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Essay

A Season of Magical Mellow Wistfulness

Meenakshi Malhotra demystifies the autumnal celebration of Durga Puja as a time of homecoming for married daughters through folk songs that are associated with the festival

It is that time of the year again… a time of magic and enchantment when the air comes wafting with the fragrance of shiuli flowers, a species of night-flowering coral jasmine also known as the parijat. Legend has it that this flower is from a heavenly tree  that was brought to Earth  by Lord Krishna, one of the central gods in the Hindu pantheon. Interestingly, in a somewhat unusual twist, this tree is considered so sacred that its flowers picked up from the ground are also deemed appropriate for worship, to make sacred offerings. This is rare, given that flowers offered for worship are usually to be plucked from the tree and not picked up from the ground.

In Hindu mythology, the parijat tree is the tree of the universe which is owned by Indrani, the consort of Indra or the king of the Gods in Hindu mythology. Apparently Krishna stole it from Indra’s consort, Indrani and planted it in a region located between heaven and earth. The tree, also known as “kalpa-taru” or wishing tree, is one which grants all objects of desire.

From the sacred texts like Bhagawat Purana, the Vishnu Purana and the Mahabharata, we  learn that the elaborate process of samudra manthan (churning of the ocean of milk) yielded the  parijat tree as one of the three valuables.  This tree is said to have blossomed atop Mount Meru, the garden of paradise. It was claimed by Indra when  it rose to the surface and emitted its fragrance.

Krishna steals the Parijat tree from Mount Meru. Water colour India, app 1525-1550 CE. Courtesy: Creative commons

This is only one of the many gifts of nature, the exquisitely fragrant flowering tree which sheds blossoms and carpets the Earth  around it. Autumn, that season so famously invoked as the time of “mellow fruitfulness”, carries hints of ripening and a mature fecundity. For many sections of Indians, it is the time of the goddess, a time that a lot of us associate with the advent of the goddess Durga, who signifies the triumph of good over evil. In Durga, we have the divine represented both in terms of mythic abstractions and the material everyday, as power and poetry, as divine and human, as mother and daughter. Similarly the goddess Durga’s descent on Earth for the days of the festival, is also the advent of the daughter to the house of the mother, a moment which overflows with affection, feelings and emotions.

The event happens at a certain time in the Hindu calendar and participates in linear time, as well as being a part of time imagined as part of a larger ongoing cycle of temporality. Similarly, it  participates in mythic and magical time or eternity as it were. For the daughter, longing to be enfolded in the mother’s arms, who counts  the days till she can go back to her natal home, albeit for a few days, this is also a special time indeed.

It is this note of longing, dispossession and exile that is captured in the folk songs in the Bengali or Bangla language, which were documented in the 18th century. These songs are called Aagamoni which translates into advent, here referring to one who arrives. Why this gains a certain poignancy is that girlhood in Indian and many traditional cultures was viewed as a fleeting and fugitive time, haunted by transience. Female children were in the past often regarded as temporary occupants in their natal homes and were  characterised as ones who do not belong or belong to someone else, whose real home is with their in-laws.

Durga Puja celebrations
Courtesy: Creative Commons

In the Hindu pantheon, Durga, Uma or Parvati is a prominent mother goddess, the consort of Shiva. Her names refer to split roles of the feminine imaginary. As Durga she is the fiery slayer of demons. But– and this is the central theme here– she is also the gentle daughter Uma. It is in her form of the daughter who is separated from her parents, that the songs of Aagomoni and Bijoya emphasise. Bijoya translates as victory and starts with the return of the Goddess to her spouse, Shiva. Aagomoni and Bijoya are genres of Bengali folk songs celebrating the return of the Goddess Durga/Parvati to the home of her parents on the eve of the autumn festival of Durga Puja. The Aagomani songs describe the return of Parvati to her home in rural Bengal, not as Goddess but as daughter, and are followed by Bijoya songs which describe the sorrow of parting three days later as Parvati returns to her husband ShivaAagomoni songs can be interpreted as an expression of collective feelings, experiences and aspirations, another way of rethinking or reimagining the self-inscription of a collectivity.

In one of the best known and common Aagomoni songs, ‘Ogo amar agomoni’ (‘The Advent of Durga’):

The Advent of Durga

I herald the advent of the Goddess 
With the lighting of my lamps 
During the autumn whirlwinds.
At the end of night, the sun bursts forth.

In the swirling storm, 
At the end of the night,
The light in my path is turned off.
The beacon of my life has turned off. 
I herald the advent of my Goddess.

The lamp that reveals my path,
Brightens my life by pouring 
The nectar of your presence. 
I am lost in the blackness of fear. 
When you come in your radiant chariot, 
Your refulgence will shatter the 
Deep darkness in all directions.

Play the aubade of aurora.
It will all be divine. 
I herald the advent of my Goddess 
With the lighting of my lamps.
I herald the advent of our Goddess. 

(Translated by Mitali Chakravarty)

The song is full of the imagery of light and refulgence. My goddess “light of my life’’ could be both a reference to the divine mother, as well as to a daughter, who was very often  referred to as ‘Ma’ as a term of affection. While this song maps the emotional link between the mother and the daughter and can be seen in terms of affect, the focus is on her refulgence and divinity. The reference to the goddess in terms of the mother/ daughter trope is much more evident in other songs, which narrates the saga of dispossession — the fair  princess who has to live in disorderliness and poverty.

Go Get Gouri

Go, go Giriraj
To fetch your daughter Gouri
Uma is in deep sorrow
Uma has cried for her mother
Living in misery

Bhang consuming Shiv
Ash-smeared and wild
Sold off her finery
All her jewellery
To fund his addiction 

Bhola revels in intoxication 
He has collected hashish from 
The three realms….heaven, hell and earth.

Bhola put the intoxicant, bhang
Made with crushed
Datura seed on my Uma’s face.

Go lord of the mountains go
Go to fetch Gouri
Uma has cried herself hoarse.

(Translated by Mitali Chakravarty)

In another evocative song, the mother cries –“Ebaar Uma ele/Aar pathabo naa ( This time when Uma comes/ I will not send her back)”.

When My Uma Returns…

This time when my Uma comes,
I will not send her back. 
If people call me bad, let them. 
I will not listen to anyone. 
This time when my Uma returns,
I will not send her back, 
This time when my Uma comes.

If the conqueror of death comes
To talk of taking Uma back, 
If Mritunjaya comes
To talk of taking her back, 
We, mother and daughter, 
together will quarrel with him.
I will not agree because 
he is my son-in -law       
 
This time when my Uma returns,
I will not send her back, 
This time when my Uma comes...

The poet says 
Can life tolerate such wounds?
Shiva roams the cremation grounds,
And does not think of his own home. 

This time when my Uma comes,
I will not send her back. 
If people call me bad, let them. 
I will not listen to anyone. 
This time when my Uma returns,
I will not send her back, 
This time when my Uma comes...

(Translated by Mitali Chakravarty)

Here, the mother vows not to send Uma back to her wild and undomesticated husband when she comes visiting. This articulates a resolve uttered by the mother not to jeopardize or endanger her daughter by ‘giving’ her to an undeserving husband. The anxiety, insecurity and fear for the daughter’s safety is clearly evident in these lines. Maternity and maternality is here described as a tortuous and beleaguered  state. In all these lines, we see a shift from the narrative account of arming and empowerment of the goddess to a more human and humble register. Begging, cajoling, importuning-the mother’s pain and anxiety for the daughter, married to that strange and alien  figure, the untamed and undomesticated God Shiva, is evident in every line.

The narrative of mother and daughter pining for each other, appears to have similarities with  the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. In some,  the daughter is imagined as asking her husband for permission to visit her mother: “It has been so many days since I went home and saw my mother face to face ceaselessly… she weeps for me…” (Bhattacharya, in Mc Dermott 2001:132). The men ( both father  Giriraj and husband Shiva ) emerge as emotionally unreceptive. (Kaul 2022:9) We hear Menaka bemoaning an emotionally unresponsive husband who won’t fetch the daughter:

“Whom can I tell
the way I feel for Uma?"

Thus the story of the festival of Durga embraces not only the radiant, refulgent and resplendent image of the goddess; behind it lurks the secret sorrows of generations of mothers and daughters caught in the inevitable dance of life as they play out sagas of dispossession. As autumn is the season of liminality poised between summer and on the cusp of winter, the goddess visiting her natal home, is poised between humanity and divinity, both as a daughter in exile and as a slayer of demons. From this paradox, this spectacle that hovers between the majestic and the everyday, a sublime beauty is born.   

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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