Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Changing Face of Tradition

“When I was a child, a week before Deepavali, my sister and I would divide the firecrackers between us and keep them out to dry when the sun came out,” says Shanthi Ramkumar, mother of two boys, “We had about two or three days' leave at school. We would be so excited that we would not sleep all night before Deepavali.”

Talk to any parent about traditional festivals in their childhood and you can be sure to find a wistful smile as they recount the simplicity of life before television and the delight of having one's extended family join in the festivities. The resplendence of firecrackers, the delight of buying a new doll for the display or the special taste of a Christmas plum cake lingers in one’s memory.

Where have those days gone?

Shanthi laments, “Today, festivals like Deepavali are mostly spent in front of the television. Nobody is waking up early. Children too, do not want to burst firecrackers. Depending on the age, they are either scared, or they think it is not environment friendly, or even a waste of money. We cannot even take the car out for fear of damage from firecrackers. The only charm left of the concept, are the new clothes. ”
Our children live in a different world than the one we so fondly remember. Perhaps our nostalgia plays a major part in the way we involve our children in festivities even as we try to recreate our own childhood memories of the occasion. Still, tradition is an important cornerstone in bringing the family together.

There are so many facets to tradition, from religious ceremonies that mark the rites of passage to evolving a family tradition unique to a particular family. Celebrating festivals is only one aspect of tradition, but a very important one. Why do people celebrate festivals?

“It is our custom handed down to us from generations before us” says Nithya Madhavan, “We have to teach our children that this is how we follow our religious practices.”

Priya Srikanth has two daughters who are enthusiastic participants in the festival arrangements in the house. Priya says, “Celebrating a festival is the only way our children will learn about it. Besides, it gives us peace and fulfilment - especially as I have seen my mother doing these rituals regularly. We also get to meet relatives.”

Today, there are smaller families, and hence fewer relatives, who are all geographically distributed across the country and the world. Some families still make the effort to come together for a festival.
Sahar S. believes that the two Eids are occasions for people to come together. “My parents made sure we all got together on these two occasions, so that I established good relations with my cousins. Our immediate family has become almost three hundred people. My daughter gets a chance to meet her first cousins, second cousins and third cousins. I appreciate those people in our family who live abroad, who spend lakhs of rupees just to come here to be with us for two or three days.”

Shanthi Ramkumar is appreciative of her friend who hosts a 'pooja' called Kedar Gowri, usually on the evening of Deepavali. “She invites all her friends along with their spouses to visit her for at least ten minutes. If we time our arrival together, then in this small get-together, our respective husbands also get to meet and interact.”

“Putting up the Christmas tree is a family activity.” says Raji Monisha Cherian “Each one of us adds our own touch. The biggest association for my son Advait, is the gifts. Till he was seven years old, Advait believed in Santa Claus. It gave me and my husband great pleasure in hiding the gifts and making them appear magically under the tree. When Advait was seven, he watched the movie, Polar Express and got to know that Santa was a myth. Now he is fifteen but when we meet Santa at Spencer Plaza and at the Church, he takes great delight in shaking hands with him.”

Priya Srikanth says, “My girls are very traditional. The moment they see me wearing a sari they say that they want a 'pavadai' set too. They help with the setting up of 'kolu'(the traditional doll exhibition at home). My older daughter gets very excited and keeps asking when each festival would come.

Ishita Sharma says. “I have been married for twenty seven years. When it comes to Deepavali, we go to my in-laws' house for lunch. Till seven years ago when both my parents were alive, we used to have dinner at their place. From the time my daughters were in Class 9, it became an occasion for them to wear a sari and get a family picture taken. You never know who will not be there next year especially when you have elderly people around.”

For Nithya Madhavan, Navaratri is the occasion when she can try out a new recipe for one sweet and one savoury. It is also the time when she gets to dress up her daughter in traditional clothes against her usual attire of jeans. “My mother-in-law gifted my daughter with a 'pavadai' for Deepavali. She wore it on that one day, but the rest of the time, it is lying in the cupboard. I tell her that this is also our dress and she could wear it occasionally, at least once in 2 months.”

Aparna Rao was in for a serious case of culture shock when she moved to Cupertino, CA, USA. “Cupertino has a very high Indian population and it was a very busy time for all the South-Indian ladies, during Navaratri, going out nearly every day to each other's houses for 'kolu'. By the end of Navaratri, I swore not to eat Sundal for the rest of the year!”

Non- Resident Indians embrace tradition with great fervour. Many are disappointed with the previous generation for not properly inculcating tradition in them right from childhood.

Meena Radhakrishnan says, “We have always celebrated festivals, but took them for granted. We never understood the symbolism or significance nor did our parents or elders bother to explain them. The focus was on fun - fireworks, sweets, meeting relatives and friends. We now celebrate the traditions with a deeper sense of appreciation and understanding. Also, I suppose we as uprooted desis, have a fear of raising ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis).”

Aparna's friends' circle celebrates Halloween with a potluck meal and all the children in the apartment go 'trick-or-treat'ing. She also ensures that her children celebrate Indian festivals with equal fervour. “Whether they follow it or not as adults is left to them - we have to do our best to provide exposure to our Indian values and culture. This will set their bandwidth when it comes to 'westernization'.”

Instead of doing time-consuming rituals, Meena Radhakrishnan, instead, shares with her three sons, the significance and what can be imbibed from the festivals. Some rituals, considered almost sacrosanct in India – like buying new clothes – are not as relevant to her as the deeper significance of the tradition. “I make do with even a new top or a salwar that I wore probably once-which makes it 'new' in my mind!”

Other than religious and cultural traditions, there are family traditions – activities or rituals that bring the family together.

For Meena Radhakrishnan, that special family tradition is the trip to India every 2-3 years. “We do miss the atmosphere in India - nothing to beat that on any festival! My oxygen tank signals 'empty' and I just need to be there.”

Ishita Sharma who lives in Chennai says, “My husband works in Bangalore and comes home every alternate weekend. When he is here, Sunday evening is dedicated to playing Scrabble as a family quite late into the night.”

Ishita also believes that anniversaries and birthdays are great occasions to bring the family together. She says, “We've all been celebrating our 25th anniversaries in the family. We get together at a place not in our own town. This is strictly only among my husband's siblings and their families. It's such fun because some of us have not seen each other in a long time.”

Dona Konidena's family looks forward to an annual holiday, especially since her husband travels a lot. “We make it a point as a family to never miss a new year's eve together. For the last four years we visited different countries. My older son is already asking where we would be going this year,” she says.

While Sahar and his family love to travel, they spend every weekend with a group of like-minded friends irrespective of caste or creed. “We have food together, we then put the children to sleep. Sometimes, there are things to discuss and we talk till 3a.m the next morning.”

There are so many ways to instill tradition in our children. The way to do it is only limited by the extent of our imagination.

Priya Srikanth, for instance, tries to do a different theme every year for the Navaratri display. “One year, I made a model of Mount Kailash depicting the story of Ganesha and Muruga going around the world. I also make it a point to put up a chart explaining it so that the children who visit will also learn the story.”

The Internet is an immense source of information and everything from history to rituals is available in English and most Indian languages. Aparna says, “It is easy to explain the significance of festivals to our children. Often, the priest tends to explain the significance of the pooja in English, step-by-step. It does take longer, but it's really worth the time as the entire family gets to understand it. I also love the fact that Satyanarayana 'Kathas' are read in English.

During festivals, it also helps to get children to participate in an activity - be it painting, drawing competitions, or reading a shloka – it makes it more interesting and interactive for them.”

In our efforts to involve children in learning about tradition, we forget that we too have a lot to learn. Nithya Madhavan raises a valid point. “Since our generation keeps saying we do not have time, we are neither following nor learning tradition. We have to find the time for this. Our elders know plenty, but not enough people in our generation are getting that information from them. We only have to ask them and they will be happy to share what they know.

Meena Radhakrishnan has some simple advice for families when it comes to tradition. “We need to take time to slow down, shut-off all technology, including TV and cell phones and truly enjoy these festivals first. Then if we take the time to share its significance with the children, it could go a long way forward in getting them to appreciate and continue these traditions.

Some names have been changed to protect identity

Meet Ruchi and Dona, two women who are so different in the way they celebrate tradition or evolve their family culture, but so unanimous in their approach to bring the family together using tradition as a cornerstone.

Ruchi Bhayani married into a Jain family and went on to willingly follow all the customs and traditions of the religion. She says, “I had a love marriage with Vikas, who is very religious and very strong on the principles of the Jain religion. Before committing ourselves to the relationship, he was very particular that I have to accept his religion. He was very logical about it, he did not impose anything but made me understand a lot of things. It was made easy because Vikas and I share a superb rapport, love and understanding”.

Ruchi lives with her husband, her daughters, her in-laws and her grandmother-in-law. She ensures that her daughters are inculcated into the Jain tradition. For this, she learns first. “I know the basics and my husband also supports me. We have made sure that my elder daughter recites the basic 'shloks' every night before bed. Seeing her, my second one also joins her hands.”

Ruchi's entire family makes it a point to visit the temple on Sundays. On Saturdays, Ruchi's elder daughter voluntarily visits the temple with her grandmother and great grandmother for an hour in the morning, when the 'mandal' sings devotional songs. Ruchi says, “When her grandmother was away in the US, my daughter continued to accompany her great grandmother to the temple every week and also slept beside her at noon to keep her company.”

While the annual festival of Paryushan is considered the most sacred period of the year where each day is dedicated to a special characteristic of the Jain religion, Ruchi's family also celebrates Rakshabandhan to promote bonding among cousins and the close-knit community.

“For Rakshabandhan, we get together with my late grandfather-in-law's four brothers and their families. The families of each of these four brothers take turns in celebrating Rakshabandhan every year. All the brothers of my father-in-law's generation and all the brothers of my husband's generation stand in line and are tied 'rakhis'. If the sisters are not there, they send the 'rakhis' so that other sisters can tie them. We order idli-vada, pongal, chutney, coffee and tea from Welcome Hotel and have it for breakfast. Thanks to this, my children will understand family values, family bonding, and relationships.”

When Dona Konidena, who lives in Jakarta, enrolled for an international yoga teacher's training course in Chennai, she was in for a paradigm shift. “It's amazing to see people from different parts of the world coming to India to learn our culture and traditions. This country has so much to give and as Indians, we do not utilise it. We take our traditions for granted.”

Dona is a Bengali married to a Telugu Brahmin. She has been celebrating Ganapati Pooja for the last nine years, and considers it to be very special. “This pooja is a tradition in my husband's family and being the daughter-in-law, I want this to be carried forward. Though I do not belong to the tradition, I understand it promotes closeness between my husband and son. I would not want my child to be deprived of this blessing from his father. It's a rare occasion when they actually sit in front of the idol and do a pooja.

“Last year, for a short stint, I tried to work in Hyderabad while my family was in Jakarta. During Ganesh Chaturthi, I picked up an eco-friendly clay Ganesha from Hyderabad and took it to Jakarta. We did the pooja, kept the Ganesha for five days and on my return to Hyderabad, I immersed the idol in the Tank Bund!”

Not only are the Konidena kids following the traditions of their paternal family, they are also imbibing the customs of their mother's family. Dona says, “Durga Pooja and Mahashivratri are part of Bengali culture. My husband's family doesn't follow these, but I carry on that tradition from my mother's side. For my children, it is not about two cultures coming together - this is our family culture!”

Karthika Venkatraman works in an IT company and believes that thanks to the hours they work, celebrating a festival has become optional. She says, “We are working on a project based in the UK and their festivals are different from ours. So, if it is not a holiday in the UK, you may not get a day off here. I believe that even our festivals should be celebrated. The least that can be done is the ‘traditional’ day that we have every year at office, be celebrated on a festival day.”

Dona Konidena has more to say about her workplace in India. “We would ask colleagues visiting Kerala to bring us gold bordered saris, for our office activity on Onam so we would be dressed appropriately. For Sankaranthi Pongal, we would fly kites and there would also be Rangoli drawing. I was in the Aahaar (food) committee and our responsibility was that during festivals like Baisakhi, there would have to be one Punjabi food speciality so that people about the food that is special in that particular community.”

Shanthi Ramkumar believes that although festivals are an occasion to make those delicacies that are typical to the tradition, outsourcing makes a lot of sense.

“Back in the old days, there would be varieties of sweets and snacks (only for Deepavali). During the rest of the year, it would just be normal food with the occasional exception. Nowadays, everything is available through the year for consumption. Hence there is no separate charm in 'Deepavali bakshanam'.”

“Today, we are unable to make limited quantities of 'bakshanam' at home. When we use so much oil, it does not make sense to cook anything less than two or three kilos. Plus, it is labour-intensive. Working women who return from work the previous evening, make these bakshanams throughout the night and then feel fatigued on the festival day. If it does not turn out alright, nobody eats it.”

“It makes better sense to make a simple 'payasam' for auspiciousness at home and buy a limited quantity from a store or a caterer.”

Why do we display dolls during a Navaratri festival?
Raji Monisha Cherian says, “The practice of having a doll 'kolu' during Navaratri had its origin in the ancient agricultural economy where dolls were made from the clay from riverbeds to encourage dredging and desilting.
Why is an oil bath important on festival days? 
Our ancestors had a logic about the oil bath on Deepavali day. The body is heated up with all the sweets (glucose) we have consumed. We have an oil bath to cool our system. Before the traditional oil bath we are fed 'vethalai' (betel leaf) and anointed with 'manjal' (turmeric). Betel Leaf is a digestive and lines the stomach’s defense mechanism. Turmeric reduces the intensity in case of burns because of firecrackers. Also, since we South Indians burst crackers at 3 a.m., an oil bath ensures we take a nap soon after lunch.”
Why are gifts exchanged during Christmas? 
 Being married into the Christian faith, Raji also says, “Christmas tree gifts encourage the act of giving. This also teaches the child to learn to wait for something he desperately wants and how to value a gift.”
Why do people fast during Ramzan? Sahar says that fasting during Ramzan is a lesson in the importance of food. “After 30 days of fast, you come to discover the feelings of a person who cannot have food, or who is left with not even a drop of water to drink. You understand how lucky or blessed you are that you are not only getting 3 meals a day, but you also get very good, tasty food. At that time, if you see the importance of food, you will not take it for granted.”

If you want to know more about any particular cultural or religious tradition, it is best to ask an elder in the family. India is a multi-cultural land and just as languages and dialects changes every 100 kilometres, so do the traditions and interpretations of the traditions. The Internet may not always have all the answers!

An edited version appeared the September 2011 edition of Parent Circle Magazine.

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