The Earth within — Embracing the Nature of Nature
Celebrating Makara Sankranti - 1987
After moving to Bangalore in 1982, the first Public Art event that I conceived and organised was on 14 January 1987. It was to interpret and celebrate the Makara Sankranti festival in an urban context.
By then I had joined Pipal Tree, a cultural organisation founded by Mr. Siddhartha. As part of my reflections on myths, which I was preoccupied with in those years, festivals too held my interest. Hence, part of my time with Pipal Tree was spent in trying to reflect on a particular festival, and this celebration came as a result of that reflection. My thoughts are fading, but I can try to recall the insights that guided my act.
January 14, the day of Makara Sankranti, is considered the beginning of a new life, the sun returning from the south east and moving towards north east and the day becoming longer, and the beginning of an auspicious time. Hard times end and peace and joy are regained. Farmers hold various rituals related to cultivation for the coming year. One particular ritual during this festival that fascinated me was making cows jump over a fire. It was said that the practice of making cattle jump over fire was also to symbolically return them to their true nature freed from the state of domestication.
Festivals of a similar nature under different names are celebrated around the same time in other parts of India and the world. All of them share a common wish for a new beginning by burying the ill will that we bear towards others. I have heard that among certain tribal communities there is a practice of releasing cattle into the forest for grazing during this season. They are brought back to the community after a certain time, during which they mate and graze freely, and at times one or two of them get eaten by a tiger. The purpose behind releasing these animals into the forest is not only so they can find fodder but also to help them recognise their true nature of being.
I have heard of another festival during which people remove scarecrows from fields. It is to symbolically affirm the need to re-establish a co-existence of fellow creatures bird and human, free from fear, control or subjugation. This is similar to the notion of jubilee mentioned in the Old Testament. It is understood that during the time of jubilee, people forgive the wrongs done to them by others, write off debts, and leave the land fallow. It is a way to begin a new life without the burden of the past.
During Makara Sankranti too, it is tacitly understood that if you offer ellu-bella (sesame and jaggery) sweets to someone, any ill feeling needs to be forgotten and forgiven to start a new life of togetherness. “The festival is one of bonding where every member of society is asked to bury the hatchet with enemies and foes and live in peace.” Sesame is used also because it is known for its purifying quality. People dip themselves in holy rivers to cleanse themselves of sins, be it in Uttar Pradesh for the Kumbh Mela or in Kerala during the pilgrimage to Sabarimala or in rivers in other states.
The story of Dulla Bhatti, a tribal leader who was put to death by the Mughal king for revolting against him, says that people “loved and respected and remembered Dulla Bhatti every year on Lohri festival as a hero who, like Robin Hood, robbed the rich and gave to the poor”. Christmas and Epiphany too is celebrated during this season to mark the beginning of a new life. In all these there is a common thread: being free from all kinds of corruption — be they spiritual, wealth-related or linked to ego, emotion or pride — and reclaiming an identity that holds grace.
I found this inner desire to be free from corruption interesting. And I was particularly intrigued by the idea of allowing cattle to regain their animal vigour freed from domestication. I felt we humans too are culturally, spiritually, socially, politically and economically domesticated by the system. This festival can be seen as a festival to return to our own body. Reclaiming our body is like reclaiming our true natural being, like an animal freed from domestication. To express this symbolically I conceived a mask festival. People would wear masks of various natural beings like animals, birds or trees, or any other natural motifs like fruits or leaves etc of their choice, and spend a whole day hiding their personal identity.
With the help of poet and writer LC Nagaraj I got a write-up prepared in Kannada, and sought the help of TV actress and activist Malati and her husband Anil to organise a procession of people wearing masks to celebrate the festival. Mr RM Hadpad of Ken School of Art helped to get his students (Raghavendra Rao, Surekha, Somashekar, Sudarshan Murthy, Ramesh, Vidya Sharma and others) to make over 50 masks of animals, birds and natural motifs.   Malati had organised some children and elders too for the procession. On 14 January Malati prepared lunch for us in her house; we all ate and then the procession began. We had a bullock cart with beautiful white bullocks fully decorated with balloons and coloured paper. We got all the children below 15 to sit in the cart, wearing masks. With drums beating, the procession which included art students from Ken started its journey from Malleswaram. Some people also sang and danced. The long walk was supposed to be via Tribhuvan Theatre to join Kempe Gowda Road and finally reach the city railway station by evening.
As the procession proceeded, many more people joined us. It started becoming bigger and bigger by the time it approached Tribhuvan. There were many hundreds in the rally and over a thousand gathered on the sides of the roads to view it. When we entered KG Road a policeman came to stop us and asked to disperse. We told him we had permission to do this — it was an oral permission that Malati had received from the police commissioner. The policeman went away but to our shock when we neared the skywalk at the end of KG Road there were more than 10 policemen astride Bullet motorbikes spanning the road to block us. Malati spoke to them on our behalf and got into a big argument with them. Traffic was blocked for about 20 minutes. Police asked who we were, to which Malati said, we are people of this place celebrating the festival. Malati was wearing a large mask of a bull’s head that I had made. And it was amazing to see how she was talking wearing the mask.
We refused to remove the masks. Police were helpless to figure out who we were. When they started expressing their anger, bystanders shouted at them in our support, saying that this should be permitted as it was only a celebration of the festival. When the police saw the situation was going out of control they started a lathi-charge. Soon I noticed that many people who had come to join the procession had thrown their masks away and joined the onlookers. Malathi, I, a few others and the children in the bullock cart were stranded on the road, still wearing our masks.
Masks became necessary then to hide our identity. Today as I sit down to write these lines I feel the systems of control that domesticate us are growing more frightening. More and more we are becoming instruments to serve a system that aims for profit and power. Other considerations and meanings of life hold ever lessening value today. We are becoming like animals and birds that are used during war or in systems of slavery. Thoughts, feelings and actions that do not conform to the system have no place.
A teak estate does not make a forest. And all forests are not considered sacred groves. In a forest and even more in a sacred grove, the possibilities of Life are beyond our comprehension. A wise and healthy civilisation would not limit the scope of Life to the boundaries of our knowledge and desires. Permitting diverse natures of existence is to preserve varying possibilities for our own survival on earth.
C.F. John
(I do not have any photographs of this event. The picture used to illustrate the article is a found image.)
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