During the month of August, around Gokulasthami, David Fernandes opts out of his mundane life and switches on his athletic mode. He climbs three-four tiers of a human pyramid to participate in Mumbai’s Dahi Handi festivities. David has done this for 22 years.
But in the last two years, his excitement for the event has been missing. The 40-year-old has been stuck at his 9-to-5 job in a private sector bank because Covid put a halt to one of Mumbai’s biggest events. On Krishna Janmashthami, young men and women form groups to make a human pyramid and break a dahi or curd pot hanging from a rope 20-30 feet high. David started playing the game in 2000 when the Jai Jawan Govinda Pathak, one of the biggest in the city, was formed. He was a kabaddi player then.
Now, after a break of two years, Fernandes is looking forward to 19 August when he will once again climb tiers to break the dangling dahi handi. He is among the 250-odd ‘govindas’ who have been practising every day from 9 pm to 12 midnight for the last two months at the Jai Jawan Govinda Pathak in Mumbai.
“We are very excited because it’s coming back after two years. This year, the Dahi Handi has no any restrictions,” said Fernandes.
The Maharashtra government has decided to lift all Covid-related restrictions on Dahi Handi celebrations. Politically, too, the festival is important as many parties and leaders sponsor Dahi Handi contests, and various Govinda groups participate for rewards worth lakhs. With the Mumbai civic elections expected later this year, political parties, especially the Shiv Sena and the BJP, are making an even more aggressive effort to capitalise on the festival.
But, the govindas are rusty. Many aren’t fit enough, have gained weight or lost confidence.
Practice makes perfect
Wearing the coloured T-shirts and shorts of their respective mandals, a big circle is formed by 8-9 govindas – it’s the ‘base layer’. This layer sits down and takes the weigh of the second layer. The number decreases as the pyramid goes up. Finally, the topmost person, standing at a height of 30-35 feet, breaks the pot.
Though boys and men dominate the game, girls are stepping up in many mandals or pathaks (organisations) too. On average, each group breaks 8-9 pots a day. And 200-800 members are part of each pathak.
It gets tricky to climb and break the pot if it is raining. And if it isn’t raining, then people from neighbouring houses pour water on them so they can’t climb.
“Dahi Handi is not just a festival but an emotion,” said Arun Patil, coach of Mazgaon Tadwadi Mandal and working president of Dahi Handi Samanvay Samiti. But the training has been harder this time. “We have been telling the govindas to keep being active for the entire year,” he says.
First, the group tests with four or five tiers and see how they respond. “We see their stamina, balancing and confidence level,” Patil said.
Sandeep Dhawale, coach of Jai Jawan Mandal, started teaching when he was 18. “I began with 15 boys and now the number has swollen to 650,” he said.
While Dahi Handi has been played in Mumbai for decades, the concept of practising with a proper regimen started only in 1985.
“In 1985, we built a five-tier pyramid for the first time. We had been systematic about it. Many neighbouring govinda pathaks started watching us and practising,” said Patil.
Fitness is important if you have to hold up 2-3 men, and the load can easily go up to 110 kgs. But the last two years of the pandemic have hit all mandals. Most govindas aren’t fitness.
“Some boys have become lazy and bulky. Those who were 60 kgs have now become 70-plus – it’s causing a bit of a problem,” said Fernandes.
In 2016, the Supreme Court capped the height of the handi at 20 ft and barred minors from participating. It led to widespread protests across Maharashtra and pleas were filed in the Bombay High Court. In 2017, the Bombay High Court lifted height restrictions on handis, but the age restriction remains – anyone below 14 can’t participate.
Trust is key
Along with physical fitness, the sport depends on teamwork and mental character, according to coach Patil. The person climbing up needs to be confident that the person below him will catch him if he falters.
“Teamwork was disrupted because of Covid and team bonding is taking time. It will take at least a year to regain that trust,” said Patil.
To remove fear from their hearts, there are ‘4-5 check points’.
“We throw them with full precaution from the fourth or fifth tier. Others catch them,” says Dhawale.
Injuries – part and parcel
Behind the energy and craze of the Dahi Handi festival, there are also several injuries. This year, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde has announced that the government will give Rs 10-lakh insurance cover to all govindas across the state. But with professional training, the focus is on minimising these. Even how to fall is taught to the govindas.
“They all fall together so there is minimal injury. We coach them to be prepared to take that weight. Injury happens if someone falls off directly from the top,” said Patil.
The lower levels have fitter boys. But part of Patil’s job is also visiting hospitals to check on teams after the event. Govindas often have broken legs, wrists, and swollen backs.
Fernandes is more confident. “I haven’t yet fallen in the last 22 years,” he proudly says.
But every year, reports of people getting injured after Dahi Handi are reported. In 2019, 60 people were injured in Mumbai alone.
Sena vs Sena
Like Ganesh Chaturthi, Dahi Handi celebrations in Maharashtra involve politicians, Bollywood celebrities, and TV stars.
The most famous handis are those organised by Shiv Sena MLA (now Shinde camp) Pratap Sarnaik in Thane, BJP MLA Ram Kadam in Ghatkopar, and Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena’s in Worli and Dadar. With this year’s political drama, competition has risen between Sena and Sena.
But most govindas and mandals don’t want a political tag.
“This is not a festival of any political party. This is a festival of Hindus,” says Patil.
The prize money they win is utilised for social work. “We don’t play for money. We play for this festival,” said Fernandes.