Fifteen girls, dressed in identical green T-shirts and slacks or shorts, dejectedly idled at the Plaza Cinema bus stop. They had been out since 7.30 am. It was nearly 2 pm, and the team of women Govindas had not so much as stretched a leg, let alone make pyramids and reach the coveted handi. Wearing a bright purple curly wig, 20-year-old Pooja Sasane, who seemed to be their natural leader, put a hand protectively around 11-year-old Chakuli Chande, and said, “Wherever we go, they are asking for her age proof and disallowing us from participating. We have gone to several Dahi Handi mandals since morning.”
Coming from Sion-Dharavi’s Kala Killa area, the girls have been a team of Govindas for four years, but the stringent do’s and don’ts put in place for Mumbai’s famed Dahi Handi this year have kept them out of the game.
“The girl at the very top is generally a young child, who is skinny and agile. Last year, we had a 10-year-old doing that for us. This time, we had to replace her with Chakuli. She has completed 11, and in her 12th year,” said Pooja, as Chakuli, with two well-oiled braids and a teeka on her forehead, fervently nodded.
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The festival, which is usually loud and vibrant in Mumbai, was slightly muted this year with the Mumbai Police having issued strict rules according to Bombay High Court guidelines.
In response to a public interest litigation last year, the high court had directed the Maharashtra government to restrict the height of human pyramids at 20 feet, and bar children below 18 years of age from participating. According to the rules put in place, the state administration has prohibited Govindas under 12 years of age, and sought a no-objection from parents for children aged 12 to 18 years. The rules also mandate safety gear such as helmets, cushions and safety belts. Several major Dahi Handi organisers, such as NCP’s Sachin Ahir and Jitendra Awhad, cancelled their events protesting the rules, besides considering that several parts of Maharashtra are reeling under a severe drought.
Trucks filled with Govindas still made their way from one mandal to another through the day, showing off their preparation and collecting their salami — the prize money given to the groups for showcasing pyramids under the handi, and not necessarily for breaking it. However, while the Govindas slogged to get as close as possible to the pot of buttermilk — the salami rises with the number of tiers — several were dissatisfied with the amount being awarded this year.
“This year, there was a steep drop in the prize money. Also, with height restrictions, Govindas could not earn much. At a majority of the celebrations, organisers paid only Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 for even nine-tier pyramids,” said Geeta Jagade, attached with the Dahi Handi Utsav Samanvay Samiti, Thane.
Meena Pathare, a homemaker in Dadar, smiled as a scrawny lad wearing a yellow T-shirt and a red helmet smashed the earthen pot, decorated with a single yellow garland, in one swift stroke in front of the Ideal Book Depot near Dadar station.
“The crowd is much thinner this time, and there’s not much noise surrounding the festivities,” said Pathare, who takes a round of Dadar to cheer the Govindas every year. “But in a way, it’s still the same. What I like about this festival is that there’s a kind of togetherness among everyone present, be it the Govindas, the organisers, or the audience. Everyone is cheering for the same thing, and rules or no rules, that spirit is still there,” Pathare said.
As she spoke, her eyes followed the boy who had broken the handi, being carried on the shoulders of people dressed like sword-brandishing Maratha warriors shouting the famed slogan of ‘Yelkot Yelkot Jai Malhar’. Amid loud drum beats, a Maharashtrian Lavani song in the background, he collected the team’s prize money from the dais as his fellow Govindas danced away in jubilation.