I am a native of Bangalore city, a Kannadiga from an orthodox family, yet I found myself asking my non-Bangalorean friends, “What is the Karaga festival?” One of those moments when I feel I should have paid more attention during social science class! One friend, who closely follows cultural happenings around the city, told me more.
Karaga is celebrated on the full moon day during the Chaitra month of the Hindu calendar. The Thigala community in Bangalore hosts this in praise of Goddess Shakti. The Dharmarayaswamy temple (because Shakti is an avatar of Draupadi, Dharmaraya’s wife) in Bangalore gets dressed up as it turns into the centre of action during the celebrations. A few highlights of the event: a procession of the 40 foot high ratha carrying the idol of Dharmaraya led by the Karaga carrier and tens of thousands of people gathered to witness it. The Karaga carrier visits several designated spots in the neighbourhood with a pot adorned with flowers on his head, a symbolic representation of Goddess Shakti.
Having witnessed the festival celebrations once earlier, another friend mumbled, “Don’t go, it’s not a place for women!”
Not a place for women? What’s that now? Of course, that sort of advice does not make the cut with me. Plus, when I heard about it, it sure did sound like an event I wanted to see and capture in photographs. So I charged my batteries, packed my camera and headed out at 10 PM on 7th April.
When I got there, a colourful play was in progress, part of the Mahabharata. I had apparently missed out on shooting a dramatic fire ritual, performed by the veerakumaras, an integral part of the procession; their role is to guard the Karaga carrier with ornamental swords. At first it did not seem too bad and I thought to myself, “Glad I did not stay home; I would have missed so much.” And the thought of being there delighted me. “I am the first female photographer to have documented this event, just because I dared to!” Little did I know there was a price to pay!
Capturing the play seemed very rewarding as I gained permission to go backstage to take photographs. I started to get the taste of the real festival when someone asked me to take their picture. I obliged at first. But the second, third and fourth photographs were sort of forced. Even after that I kept hearing claps with the words “hey… hey…” from behind me. Knowing that it was a call from the same drunk man asking for more photographs, hopeful that he would appear in a newspaper, I turned a deaf ear. When the claps started getting louder I asked for help from a fellow photographer. He entertained their last request and we made our exit from the scene.
It was about 11.30 PM now. We walked towards the Dharmarayaswamy temple. The roads seemed empty, with used plates strewn all over. I thought we had missed it all. But the chaotic street scene was a harbinger of more chaos. We walked on and the crowd got larger. The ratha was yet to come out. It was scheduled to come out only past midnight; we still had time. We found out about another ritual that the veerakumaras perform, near the temple before the ratha heads out. Having decided we wanted to shoot it, we finally dared into the packed street.
Claustrophobia was going to become the least of my concerns after I went past the no-turning-back point. We walked in a line; my fellow photographer in front, I behind him and my sister in between. I was alright until my sister suddenly turned around and screamed at a guy in the crowd. The reason is quite the no-brainer type. As if that was not enough to get me angry, it happened again and again. Not just with her, but with me as well.
I only want to ask one question.
How in the world, when you hardly have enough air to breathe, have no control over your movements, are getting pushed in a direction by the crowd that has come to celebrate a religious festival, you have the time to notice a girl in the crowd and then in that helpless position pull your hand out and reach her butt in order to give in to your animalistic instincts?
I ask how? Not why! Because if I ask why, I am sure to be treated with absolute silence. Or, with “I told you not to go!” Even worse, have a question thrown back at me “What were you wearing?”
All I can do is laugh it off. There is no choice left, is there? However, at that point in time, I found myself cursing loudly and using my camera as a weapon to bash people’s heads. The police noticed this and blamed my poor friend for having invited women into the crowd!
Is it the only solution, to keep women from attending community events such as this one? “Just avoid, what will you miss if you don’t go?” But hey, the problem is much larger! It’s not about me having missed the event but about the fact that there exists a ‘place not for women’. Should something like that really exist? Should we turn a blind eye to the ever increasing list of general public places that go into this category every day?
The reason why I did end up going was a practical one. I cannot think of any violation of sorts that Indian women do not confront and conveniently brush aside, discounting men as hooligans. I guess I was sub-consciously prepared to confront and forget.
Is that it? We are supposed to live our lives; feeling violated, but forever forgiving the imbeciles.
Someone told me once that there are only two things that can stop men in India from behaving this way. One, either they get over exposed to women at an early age, bringing the frustration of having not expressed themselves sexually, down to negligible. Then they won’t go crazy when they see a woman in close proximity. Or two, their expression is suppressed by the rules of society so much that they dare not treat another human being, forget women, without respect.
Which way are we headed? I don’t think the answer to this question is easy.
No wonder, I consider it one heroic adventure, having gone and photographed all the way till 4 AM in the morning, at an event where women fear to tread! But I feel good also because, as a citizen of Bangalore, I got first hand experience of a festival that claims to be one of the oldest in the city. And at what price!