My paternal grandfather hailed from a small village in U.P. called Navipur, about a 100 kms southeast of Delhi. That whole geographical belt comprising of well-known places like Kosi, Mathura, Vridavan and Nandgaon, in the middle of which Navipur is demurely nested, is famous for its Holi celebrations. I was almost twenty years old when this incident that I am about to narrate took place. I had visited Navipur village many times in my life but that year was the first time when I would get to experience the Holi festivities. I was extremely excited about it.
The high point of the entire celebration was the ceremony which took place on the eve of Holi. To witness it, we were taken to the balcony of our ancestral house which oversaw a large open field. A huge nagada or drum sat in the middle the field and all the village folk were gathered around it. The women came dressed in colorful ghagra-cholis, most of which looked quite similar. But what stood out amongst their costumes was their vibrantly hued chunaris, embellished with shiny gold and silver zari and decorations all over. I loved those chunaris so much that even though I didn’t own a ghagra-choli, I made a mental note to pick up one for myself.
At the start of the event, the younger men and women from the village positioned themselves at the two opposite ends of the field, obedient and coy but betraying a shade of impatience for someone’s cue. The elders from their families came and settled down on the concrete pavements encircling the trees in one corner of the field, which served as a vantage point. And then with the roll of the nagada, which I must admit beat my expectation with the thunderous sound it created, like a sudden downpour, the crowd just burst into a spirited dance. The men were dancing at the left and the women at the right, with about thirty feet of mutually respected ‘no-man’s land’ dividing them; something I couldn’t quite get the rationale behind. We as outsiders were ordered by the elders of our family to just stay up at the balcony and be silent spectators, although my feet were involuntarily rebelling against that diktat with every beat of that nagada. I found the restriction on us a tad odd, but it wasn’t the time or the place to argue, so we ‘outsiders’ just begrudgingly complied.
But after a while, looking at all the villagers dance, I did begin to wonder that even if we were allowed to take part in that mirth, did anyone have the zeal to match their steps? I have seen quite a few amazing dancers in my life, but none like the ones I saw there. Dance is after all a game of energy, but the verve with which the villagers were dancing made me wonder if I could ever match their energy. It was delight to watch the amazing fervour with which they, especially the women, danced.
There was an odd quality of pep in their dance; which I felt deeply contrasted with their traditional, heavy ghagra-cholis. Their faces interestingly remained completely veiled at all times and the chunari didn't budge even an inch with all that animated dancing. How did they even see what they were doing? To me, it seemed like an unnecessary irritant. But not to those women, who in fact seemed to be making sure that the chunari kept their faces fully covered at all times. I realized that even with what I can only assume must have been a seriously restricted view, I had never seen a more happy dancing lot. So I just surmised that it must be because they were after all used to wearing chunaris and keeping their face covered all the time.
After a while, the dancing style changed. The loosely earmarked ‘no-man’s land’ had now become a battleground. One of the men from the group capered onto that area and gestured towards the women as if inviting a challenger. The women shared veiled glances and fixed on a member of their group to be sent in response; all this while their feet never stopping for even a second. The chosen one then danced her way over to her challenger. The music suddenly picked up tempo and the dance became even more exhilarant. The whole thing was now a one-on-one game between those two about who outlasts whom, with their respective gangs cheering them on. After a few minutes of extremely energetic dancing, one person from that pair of challengers would resignedly walk back to the group and tag someone else to come forward and take his/her place. This went on for at least fifteen such pairs. And amazingly those frail-looking, chunari-laden, visually restricted women gave those men a fitting challenge and won most of the rounds. It was an incredible sight. The way those women moved, and the embellishments on their chunaris glistened catching the rays of the setting sun, irradiating the whole place, was spectacular. I remember telling my aunt every ten minutes that I must get one of those chunaris for myself. I knew I would probably never wear it, but I wanted it purely as a memento of that beautiful evening I was sure I would cherish for a long time. I don’t think I had ever before or would ever again enjoy myself so thoroughly, seeing someone else dance while as I was just an onlooker.
But something about what I saw that evening stuck out to me as an oddity. It piqued my interest enough to make me inquire about that event later that night. The restrained and mostly coerced answers I got from the elders in my family took away every shred of the feeling of gaiety, witnessing that event had left me with.
That somber, sleepless night, using what I had seen and the answers I had received, I managed to construct the whole story. And somehow that story did not leave the same aftertaste which that evening’s fête did.
The footloose spirit, with which these women danced, in fact was a by-product of the hackneyed lives they otherwise lead. Lives stifled by parochial social customs and fettered by prejudiced, social diktats imposed on them in the name of tradition. They had to follow never-ending restrictions dictated by their families and society day in and day out. Where to go, when to go, whom to go with, whom to talk to, how to talk, what to eat – everything! These yearly celebrations were the only times when the barricades that restrained their every move were lifted. For that one event they were exempted from the usual timorous demeanor that they were forced to wear in public view.
And so when the opportunity presented itself, these women made the most of it. That dance wasn't just a festive ritual for these women; it was the only source of releasing all that pent up frustrations and energy. It was a declaration of their freedom, however transient it might be. Their delirious dance moves announced boldly that unlike their lives, their spirits weren’t manacled. Their heavily ornate chunaris, ironically the very symbol of their perennial subordination, were on that particular evening, most instrumental towards their flitting independence. The fact, as I had learnt that evening, was that most of these women would exchange their chunaris with each other before the dance starts. And so no one, not even the men from their own families would be sure of which one amongst the whole assemblage were the women from their families. This whole element of anonymity was the key to the overall blitheness of their performance. They knew that these chunaris would enshroud them; away from the judging, restraining, admonishing eyes of everyone. Their shackles, for that one evening, became their safety nets. I now understood why they were so enthusiastically compliant in keeping that chunari in place at all times. It was ironical, but in a rather sweet and redemptive way, that the chunaris which were otherwise a means of making these women inconspicuous to the society they live and breathe in (unabashedly disregarding the fact that they are the very people who nurture that society by being a mother, a wife, a sister or a daughter) proved to be the cloak on invisibility they much needed to live those magical moments.
The irony brought on a sad smile. Sleep was scanty that night.
The next morning after breakfast, my aunt called me into the living room where she had summoned a woman who sold those chunaris. As I walked in, I saw chunaris of all possible colours one can imagine laid out on the carpet. A lot of them were far more stunningly bedecked than the ones I had seen the previous evening. The woman selling them was squatting on one corner of the carpet, looking at me, her eyes glittering with the hopes of making a killing that morning. So I could sense that before I walked in my aunt must have been telling her how enchanted I was with the beauty of those chunaris and hence instructed her to lay out the absolute best of her stockpile for me to choose from. No doubt what was now spread out in front of me, accosting me for a huge buy, was truly exquisite stuff.
But the truth was, after what I heard and what I deduced about those women; it seemed to me that it would be nothing short of a sacrilege, if I just buy that chunari and wear it. It wasn’t just something one can buy with money and wear. Clearly, there were rites of passage to go through before one gets to adorn them. And it occurred to me that I had enjoyed too much liberty, too many privileges all my life to ever even be eligible for that rite of passage, let alone clear it. Everything about those chunaris – their vibrancy, their artistry – was way out of my league. I had been much too free all my life, to merit the fleeting freedom which those chunaris signified. When one is used to breathing as freely as I was, they can never truly know the catharsis found in the act of exhaling after holding it all in, for so long. Those chunaris belonged to the women of that village, only those women who suffered throughout the year to be entitled to that one evening.
With my eyes and fingers appreciating the sorrowful magnificence of those badges of distinction, which I would never get to wear, my heart just sent a silent prayer that these brave women be granted many more such Dances of Exemption.