as part of the Wicksdom project. Founded by designer Lakshmi Menon seven years ago, the initiative supports 40-50 women from old-age homes in Kerala and some other parts of India.

It was serendipity that led Menon to this project. “I live with my mother and grandma, and the latter suffers from Alzheimer’s. One day I saw her rolling wicks for oil lamps. She was chanting and seemed to be at peace,” she says.

Menon asked her to make a few more, put them in a pouch, tagged them “Ammoommatthiri”, or wicks made by grandma, and gifted them to family and friends.

They became so popular that Menon extended the initiative to elderly women in the neighbourhood.

One partially blind woman who couldn’t visit the temple was filled with happiness when the wicks she made were used by it. “I reached out to old- age homes and realised that the residents had neither a means of engagement nor a source of revenue, not even enough money to buy a packet of biscuits,” says Menon. That has changed today.

Every packet of 30 wicks generates income for the women. During the pandemic, Menon has started another project for the elderly women, Shayya, or mattresses made by braiding scraps left over from the manufacture of PPE kits. These have been donated to covid-19 care centres and the homeless. —AB

For details, visit Goodkarmafoundation.org

A hamper of stories

At the chitrakathi festival, held in Kumbharwadi village every Diwali, the Gangavane family performs stories from the Ramayana using paintings. Photo: courtesy Chetan Gangavane
At the chitrakathi festival, held in Kumbharwadi village every Diwali, the Gangavane family performs stories from the Ramayana using paintings. Photo: courtesy Chetan Gangavane

Aar disham simare, ehap ena tuput tapam, hayre chandogating tignad rafa ruyourem. This song, immensely popular among the Santhal tribe in West Bengal’s Purulia district, roughly translates to, “There is war at the end of our land. I pray to you, oh almighty, may he return unharmed to me”. It’s associated with the Saharay festival, celebrated after the first amavasya (new moon) in the month of Karthik. Suvadip Chakraborty, a community media worker who has spent time in Purulia, says legend has it that the festival marks a Santhal victory over “outsiders” with the help of goddess Kali Bonga. In an article for Sahapedia, an online resource on Indian art, culture and heritage, he writes, “Both sides communicated through messengers and decided to choose the time by lighting up diyas or clay lamps. Thus, according to this myth, this was the initiation of the festival of Diwali.”

Many such diverse song and storytelling traditions are integral to Diwali celebrations around the country—and you can now make these part of cosy family celebrations through podcasts or recordings.

Saharay festival is celebrated by the Santhal tribe after the first amavasya (new moon) in the month of Karthik. Photo: courtesy Suvadip Chakraborty
Saharay festival is celebrated by the Santhal tribe after the first amavasya (new moon) in the month of Karthik. Photo: courtesy Suvadip Chakraborty

“These form part of oral traditions. The songs don’t state anything complex, but contain simple details from the daily lives of the Santhals-- their joys and sorrows,” says Chakraborty, who is now based in Odisha.

The chitrakathi paintings made by the Thakar tribe in Maharashtra’s Pinguli village hold similar tales. Located amidst the Sahyadris, this village has been home to the community of painters, puppeteers and storytellers for over 400 years. Once employed as spies by Maratha kings, they would travel from village to village, telling stories from the epics.

The chitrakathi style has been kept alive by the Gangavane family at the Kala Aangan Museum & Art Gallery in Pinguli. Every year, around Diwali, the family gathers at Kumbharwadi village to narrate tales of Ram and Sita through these paintings. “During the pandemic, no other cultural programmes are taking place. Hence people have realised the value of traditions like chitrakathi, which allow them to gather together while also maintaining distance,” says Chetan Gangavane, whose family has been celebrating the tradition for 250 years. If you wish to make chitrakathi part of your celebration this year, you can order a painting from the Gangavane family, which has also created a series on covid-19 warriors.

You can even gift a learning experience about a different tradition. Stories Sans Borders, an online community of storytellers, hosts free weekly events on Zoom where they share a slice of their history, in their own language. So storytellers have shared a tale on how the sun and moon were created in Arunachal Pradesh’s Adi language; a story on how the eega (fly) got its name in Telugu; a tale on the lengths a Marwari man went to eat the forbidden onion; and a tale about poet Bulleh Shah and his revolt against the caste system in Punjabi.

“Before the narration, the storyteller gives a summary in English for context but we stick to the regional language since a lot gets lost in translation,” says Aparna Jaishankar, one of the six core members of the Bangalore Storytelling Society, which started Stories Sans Borders just before the lockdown in March. —AB & PS

To hear Saharay songs, visit Sahapedia.org/songs-of-saharay-desh-re-da. To learn more about chitrakathi paintings, call Chetan Gangavane at 9987653909. For Stories Sans Borders, mail info@bangalorestorytellingsociety.org

A modern twist to a sweet tradition

The doodh boondi laddoo is one of the many mithai offerings at The Bombay Sweet Shop. The boondi made in-house is flavoured with mace and garnished with emerald pistachios and rose petals
The doodh boondi laddoo is one of the many mithai offerings at The Bombay Sweet Shop. The boondi made in-house is flavoured with mace and garnished with emerald pistachios and rose petals

There was a time when Diwali would be incomplete without eating kheel batashe and sucking on khilone, or animal figures fashioned out of pure sugar. Over the years, these festive treats have become rarer, limited to pujas at most as people move towards fancy sweets and chocolates.

However, some shopkeepers, sustainable organic farms and modern mithai brands are keeping the taste of nostalgia alive. In Mumbai’s Ochiram Passari, for instance, batashe are available at the 63-year-old Shree Shankar Stores run by Kishore Manyal.

“We get our supply from Ulhasnagar and Kurla. These days, there is a lot of demand around Diwali,” he says. And you could well find khilone, now available in coloured versions as well, on thelas, or hand-drawn carts, in northern India. “But there are hardly any traditional karigars, who used to make these khilonas, so it is difficult to find a large quantity in shops,” says Manyal.

Kheel-batasha is a Diwali sweet tradition. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
Kheel-batasha is a Diwali sweet tradition. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

Just like kheel batashe, yet another Diwali sweet tradition was shakkarpaare. Today you may find refined-flour versions coated in thick lashings of sugar. But farms like the Tijara Organic Farm, which is spread across 10 acres in Rajasthan and focuses on seasonal, organic, biodynamic produce, are reviving an older and healthier variant made with whole- wheat flour and jaggery syrup.

“The texture is rougher and these are mildly sweet. We add moti saunf for flavour. These are not just healthier but also have an amazing shelf life,” says founder Sneh Yadav, who works with 18 farmers, the majority of them women.

In Jaipur, The Millet Kitchen, which offers pop-up meals and tiffins, has been reviving millet sweets such as the sukhdi, which is made with foxtail millet and has a halwa-like consistency. It is quite a favourite with children.

Founder Aru Bhartiya, who sources millets from responsible producers and small farmers, also does a pongal around this time with kodo millets, moong dal and jaggery.

If you wish to make some of these lesser-known traditional recipes at home, you can watch chef Ranveer Brar’s show, Ghar Sa Yummy, on Zee5; it showcases the history and process of the gehu and jaggery diyas made during Diveyanchi Amawasya in Maharashtra and the rice-flour variants created for the Maa Vilakku puja in Tamil Nadu.

Contemporary sweet shops like the Bombay Sweet Shop are also going down memory lane with offerings like the doodh boondi laddoo, made with milk, besan and rabri, and flavoured with mace. —AB

For batashe in Mumbai, call Kishore Manyal at 022-26497526. To get whole-wheat shakkarpaare, write to Tijara Organic Farm at tijaraorganicfarm@gmail.com. To order doodh boondi laddoo, visit www.bombaysweetshop.com. To get in touch with The Millet Kitchen, visit the Instagram page

Blanket memory

Artisans in West Bengal work on blankets made with old saris (Photo: Kopai-Paar)
Artisans in West Bengal work on blankets made with old saris (Photo: Kopai-Paar)

Named after the Kopai river, which flows through towns such as Bolpur and Santiniketan in West Bengal, Kopái-Paar trains artisans, mostly women, to create household objects, using craft techniques that were part of their everyday lives but have been replaced by mass-produced alternatives. The products of Kolkata-based Neha Rungta’s four-year-old venture range from cushions and to rugs, baskets and ceramic objects. Her newest project is “memory blankets”.

Using old fabrics to make chaddars and blankets is a craft tradition in many parts of India. In West Bengal, it not only allowed women to sew stray fabric into soft and durable blankets, it also led to the famous kantha stitch embroidery (kantha means quilt in Bengali), which now adorns silk saris, dupattas and kurtas. Rungta wanted to take the tradition of kantha back to its roots. “We can buy handmade blankets and quilts at craft fairs, but it becomes one more object you pick off the shelf. I wanted to do it a bit differently.”

The blankets from Kopái-Paar are made to order with saris given by the customer—the perfect way to preserve memories of a beloved mother, grandmother or aunt. Each 60x90-inch blanket, which takes two-three weeks to make, costs 1,900.

“We all like beautiful and new things, but I started questioning what we were buying, why we were buying it, and where it would end up. I realised our grandmothers, who never wasted a thing, held the answer.” —SB

For details, visit kopaipaar.com

Spinning metallic dreams

Ayasa brass jar from Tiipoi (Photo: Tiipoi.com)
Ayasa brass jar from Tiipoi (Photo: Tiipoi.com)

Indian design is not about the decorative and the ornamental, values it has predominantly come to be associated with outside the country—think truck art or kitschy flower prints—but about the practical and functional, says Spandana Gopal, founder and creative director of Tiipoi, a London- and Bengaluru-based product design studio.

At Tiipoi, which celebrates the extraordinary durability and effectiveness of Indian product design techniques, less is more— and although the range of products, mostly made with traditional metal-spinning techniques, may be small, it draws attention to the work that goes into making each copper or brass vessel, aluminium tray or hand-turned wooden bowl.

Although spun metal objects such as heavy copper lotas and brass plates are common in Indian households, today they are usually used during weddings and pujas, and have largely been replaced by cheaper alternatives like stainless steel, even plastic.

Initially, Tiipoi found it difficult to locate craftspersons who still engage in traditional metal-spinning—most traditional metal spinners had lost out to automated CNC machines. Eventually, they tracked down Venkatesh Chinappa in Bengaluru, who has decades of experience in metal spinning. Today, he makes all of Tiipoi’s brass, copper and aluminium spun products.

India is a storehouse of super functional designs, believes Gopal.

“The ‘designers’ of these objects, if they can be found at all, aren’t celebrated in the same way as they are in other countries. Instead, design is seen as a by-product of living. This unassuming approach, with an emphasis on quiet functionality, is what inspires and drives our creative process,” she says. —SB

For details, visit tiipoi.com

House of dolls

The Cariappas by Varnam (photo: Varnam)
The Cariappas by Varnam (photo: Varnam)

Karthik Vaidyanathan, founder and principal designer of the Varnam Craft Collective, first saw the decorative dolls tucked away on top of a cupboard at a craftsman’s house in Channapatna, the Karnataka crafts cluster famous for its hand-turned wooden objects. Till then, Varnam, a Bengaluru-based social enterprise and design studio, had largely focused on products for the home, jewellery and toys from Channapatna. These dolls were not available in the market.

“I did some research and found that in the 1950s, the regional design centre in Karnataka, a government body, had commissioned these dolls to be made by artisans in Channapatna using the traditional techniques. But somewhere along the way, the project fell through and never went ahead,” says Vaidyanathan. The dolls he saw were dressed in the traditional wedding costume of north Karnataka, and he decided to commission a series representing communities like “The Belagavis” of north Karnataka, “The Cariappas”of Coorg, and “Malabari Penne”, the artisans’ interpretation of women from Kerala’s Malabar region. Each piece is made of wood from the native hale mara, or Wrightia tinctoria tree, and hand-painted after the coat of lacquer that gives Channapatna crafts their sheen.

“This is the Channapatna interpretation of the popular ‘Marapachi’ dolls, which were given as a gift to couples when they got married,” says Vaidyanathan. These days, they also sell well during Navratri, when families in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh put up elaborate doll displays or ‘golu’, and as Diwali gifts. —SB

For details, visit varnamstore.in


Also read the other stories in our Diwali issue:

A savoury note to a sweet Diwali

This Diwali, there’s a game for everyone

The light of memories: A note from the editor

Brews that spell Diwali festivity

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