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Dahi handi: From prank to political platform, but a sport?

by Mahesh Vijapurkar  Aug 10, 2012 12:03 IST

#CultureDecoder   #dahi handi   #Krishna Janmashtami  

A small lobby has started exploring the possibility of making dahi handi a sport and getting it recognition like what kabaddi has. It could need standardisation of the height at which the handis are placed, the number of tiers in the human pyramid to reach, break and snatch the goodies within.

However, purists would like it to remain a street celebration, a general cathartic public event for the stressed Mumbai manoos, one small section participating, another providing the modest handis, and the rest, spectators.

Does it make sense to turn dahi handi into a recognised sport? AFP.

The dahi handi is as simple as it is ingenuous, and needs no equipment. Few men – though women are stepping in of late – form the base, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, intertwining their arms on which the next but smaller ring as a tier is formed, till they reach the pot hung on a rope held horizontally. Often, competitive teams employ a single person, upon whom another precariously balances –the hardest part, as in a circus acrobatics – to form the apex.

If it did acquire the status of an officially recognised sport, what would change? Perhaps the safety requirements of the participants: harnesses, cushions on the ground, the height at which the handis are to be placed, and most importantly, take it away from the streets and on to grounds and stadia. That, however, would not mean that the post- janmashtami day of roaming the city to spot handis would cease.

The two could differ, however. The standardised sport could be like club cricket matches, the other the more rumbustious for of galli cricket but only on the specified day every year. Practice, where people learn to understand each other’s physical strengths to appropriately be given place in the pyramids would continue. Many a guy goes to the gym to prepare; especially those assigned the lower tier positions to bear the most weight.

This year as every year, the preceding midnight, Lord Krishna was supposed to have been born, aeons ago. Some would have celebrated the event at home, doing pujas as is the normal Hindu wont. Others will take to the streets in search of dahi handis – the pots in which curds stored by his mother – to break. That was Lord Krishna’s way and everyone, at least on that day, parents tell the children. In all probability, despite his divine capabilities, Lord Krishna as prankster had at best try two-tiers; the low-slung houses could not have been towers!

It is hard to say when these dahi handis. It does not seem to be a pan-India favourite while Krishna Janamashtami is, from temple worship to household events where nothing much spills out of its confines. In Mumbai, it has acquired a distinct political flavour and is beginning to spread to other cities with the battle cry of the groups which go in search of the pot, Govinda, alaa re! (Here comes Govinda!) From a local event, it has morphed into a huge competition, with huge prize moneies, one pot promising Rs 25 lakh to successful.

It is no more a local activity which is said to have been confined to the chawl courtyards where the children and youth scrambled and tried building the pyramids, mostly of four or five tiers. Boys from neighbouring chawls stepping in added to the fun and competition. Later, households began stringing ropes across the roads – but the minor, or the side streets – and gangs would traverse them to find and win the pot. Probably a few rupees was their prize.

Politicians changed all that. They sponsor the event themselves so their visibility is enhanced. They also sponsor teams which in times of political activity – canvassing, vote gathering etc. come handy. They pay for the distinct t-shirts which also have the sponsors’ name or organisation. Some local guy pays for their transport and nasta – and at the end of the day, perhaps even some intoxicating grog – because, politics too are pyramids. You get your name on some billboards too.

If the politician lacks the machinery or even the ability to organise ­dahi handis they put up stalls to provide a cool glass of water to the roaming Govinda teams, and strut about importantly because to grow and survive, they have to turn every trick in the book, even out of the box. Bestowing patronage, organising themselves, are some of these tricks. Once a politician, rules can be broken, even mains city squares taken over with impunity.

These squares to which approaches are difficult, are so noisy with the din of the accompanying drummers – our desi version of cheer leaders – and the blaring of the sound system from the stage erected there for Bollywood actors to stand and speak and dance and say a few lines from their blockbusters. While the very fact that the common chawls can at best have a local sound-systemwallah playing out his version of being a DJ and the politicians can get the stars to add jest. But it also marks the high point in vulgarisation.

It is the politician – Jitendra Avhad, Pratap Sarnaik, Sachin Ahir, Bala Nandgaonkar and the like – who wants this to be given the status of sports proclaiming that it was high time. If Kabbadi could be turned into a recognised a sport, they’d argue, why not the humble but enchanting dahi handi? Television and newspapers already offer lots of live airtime and acres of space to it. After all, the idea is to promote its indigenous games which costs the players nothing except practice.

If formalised, as in cricket, there could be pots of gold in more formal contracts for we don’t know who actually pays for the prizes now.The huge sums mentioned are misleading. The Rs 25 lakh for a ten-tier pyramid that can crack the handi has never been given away for none of the Govinda teams have quite managed that. The best that happened was nine-tiers once in Thane. This lure seems to bring people and the Govindas there, and competitively, three politicians have offered the same sum. Would formalising it into a recognised sport make a difference?