Friday 13 January 2012

Lohri: Bonding over bonfires

Lohri celebrations in our housing society, 2012.
Many, many years back I used to give away firewood to the small bands of scraggy, shawl-hugging girls that sprang up around Lohri time. They usually made their rounds near sundown, loudly singing Lohri jingles from door to door, calling out for their share of Lohri. The most popular folk songs sung on the festival even today are Hullay ni maayiye hullay, do beri pattal jhullay and Sunder munderiye ho...Dulla Bhatti wala.

The girls were about my age, came from poor families and carried sacks, big and small. They collected as charity firewood, popcorn, roasted peanuts, rewri and other gur preparations from the homes of the more fortunate ones. I would wonder how they apportioned their spoils.
I faintly recall the zest and total community participation that accompanied this Punjabi festival in my early girlhood. With the memories of Partition and the subsequent large-scale displacement still raw, Lohri night was one of great bonding and celebration for the grown-ups. Disinterested or enthusiastic, all children had to stick around. On at least one occasion my father brought me home in his arms, fast asleep.
Our flats were built in double-storeyed rows of four flats in each block, with no dividing walls to keep out prying eyes. In some ways we were extended family, though it did not work out like that for all. The service lane that ran between the rows served as a public place across which eight sets of bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms stared at each other.
On Lohri night, the open verandahs in the first block of flats would be converted into one big site for the event. A huge fire was lit bang in the middle of the service lane. Sweets and seasonal goodies were handed around. Couples walked around the fire, casting rewri, popcorn and peanuts into the flames, bowing before the Lohri fire and seeking its blessing. The ritual over, some men huddled a little out of sight, partly, I now suspect, to snatch a drink or two. Others used the occasion to catch up with neighbours while keeping vigil, for thefts were common because of ease of access.
One verandah was occupied by women and children dancing and singing around the bonfire.
Most households were nuclear. Few grandparents lived in those parts. Mine, certainly, did not live with us. So it was that young mothers would sing somewhat bawdy folk songs and – to my horrified ears – songs that taunted and badmouthed mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, spoilers of family life down the ages. My personal favourite was this vivid, foot-tapping snatch from a Punjabi boli:
Saurey kolon ghund kadd di, nanga rakhdi clip (pronounced cullipp) wala paasa
(The bride veils her face from her father-in-law, but flaunts the side where a fashionable clip adorns her hair!)
Over time, walls sprang up as daughters and sons grew up and the need for privacy became pressing. That left little space for congregating, and get-togethers became restricted to two-three families. Small Lohri fires were lit outside individual homes in narrow lanes. The little girls grew up and no one went around singing for firewood any more.
Beating the chill.
The same songs are now advertised in newspapers as “Lohri caller tunes” and can be read/sung over Internet and YouTube. In gated communities such as ours, Janmashtami, Lohri, Christmas and Diwali are indeed the only occasions when neighbours get together.
Today, we lit the bonfire, chatted a bit, tossed popcorns and rewri into the bonfire and dispersed soon after. I used my phone camera, as usual. But sitting at home at this hour, I can hear the distant rumble of drums. Probably out there, where lanes still meander between houses, the tradition of tipping roving bands of musicians continues. They used to move from one bonfire to the next, the only time apart from weddings when they made a killing.
Nostalgia, you’ll say. Sure, but life must move on. It’s a new era now and a new way of celebrating. Or I wouldn’t be writing this today…

(Picture problem. Originally posted on 13 January)

1 comment:

  1. I truly can relate to this account of the Lohri celebrations as it has evolved over the years.