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How Bihar’s subaltern Chhath festival entered the elite spaces

Along with the gentrification, media is inserting religious legends into Chhath's history. The forward march of India's subaltern may just end up as another ritualistic Hindu festival.

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The festival of Chhath has been experiencing something unique over the past few years. Besides the forward march of India’s subaltern culture, this ‘Bihari’ festival has entered the shiny rooftops of high-rises in India’s metropolitan cities as well as abroad.

But this change also marks a process in reverse. Usually, it’s the elite class culture that becomes a mass culture. The flow is from top to bottom. Elites generally do not copy the plebeians or their cultural practices. But Chhath is an exception and there are three factors behind it.

Spread of Chhath festival

Chhath has traditionally been a mass festival limited to the geographical boundaries of Bihar, including the Terai region of Nepal. Coming from an industrial city in Jharkhand, and later spending years in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, I have witnessed the phenomenal growth and spread of Chhath festival. In the 1980s, only a few migrants from Bihar used to celebrate Chhath. Gradually, as the migrant population grew, and the Bihari culture became the dominant culture in industrial towns, others (non-Biharis) also started participating. I see the spread of Chhath as something that Bihari migrants took to different parts of the country as well as abroad, including in countries such as the US. The Indian political class too has sensed the change in the demography of electors brought upon by the migrant Bihari population. Top politicians now wish on this occasion.

We see politicians and governments making arrangements for the celebration of Chhath in different parts of the country. The scale of the festival is so big that e-commerce sites are selling Chhath Poojan combo sets.

Also read: Indian Americans celebrate Chhath Puja in several states across US

Chhath and subalternity

Chhath is one of those so-called Hindu festivals in which there is no idol worship, no priestly class, no Sanskrit mantras, and no dakshina. The devotees invoke and seek blessings of the sun and “Chhati Maiya” (Mother Chhathi) in their local dialect. Earlier, there were no temples related to “Chhati Mai.” When the audio cassette industry realised there’s an untapped market in Chhath, notable singers like Sharda Sinha and Anuradha Paudwal sang many songs in languages like Bhojpuri, Magahi and Vajjika that are still played during the festival. It’s difficult to find popular Chhath songs in Hindi language, let alone in Sanskrit.

Linguist, scholar of Buddhist history, and professor at Veer Kunwar Singh University in Ara, Rajendra Prasad Singh argues that Chhath has its roots in Buddhist past because its geographical spread is in the region where Buddhism once had great influence and royal patronage. He also notes that people offer and eat “Thekua” (small sweet deep fried cookies) in this festival and the most popular motifs used on the top of Thekua are the leaves of Peepal Tree (Ficus religiosa) and Dhamma Chakra.

He further argues that devotees make altars in the shape of Manauti or Votive Stupa in this festival. Prof Singh has a point.

In cities, the class and caste barriers remain invisible during this festival. One can find himself or herself standing near persons of any class or caste on the banks of rivers or ponds. Though, in some villages, caste barriers rear their ugly head during this festival. Writing for ThePrint, The Mooknayak’s editor Meena Kotwal narrates that when she travelled in the interiors of Bihar for election coverage, she saw that during Chhath, the formerly untouchables have their separate spaces at rivers and ponds. She also finds elements of patriarchy in the festival. We don’t know whether this is an old practice or if this is an addendum in a later period.

Also read: German woman performs Chhath Puja with husband in Gorakhpur

Gentrification of Chhath

Chhath is now celebrated in the metropolitan city apartments and colonies also. For this, resident welfare associations and in some places politicians set up makeshift arrangements for water bodies. The trend of celebrating Chhath on the rooftops using inflatable pools has also gained popularity. Rising pollution levels in rivers and huge crowds are cited as reasons for doing this. It has been reported that “many apartment builders have now started constructing concrete ponds on rooftops as an attractive feature for customers and to enable residents to celebrate Chhath collectively.”

But, it changes the basic character of Chhath, which is still considered as a community festival. With such changes, there will be no scope for standing together in a river or pond and no mutual exchange of prasad (offerings). As Indian urban colonies and housing societies are not always inclusive and especially Dalits do not live in these spaces, Chhath as colony or apartment affair will certainly rob it of its basic character of spatial inclusivity. Urban segregation is a social fact and certainly impacts colony and apartment based festivals and associations.

Mass communication mediums are also impacting Chhath. The mammoth structure of Hindi media is trying to insert some religious katha or legend in its coverage. Such legends are reaching millions of readers as some of the big media platforms (1234 , 5) are publishing them. The media has invented a daughter of Brahma by the name of Shashti and introduced a story about how a king and queen observed fast invoking Devi Shashti and how a son was born to them. The attempt is to make it a religious festival which fulfils the wish of a family for a boy child. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, temples of Chhath Devi have come up. In some cases, new connections are added. A Sanskrit Mantra has been created. Obviously, the masses will not be able to recite Sanskrit shlokas, so that will, as a corollary, pave the way for the priests! If this trend continues, along with the festival’s growing gentrification, there is a possibility that Chhath may become another ritualistic Hindu festival.

One may wish that the mass culture will try to save some of the elements of Chhath, but that will not be an easy task, especially in the era of proliferation of mass media myths that are created on an industrial scale. Hindutva is the winning ideology of our times, and it will certainly try to make Chhath ritualistic and gentrified.

Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine and has authored books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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