Tuesday, August 19, 2014

In search of lost time: Remembrance of Govindas past.

I am talking here of the late forties to the early sixties, mind you. Life lived at and observed from the third-floor terrace flat at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. http://bit.ly/1fcggIG Govindas in those days were straggly, motley cavalcades of (mostly) domestic servants (“rama gadis”) working in South Bombay and a sprinkling of textile mill workers all of them belonging to friend circles (“mitra mandals”) of migrants from the Kokan region. They lived in low-rent tenements (“chawls”) in South and Central Bombay, for instance, in Girgaum (Thakurdwar, Mughbhat), Tardeo, Worli, Byculla, Parel and Lalbaug (what was collectively called Girangaon or Mill Town) using a single room as an all-bachelor, all-expenses-shared chummery sort of communal living space. Some of them worked in shifts in the mills; in their absence those not working at that time used the room to rest. For recreation, these groups sang in bhajan mandals, danced in groups and even rehearsed for plays. Out of these extracurricular pastimes arose the Govinda troupes, the Gauri-Ganapati dance groups and amateur play-staging groups. These migrant workers also went to the local gyms (“akhadas”) and played group sports like kabaddi and kho-kho. I remember watching a group rama gadis clad in colourful waists and shorts waving red handkerchiefs and dancing in honour of Goddess Gauri on the spacious terrace of 233 Khetwadi Main Road in (most probably) 1949 and 1950. The Mankars then used to host a three-day Gauri sojourn http://bit.ly/1vfvEIh at that address, you see.

Gokulashtami, the day the Govinda groups went around breaking dahi handis all over town, was a day no domestic servant or mill worker went to work. A typical Govinda troupe used to have twenty to thirty members who danced, pranced and swayed to the music played by a sanai player and a tasha beater all the way to the handi they had been invited to break. The signature tune was “Govinda alaa rey alla”, a kind of a playful warning about the Govinda approaching to plunder the handi. The handis, hung at a reasonable height, were “sponsored” by the residents of various localities, building or housing society – not by politicians or the local mafiasos. Naturally, the prize money did not run into lakhs or thousands. The top figures were at the most in hundreds. For the troupes, it was a labour of love.

A major attraction for the spectators crowding the balconies and terraces to watch the show was the opportunity to drench the Govinda pyramid with buckets of water once the handi was broken. Water wasn’t scarce in Bombay of yore. In anticipation of the Govindas, a few extra buckets would be dutifully stored on the morning of Gokulashtami. My guess is that the drenching custom must have been an offshoot of the story about the Gopis (dairy maids) of Gokul who loved Krishna, the divine toddler, with their heart and soul devising various playful and harmless ways to stop him from stealing the butter stored in the handi in the kitchen. The dancing group ritual resembles the warkari cavalcade of devotees merrily singing the praises of Vithoba and dancing with glee all the way to Pandharpur before the advent of the ekasashi (the eleventh day of the full moon cycle) in the months of Ashadh and Kartik. All this is a part of the vaishnav bhakti tradition as far as I can tell.

Come 1963 and one of my fellow residents in the Khetwadi neighbourhood http://bit.ly/1AwRSs1 forever changed this erstwhile subaltern celebration of the Krishna legend into a boisterous garish commercially-fuelled parody of its earlier avatar having completely stripped it of its original innocence. That was the year when Manmohan Desai’s Bluff Master featuring the Govinda signature tune suitably distorted to fit the mould of crass Hindi film lyrics was released. So bent was Desai on fully exploiting (what he probably shrewdly sensed to be) the commercial potential of the song that he hired Shammi Kapoor, the quintessential pucca Punjabi munda, to star in the movie and inject crude Punjabi machismo in what was earlier sung as an innocent and playful ditty celebrating Krishna’s childhood pranks.

The release of Bluff Master had caught the tide of fortune at the floods. Soon, everyone and his uncle (politicos and mafiasos included) wanted to ride the Govinda Alaa  bandwagon to stay in the public gaze. The same logic swelled the sponsorship coffers for the Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsavs (community celebration of the Ganesh festival). The latter got a further fillip when Hum Se Badhkar Kaun hit the cinema halls in 1981 featuring the hit song “Deva Ho Deva”. In fact, such was the popularity of this song, that its inclusion became de rigueur in the Ganesh festival and immersion musical repertoire. Now handis were hung at daunting and competitive heights as the prize amounts continued to balloon. Also, the practice of Bollywood celebrities visiting various Ganesh pandals became a part of the routine with media groups footing the bill and making full use of the photo opportunities.

The next decade saw the advent of motorized Govindas (no more dancing cavalcades, thank you!).They operated like hard-core hit squads swiftly moving from one target handi to the next in order to maximize the day’s “take” with the prize money offered by some handi sponsors already hovering around a lakh of rupees or more. The hit squads had their own portable music systems playing Bollywood hits at ear-splitting volume. In the clamour and glitz and glamour, who would recall the Govindas of the past? And, by then, who cared in any case?