Sunday, May 28, 2006

night out in pune - possession and puja

(May 27, 2006) - Last night my neighbor Anna, the Austrian anthropologist came knocking urgently on my door. "Come," she said, "there is a puja just starting out back." I had just sat down to do some writing on the 'What Am I, a Demon"?" story cycle in the Vinayavastu. When she saw that I was not jumping up at once, she spoke again, more firmly this time: "Just come, now." So I did.


Earlier in the week, there had been a marriage in the tiny village behind our building. The village is comprised of housing for the staff - watchmen, clerks and lower-level employees of Bhandarkar Institute - and thus I know several of its residents by face, if not by name.

It is now four days later, still the wedding rituals linger on, and each day there is some fresh activity that both extended families gather and attend. Tonight was planned a puja to Khandoba, a deity who appears to take the form of a heavy metal chain. This particular puja is an a regular part of the cycle of wedding rituals for this group, and would be followed by a meal and then a nightlong program involving song and dance to the deity. Those attending were planning on staying up all night to participate. The puja began at about 9pm, ordinarily enough, with red kumkum and yellow turmeric powder, lights, and other offerings for the deity. The altar was on the bare ground, a cloth placed under the chain, and the offering substances arranged on plates. A torch that looked like a ritual implement was blazing, and waved at various junctures in the ritual. Two pujarins (ritual officiants) were there, dressed in white with a white cap. The groom was dressed similarly, with his wife at his side in a splendid silk sari with elaborate jewelry and makeup. They and the married couple crouched by the altar, while everyone else stood around watching as the pujarins directed the series of ritual actions that had to be performed. A small band of musicians, heavy on the percussion, were on hand, offering music. With the musicians was a young woman dressed in a fairly ordinary sari, with only the usual jewelry and make-up. We were told she would dance for us later in the evening. She stuck close to the musicians and made no contact with anyone else.

As I joined her in the circle of onlookers, Anna whispered to me that this was a puja brahmins would not hold nor most likely attend. As she did I noticed that one of the middle-aged ladies - a relative of the groom - had begun dancing, her body jerking somewhat violently as she did. Two women approached her from behind, quickly untied her hair and adjusted her sari, with the end being tucked firmly into her beltline. At this point, we may have been 15 or 20 minutes into the puja. Then another woman began to dance, this one quite frail and elderly: the bride's grandmother. Her movements were vigorous and rhythmic as she danced. Her bun too was let down and, with a minimum of fuss, her sari adjusted and secured around her waist. I guessed this was to protect the women from immodesty as they move about. Then a third woman began to dance: the groom's grandmother. At least initially she appeared to retain some measure of control, for when they came to undo her hair, she waved them off firmly. She had her hair coiffed a bit elaborately, and they left it untouched at her request, but they did readjust her sari for her. She danced with rather more decorum than the other two.

During this puja, no other women danced, and people gave the three of them plenty of space. About 20 to 30 people had gathered around, and they now stood in the dim light of the torch, watching the dancers rather causally, without particular awe or concern. Some people talked quietly as the music continued.

All three women danced facing the altar, though as was clarified later by the bride's sister, the women were not dancing. Certainly her grandmother would never dance in public. Rather, the goddess was dancing.

Later the bride's grandfather told us that when they had held the Khandoba puja after the wedding of the bride's father, similarly a grandmother of the bride and a grandmother of the groom had also become possessed by the goddess and danced. The family had a special connection to the goddess in a number of forms, and one of these would likely have been present. It was very possible that when the next generation marries the goddess might choose their grandmothers to dance as well.

From time to time, some women went to the altar, took some of the red kumkum powder that is offered in worship to deities, and anointed the women's foreheads with it. I understood them to be doing so as an offering to the goddess as she danced.

Very shortly after the dancing began the music stopped and did not resume until they had returned to themselves. The musicians had allowed the three to dance for no more than 10 minutes, and clearly meant the possession to end, waiting until the women emerged form that state. Each did so in a bit of a daze, as if awakening form a deep sleep. Their eyes were glassy. Two of them took the ends of their saris and wiped the kumkum powder from their foreheads. They remained standing where they had been. The drumming and ritual continued for another 15 or 20 minutes. The bride and groom stood always side by side, woman on the left. They were made at times to offer some substances to the altar, at others to carry them off in a particular direction indicated by the pujarin. At one point, the chain was lifted with great care, a cloth draped around the groom's neck and the chain placed on top of it. In this way, he circled the altar holding a leaf pouring water as they went, and followed by five of the young girls from the village who did likewise. They made a ring of water around the altar had been, and continued in a small procession up to the groom's home. The puja continued inside the house at the family altar but at this point most everyone seated themselves to chat on mats outside the house, where a large and elaborate altar had been constructed of tripods of five sugar canes and many other objects I was less able to identify. After some time, food began being carried out on leaf plates and all had to stand so that all could be re-seated in proper seating order for eating. Very unusually, women were served food first, an inversion of the normal order that happens only at this puja.

I left at this time, partly to avoid the social discomfort of not partaking of the food, and also because at this time, I was to call my Sanskrit professor in Vishakhapatnam, Prabhakara Shastry. When I did, he strongly encouraged me to attend every single function I was invited to, as well as those to which I had not been invited, but where my presence would not be offensive. He said he had done the same in the States, entering churches where weddings were in progress if it seemed he was not prohibited from attending.

Anna had come home to put her children to sleep and rest for bit herself, as the program of song and dance was to begin at 11:30, we had been told, and would last all night. At about midnight I began to hear drumming and roused Anna from her sleep. Anna's four-year-old son Christopher had very much wanted to see it, and had asked her to wake him up and take him there. I pushed Christopher in his stroller, Anna carried her sleeping 10-month old daughter in her arms, well and thus the four of us thus went out together to the groom's house, where the night's events would take place.


When we arrived, everyone was already seated, the female relatives of the groom all together in the spot directly facing the musicians, but on the other side of the altar. In my estimation, this women's mat was by far the best spot to watch the evening's events. The female relatives of the bride also sat together on a map, off to one side. The men were divided into groups, and sat farther from the altar. One group seemed loosely, but only loosely, comprised of the groom's relative, the other the bride's. We were all accommodated under the cover of a decorative canopy that had been erected for the event. Another set of men, mostly older, sat on beds that had been placed outdoors, outside the canopy and at a remove from the center of the activities. The wedding was a bit unusual perhaps in that both groom and bride hail from this same small cluster of houses, so most everyone seemed to know each other well.

When we arrived the band was playing, and just as we were arriving, one of the three women who had earlier been possessed again stood to dance. Again she faced the altar, again she alone danced, and again her hair was let loose and her sari made tighter. She was dancing near one of the poles that held up the tent we were under, and two women hovered near her to intercede should her movements bring her too near it. Again women came to anoint her forehead as she danced, but this time the dancing was permitted to continue for a bit longer than previously, but finally, the band stopped playing, evidently sparking an end to the state she was in. One of the women who had been hovering nearby stepped closer, just at the moment when the woman possessed fell to the ground. The second woman was brought down with her, occasioning a great deal of laughter on the part of this second woman as well as those surrounding her. Those sitting around the two fallen women exchanged smiles or laughed at this bit of slapstick, most of all the woman who had been sent tumbling when the possessed woman fell who seemed to seek out eye contact with other women to grin at what had transpired. The woman who had danced possessed did not initially join in the laughter, but rather sat a bit dazed. After a couple of minutes, though, after wiping some of the kumkum and sweat from her face, as she returned to herself, she too exchanged smiles with one or two other women who caught her eye. I was struck by the comfort in shifting from the serious work of dancing for the goddess and caring for the woman who did so with the playful laughter at the slapstick fall.

Meanwhile, the drumming resumed. The musical accompaniment featured mainly drumming with cymbals though one string instrument and a sort of accordion were also at hand. All the musicians were male, and all provided vocal support, in songs that seemed to draw heavily on call-and-response. To my utterly untrained ear, it did sound rather African.

Another woman, one of the grandmothers again, became possessed but did not stand to dance. Instead she threw the upper half of her body forward and back, and side to side, rhythmically in powerful jerks. Someone unloosed her hair, and she was allowed to continue thus for some time. People watched from where they sat, but she was not made particularly the center of any attention. No particular fuss was made, and it all seemed fairly matter-of-fact. Again the goddess seemed to leave her when the music stopped, and she sat for some time, disconnected from those around her and seeming somewhat disoriented.

This was the last of the five instances of possession I saw that night, all happening in the first quarter of the evening's activities.

From time to time, people randomly came forward, men as well as women, and picked their way between the musicians to make a cash offering or offering of kumkum and turmeric at the altar. A couple of older women carried around the tray of powders and anointed the foreheads of the women seated. Throughout, people came and went, younger people continually shifting from group to group, some going off to sleep, while others simply stretched out on the mats and dozed off for a bit. For a while, young girls brought around trays with small cups of strong chai, for those who were choosing not to sleep.

After some time, the format shifted, and two of the musicians began what sounded to me like a ritualized form of banter, half sung and occasioning much laughter. The language was too hard for Anna to follow, and one of the girls seated near us was only able to indicate that it was about different gods. I imagined it to be some form of ritualized rivalry. This went on for quite a while, with the older man dancing in what seemed to me a female style of dance. One of the young girls, Diksha, eleven years old and by far the best dancer in the crowd, stood and joined him. They stood dancing about five feet apart. The man, about sixty years old, kept shifting dance styles and she watched each shift, smiling, and copied his moves. She clearly enjoyed herself but was called back to sit down after a couple of songs. The song, dance and banter continued and later when the performers were calling her to dance, her mother said no. The girl with some English explained that it was not proper for her to dance with him - and in fact had not been proper earlier either, as she was female and already too old for that.

Next to come forward to dance was the single female in the group of entertainers. Until now this young woman had been milling around near the musicians, not interacting with anyone in the audience. At this point, though, she began to dance with the older man, again at a respectable distance from him, facing him, in a style different from any I had seen before. Her hands were continually moving in patterns reminiscent of classical Indian dance, but much more erratic and rapid. Her hips and shoulders moved in small jerks, and she never varied her movements. She did not strike me as a particularly skilled dancer. Men would come forward to dance with her - mostly unmarried men in their early twenties, and many danced in a wild style with big Bollywood movements that only men get away with off-camera here. On one occasion, one such young man came in closer to the woman and the lead musician intervened, calling out loudly in his singsong bantering style that that was her side, and the man must stay over there, on his side. This occasioned much laughter.

It was noted that the groom had gone off - it was 2 am or so at this point, and he had slipped off to sleep a bit - and he was called back. His bride too, who had already been called back from sleep once earlier, was also made to return, and watched as her husband was made to dance with the female performer.

Again the format shifted, with people offering money to the performers - usually about ten rupees - and telling them a name, with the understanding that the performers would then poke fun at them. those in the audience who offered cash for this service were mainly men, and it went back and forth it went, with men from either side of the altar . One of the younger musicians would collect the cash, bring it to the performer who had the main role in the banter, and half-whisper the name of the next victim. The senior performer immediately called out that name, weaving it into his singing. With one exception, those singled out for such ribbing were all men. At times, the person called was not present, and someone went off to rouse them from their sleep in one of the houses nearby. Their obvious grogginess as they were brought forward invariably occasioned much amusement.

For those singled out, the ribbing consisted in part in having to come forward to dance with the woman. Many of the men, especially those a bit older, were clearly embarrassed at having to perform publicly and some did their best to refuse, though in the end, all those singled out were made to take a turn, however short. Before they approached her to dance, though, their faces were anointed, often very thoroughly, with turmeric powder, red kumkum powder and a black powder. Often they ended up painted garishly in these three colors, their face and, inevitably, clothes, stained yellow by the turmeric.

Next to the altar, a fire had been built, and someone sat tending to it, feeding it ladlefuls of oil regularly. As part of the ribbing, the man called forward first had his face painted, usually while seated here. On occasion, one of the young men in the audience would come and restrain their hands, the better to paint them fully. Turmeric might be dusted into the hair, and in one instance, even put under the man's shirt. Sometimes they stood up immediately and danced with the woman, before rushing back to their seat, but others, especially younger boys and brothers of the bride or groom, might sit and tend this fire for some time as well. They may have done more while seated here, but I could not see clearly from where I sat with the groom's female relatives.


This was all done with much joy, and amidst great laughter, and though I could not follow the banter that sparked outbursts of laughter, I found myself grinning often. At one point, someone gave Anna's name to the musicians and they seemed intent on getting her to come up to dance - something no female except Diksha had done. They told her no problem for women to dance, and she joked with them a bit. The women were laughing too, but a few of this sitting near us said, "No Anna, you must not dance." Anna joked that she would certainly dance, but as the last women to do so, after all the other women had had their turn, and when they saw that indeed she would not dance, they turned their attention elsewhere, smiling as they did.

The dancing continued, and at one point many of the younger children still awake joined in the fun, forming a crowd near the altar. The female performer quietly stepped aside and stood watching.

At a certain point, the musicians took a break, and one of the younger ones carried the tray of powders around and anointed the audience members' foreheads. When they came to me and Anna, they quite respectfully determined whether we were each willing before placing the red powder on her forehead.

After this, the musicians who had been standing this entire time, seated themselves and played on from the ground. The dancing and bantering stopped at this point, and the energy level dropped as well.

During the evening, various children (girls and boys) and women came wanting a turn to hold Anna's small daughter Ria, and one such woman, whom Anna did not know, succeeded in putting her back to sleep. Once asleep, Ria was carried into the house and placed on a mat to sleep, next to some other small children. Anna's son Christopher initially could barely stay awake, but later became quite engaged in the activities. He stood up to dance at one point - his dancing consisting in standing motionless with one arm in the air in the pose that dancers often adopt as they move about. He was given a turn to have his face painted, which was done fairly sparingly. We had made small moves to leave earlier, but one elder relative had motioned to us to stay a bit longer. But now Christopher was becoming cranky and her daughter had awakened again, and we left shortly before 4 am, less than an hour before the activities ended.

As Anna and I filed out, each of us with one of her two children, the lead musicians were calling out something that included the word 'deva' (god) and each folded their palms towards me in prostration as I left.

1 comment:

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