Sunday, January 15, 2012

Delhi In January: Rajpath Beckons!

Delhi is in the grip of the harshest phase of winter. Not just nights, but even the days are very cold. Sometimes the sun does not appear for days together. It is hard to do one's routine chores as everything seems to take twice as much time. Your fingers and toes go numb and the shivering doesn't stop. There is no let up in the foggy conditions. An occasional winter shower of rain worsens the misery of those who cannot bear with this weather. The sun is very much sought after, having lost its ferocity of the summer months. People are seen huddling in a small patch of sun-if they are lucky enough to find one-just outside their homes, on footpaths, in parks or just about anywhere. The roadside tea stalls do brisk business. A hot cup of tea is welcome any time of the day.

The month of January brings with it Lohri which is a fun festival that marks the beginning of the end of winter. Traditionally a harvest festival, it is celebrated by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. Delhi is not far and Lohri is very much a part of the festive calendar in the city. It brings joy to those who are weary of the chilly season, for celebration involves singing and dancing around a bonfire. Now nothing can be more welcome than a warm bonfire and the customary good food associated with this particular festival. Families and friends get together and relish sweets made with sesame seeds and jaggery, roasted peanuts, popcorn, makke ki roti and sarson ka saag.

The majestic Rajpath gets ready for the biggest spectacle of the year. Preparations start well ahead of time. One can see workers busy at putting up some structures on both sides of this splendid avenue months before the event. They are erecting stands where spectators sit for watching the grand Republic Day Parade. The imposing Rashtrapati Bhavan, South Block, North Block and the entire Rajpath all the way up to the impressive India Gate wears a festive look as the day approaches.

Photo by Antônio Milena, CC-BY-3.0-br
Most of us have been watching the Parade on TV for many years. I managed to watch it live from the Rajpath only once. You have to start really early, leave your car at a faraway parking lot and walk the rest of the distance to your designated seat. There are strict security checks and one is not allowed to carry anything to the venue. There is excitement in the air as people dressed in colourful woollens take their seats waiting eagerly for the Parade to begin.

Photo by Antônio Milena, CC-BY-3.0-br
The homage to the unknown soldier at the Amar Jawan Jyoti under the India Gate, the smart march past by various regiments of the Armed Forces, incredible stunts on motorbikes by daredevil military personnel, National Bravery Award-winning children seated ceremoniously on elephants, attractive floats from various states, energetic dances by school children and the spectacular flypast by Air Force aircraft are all familiar images etched on our collective memory. It sure is an exhilarating experience to be there when the Republic Day Parade progresses down the Rajpath on a cool winter morning in Delhi.

Photo by Amit Kumar CC-BY-SA-3.0
Equally uplifting is the Beating Retreat Ceremony held at the sprawling Vijay Chowk three days after the Republic Day. It marks the end of the Republic Day celebrations. It is a beautiful ceremony that starts in the late afternoon and ends at dusk. Military bands play martial tunes and other compositions with such energy that they echo in your mind long after the event is over. The ceremony ends with the magnificent buildings on Raisina Hills being lit up just when the sun is about to set. A truly magical and memorable way to draw curtains on the Republic Day festivities.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Dance Festival By The Seaside

If December-January is the music season in Chennai, it is also the tourist season. Indian as well as foreign tourists descend on the Tamil Nadu capital during these months to enjoy the moderate weather and visit places of their interest. Mahabalipuram (better known as Mamallapuram locally), is a must on the itinerary of any tourist visiting Chennai. Situated at a distance of only 55 kilometres, it is a quiet, small town by the sea with ruins of ancient stone temples scattered around a small area. Believed to have been built between the 7th and the 9th century, these temples with their exquisite carvings attract a lot of visitors.

Those visiting between December 27, 2011 and January 26, 2012 have an additional treat in store for them at the beautiful Shore Temple. A classical dance performance followed by a folk presentation everyday at an open-air venue by the temple, which as the name suggests, is located by the seaside.

It is a government initiative, organised jointly by the department of tourism in the state government and the ministry of tourism in the central government. And the best part is that it is open for everybody, there are no tickets or passes.

A large stage and neat rows of plastic chairs greet you on your way to the Shore Temple. These arrangements are made on an open patch of land covered with lush green lawn. A little before people start taking their seats, powerful jets of smoke (maybe with some insect repellant) from a thick hose make sure that the insects will be away, at least for some time. All these empty chairs are taken when the performance begins. Those who do not get a chair, make themselves comfortable on the lawn.

The audience is a mixed lot, with foreign tourists in the majority. They are an excited, enthusiastic and curious lot. Many of them are sporting Indian outfits. They are eager to capture everything on their cameras so that they can carry the sights and sounds of India back home with them.

Just before the performance, I spot a group of young women in bright, identical Bharatanatyam costumes behind the stage. They look very pretty decked up in the traditional finery. I make my way to them and request them to pose for me. They oblige happily. They are all students of an accomplished dancer, Saranya Sai Prasanth.

The performance starts exactly at six. The young women strike beautiful poses in groups as well as individually, making the cameras go click-click in the audience. They are accompanied by a group of able musicians and singers, and together they make a package that captivates everybody present there. The bright, almost full moon and the cool evening breeze add to the pleasure. The ambience is simply lovely.

This is to be followed by a folk performance, but I have to give it a miss because of time constraints. It is a month-long schedule and different styles of classical and folk dance are on offer. I appreciate the fact that the performance began and ended at the time announced. There were no boring speeches or other formalities. Just a neat little glimpse into the vast cultural heritage of India for the tourists. A very welcome endeavour towards promoting tourism by showcasing our classical and folk dances. I hope this dance festival continues and grows in the years to come.

The festival is halfway through and there are still more than two weeks to go. If you happen to be in this part of the world during the next few days, this document might come in handy.