Lohri: Indian Bonfire Festival

Glittering shoes lay abandoned in a path to the dance floor. The children were moving to a quicker tempo within the music. Their hands, shoulders and legs drumming out the fast beat. The slower grace of the elder women tempered the speed of youth. But every now and then an older women would catch the tail of the fast rhythm and she’d spin across the floor. With a lighthearted touch a nearby friend would be bit by the contagious vigor.

Within the chaos of individual rhythms orbits formed.  The dancers moved around imaginary fires. In India, the celebration would include bonfires, so maybe this was a result of memory–the elder women remembering years of friends, family and strangers dancing as fluid and darting as the flickering flames. The children, with little or no memory of the event in India clustered rather than spun, but in time began to flow like tiny spiral galaxies.

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I felt like a zig-zag within a room full of squiggles­–as ineloquent as that sounds. Though I sought to catch a ride on the music, I bounced while the other women glided. I jerked while they swayed. Thankfully, I was too enthralled by the beauty of their movement to be harassed by embarrassment. I hardly dared blink for fear of missing a single second of the shifting river of colours around me.

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This was Lohri, an Indian festival that celebrates new life, the beginning of a new season and the winter harvest. Though the festival is for men and women, the event I went to was limited to women because of space constraint. However, the women weren’t complaining. Many of them enjoyed the opportunity to let loose.

Arms and Bangles

Walking into the Ukrainian Orthodox Centre I couldn’t have foreseen that the hall would soon be overflowing. The tables stretched down the wings of the hall: neatly set and empty.

Shyly shuffling in, I was immediately greeted warmly by the woman collecting tickets. Beaming at the discovery that this was my first time at the event, she took my hand and guided me to a seat, introducing me to a number of women. I chatted with my fellow celebrators till we were directed to a table covered with food.

A rather cautious eater, I eyed the treats warily. But every tray contained an unrecognizable dish. Faced with the reality of unidentifiable food I decided to be the cowardly protagonist who experiences an instant 360 and attacked each dish.

My plate ladled with mystery, I let myself fall into my seat and tentatively dipped my spoon into the closest portion.

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UPDATE: The food names starting from the left is Alu tikki (Potato Patti), Laddu (the round ball of flour, sugar and butter), Besan/Basin (gold square of flour, butter and sugar), Gajrala (Carrot Cake), Alu Papari (fried squares made of flour, butter and baked potatoes), and Alu Chole (chick peas with potatoes).

To my delight, the most suspicious looking bit of food, the Lado, turned out to be the most delicious.

I ate it all. And, glowing with inward pride, I contently awaited the next portion of the evening. Little did I realize that my conquest wasn’t even dinner. It had merely been the appetizers.

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All my prideful thoughts halted as a prayer emerged from the lips of the speaker. Jad thun mera val ha (as long as you lord are with me there is nothing I can’t do or achieve) would have been a shadow of itself as a recording. The raw feeling infused in the synchronicity of the woman next to me, weaving her voice into the singing prayer would have been lost in the translation of electronics.

Immersed in the prayer with content I didn’t know, it was over before I knew it (literally). With an invitation to the dance floor the speaker stepped down. The room ruffled, a creature rustling awake, but no one rose. A sole brave soul made her way to the floor and began following the flow of music blaring from the speakers. With that, more women stood, adjusting their decorative ghagra choli, salwar kameez and churidaar kurta before they ventured out on the dance floor.

Shirts

The dancer’s numbers swelled. The music became alive. I stood across the room, amazed by the dynamics of the dancers. Gulping in a deep breath I deserted my camera and marched to the edge. Without allowing a pause for thought I plunged in.

And it was wondrous. Unlike the Japanese folk dancing I had experienced over the summer I moved my feet quickly, trying to keep my shoulders straight. The two types of dances shared the shifting motion below the elbows and darting movement of the hands. Though the Indian movement had a vibrancy that far differed from the quiet motion of the Japanese folk dancing.

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I was tempted to lift my shoulders to keep time to the beat, but the Indo-Canadian dancers moved their shoulders back and forth instead. To my surprise an elder woman emerged from the swirling mass unabashedly grabbing my hands and helping me find the rhythm before falling away again.

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All too soon the music died away and the women fled from the dance floor. The children filled their void and settled down for a good seat for the performance to come.

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What a dance the Punjab Ladies shared!

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A woman dressed as a man wandered through the performers trying to get their attention. She was the brother the sister in the song is waiting for. In Indian culture “a brother/sister relationship is a bond that is never broken”, wrote Kuldeep Dhami a member of the Panjub Ladies in an email explaining matters of the event.

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Applause greeted the performance’s end. The audience clapping all the way to the dance floor, once more flooding it as music boomed from the speakers. And we danced. My sight again drowned in colours.

After a draw for prizes, the Punjab Ladies once more took to the stage acting out a marriage and its humorous troubles in dance.

 

A man arrives home from service to a girl he knows is his wife. Being a child though, she does not understand marriage.

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The husband asks his wife to draw water from the well but she refuses.

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They each go home. When the daughter arrives home her mother-in-law asks where she has been. After describing her experiences with the man the mother-in-law says, “that’s your husband!” and the story ends happily.

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More dancing filled the remaining hours till a final event took my breath away.

Their feet thundered, their hands clapped, a whirling hurricane of limbs. In an instant the storm of dancers melted away into the half circle of standing women. A poetic chorus followed from a single singer. Everything seemed peaceful as her powerful voice resounded through the room. Then heeding a call I couldn’t hear two or three women bound together into a circling cyclone of stomping feet and slapping hands. The remaining 15 women sang and clapped in unison, further infusing the energy before them.

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As quickly as it appeared the storm dissipated once more. Fading in and out of existence many more times, I half expected the women fueling it to drop from exhaustion.

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If I’m right and what I’d witnessed was Giddha then the poetic couplets were called Boliaan. The Boliaan cover various topics and Giddha is a folk dance from the Punjab region of India. Women dance in it to vent emotions and mimic scenes from their lives.

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With the evening over and myself exhausted, I was met with one last tradition from the Lohri festival at the door. A bag of peanuts was placed in my hand before I left. In India, during the morning of Lohri, people travel from door to door and are given money or peanuts, seeds, jaggery and other eatable goodies.

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