Staying rooted

Seemingly drastic changes to lifestyle may sometimes be the most natural course of action. In Bangalore, we found a bright example in the 47-year-old Vallari Shah.

Vallari was an IT professional in a multinational consulting company. Four years ago, she gave up her lucrative career to pursue what makes her happy. Her life now is summarized simply, in three words: gardening, dancing and meditation.

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We visited her beautiful home in Whitefield to have a conversation about her realizations and motivations in choosing to live a low-impact life.

Vallari and her husband Rajesh, moved back to India from America seven years ago, largely because they wanted their two boys to grow up closer to their culture and roots.

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Growing up as Jains, the couple had the basic tenets of ahinsa or non-violence, aparigraha  or restrained consumption and anekantavada or multiple-viewpoints entrenched in them. However, they wanted to be able to practice the teachings beyond the rituals and the prayers in a responsible way. In that effort, they were inspired hugely by Satish Kumar’s philosophy of ‘Soil, Soul and Society’ which outlines the significance of a harmonious existence with the world. From pulling out of the stock market and only investing in ethical, socially responsible companies to saying no to plastics and food that isn’t local produce; Vallari and Rajesh have made thoughtful changes to each area of their lives.

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In Bangalore, they adapted their home into becoming more energy-efficient and less wasteful. Vallari, who is an avid community gardener, began farming an array of fruits and vegetables on her terrace as well as on an empty plot next to her. Not before long, her neighbours got involved too. Today, she was produces a majority of the food that her family consumed, out of her garden, completely chemical-free.

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From using solar-power to reworking the entire plumbing system in their house to reuse water, they have managed to create an eco-friendly living space. These improvements supplement their lifestyle, which follows the refuse-reduce-reuse-repair-recycle mantra.  In combination, these create a life that is more energy-efficient and less wasteful.

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When asked if such a life is difficult or challenging, Vallari makes the natural strength of their decisions clear. “Things are only challenging when you don’t want to do them,” she explained.

With a strong drive to live by the core principles of Jainism, the Shahs preserve and practice the Jain ideals through their own life and work.


Text, photographs and video: Gayatri Ganju




A film festival in the hills

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The third annual Dharamashala International Film Festival (DIFF) took place in bustling McLeodganj between the 30th of October and 2nd November this year.

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DIFF is curated and organized by Ritu Sarin and Tenzin Sonam as a platform for contemporary independent cinema with a focus on encouraging young Indian and Tibetan filmmakers. Renowned filmmakers in their own right, Ritu and Tenzin have been making movies together since the early 80s.

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Opening night was headlined by the screening of Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi, followed by a short Q & A session with him. Over the next three days, films were screened at two venues most of the time leaving the viewers spoilt for choice.

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There were also interaction sessions with some of the filmmakers which led in to interesting discussions on their personal processes and gave the audience an insight into the artist’s process.

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One of the biggest crowd pullers at DIFF this year was Khyentse Norbu’s Vara: A Blessing. This visual treat portrays the story of a young devadasi (played by Shahana Goswami) who falls in love with a low-caste sculptor in her village. Shot in serenely beautiful rural Sri Lanka, the narrative blurs between the real and the fantastical as it draws the viewers into a subtle world of temptation and transcendence.

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Through the festival the atmosphere was abuzz with people passionately arguing about their favourites while lining up in queues.

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Aspiring and young filmmakers as well as plain old movie buffs had travelled from all over the country to make it for the festival. Through all of this, DIFF was backed by a band of diligent volunteers who saw to it that everyone was having a good time.

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In a chat with Ritu and Tenzin, both emphasised how heartening it was to see the festival grow bigger every year. We at Anveshan couldn’t agree more because it’s exciting to see such initiatives provide opportunity for narratives outside the mainstream.


Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju

 




Becoming her worship

Once a year, around the monsoons in India, Jains observe the festival of Paryushan. During this time, the community comes together at temples to pray, meditate and to listen to religious discourses by learned teachers. At these gatherings attended by men and women of all ages, people seek forgiveness for any hurt or harm they may have caused through speech, thought or action, to other living beings.

In the Jain tradition, there is no creator-God. However, the highest ideals are represented through liberated souls who are beyond all worldly aspects. Jain devotion entails walking in the footsteps of such souls, sometimes nominally called bhagavan, or God.

In the monsoon of 2014, I follow Rekha Jain and the greater community she is a part of  through the festival of  Paryushana.

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Rekha is a 38 year old Jain home-maker and mother of two, in Bangalore, who observes a fast during Paryushana every year. She begins by eating one simple meal in the day for the first few days, which she reduces steadily, till she eats or drinks nothing.

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Rekha goes to the temple every morning at 7:00 AM in the morning where she prays till 1:00 in the afternoon. After which she spends the rest of her day at home reading, praying and meditating on her own or with family.

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We follow Rekha to the Terapanth Sabha Bhavan in Bangalore where people from the community settle in. They make space for each other quietly, trying to fit as many in front of the stage.

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At the temple, Sadhvi Kanchan Prabha addresses the community and begins to talk about the importance of forgiveness. This is one of the core principles practices during the festival where individuals ask forgiveness of any wrong they may have done or hurt they may have caused in the last year. Absolution is asked from the most minute insect to one’s closest relations.

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For a moment there is absolute silence in the hall. Then this is broken by synchronous chanting led by Sadhvi Kanchan Prabha, till the entire space seems to reverberate. Silences are a prominent motif in Paryushana.

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Though a time of frugality, applying mehendi on the hands is a customary way of expressing joy during the festival. Even though it isn’t a celebratory period in the conventional sense, Paryushana is a time to be thankful and positive.

It is a time for fasting, meditation, and intense introspection. All these elements are interrelated. Rekha explains to me that the more frugally she eats, the less the material world around her matters.

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Such practice is not limited to adults. A young boy sits to meditate with a fierce concentration along with his father and other people in the main hall.  This is a reflection of many from the younger generations who are consciously involved in their practice.

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The austerities continue at home. Rekha and her sister-in-law, Sanjana, help each other get ready for their evening pratikamana. On asking Rekha when she started her practice, she answers that she couldn’t put a date on it but that it has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember.

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Like Rekha, many of the adherents who come to the temple follow these practices to move towards the ideal of the liberated soul.

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During a conversation with Rekha, I ask her how she copes when she feels tired or hungry. She answers that she reminds herself  “mujhe mere mann ko sthir rakhna hain, svasth rakhna hain” (“I must still my mind and keep myself healthy”). Determination is what, I understand, keeps her going.

Rekha summarizes the Jain pursuit incisively—
Bhagavan ban ke bhagavan ki puja karte hain”
(“One must become God in order to worship God”).


Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju




From one family to another

Diksha, in India, refers to the ceremony of formal initiation into a tradition. In Jainism, diksha is the ceremony through which a lay person becomes an ascetic, and adopts several vows which they are expected to follow throughout the course of their subsequent lives.

Amar Shah, his wife Bina and their two children, Romal and Binal all took diksha together in Andheri West, Bombay in early May. The event transpired with immense fanfare, over a week, during which the family were shuttled between Pujas at different venues, wore extravagant clothes that were changed for every ceremony and had an audience of thousands while they gave up everything they owned. We followed the Shah family through some of the tender, tired and ecstatic moments of their journey towards renunciation.

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Amar and Bina prepare to dissolve their family and to adopt the ascetic tradition within Jainism. We were unfamiliar with such proceedings, and, being granted access to such a private gathering, We watched on curiously.

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Amar Shah helps his daughter Binal put on her ornamental crown. This is their last week together, as a family, after which they renounce all ties and barely see each other again.

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Romal and Binal, who are twenty and eighteen years old respectively, share a calm moment at home, between functions. Binal listens to her brother practicing for his stage performance. This is the last time he will be playing.

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Binal sits with her close friends and cousins as she has her mehendi done. The atmosphere around her is jovial as the teenagers discuss the latest Bollywood films. She stays quiet, a bit withdrawn, listening to the chatter and gently smiling the entire time.

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In a room downstairs, Romal’s cousins bring him chocolate cake which they try to feed him. Expecting him to relish a large last indulgence, we watch as he takes a tiny nibble and then no more. He tells us that he no longer desires to do things to merely appease his senses.

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Amar and Bina get ready for a mid-day ceremony. Tensions run high for their immediate family, who are under a lot of pressure to make sure that all the events run smoothly. However they, the diksharthis, remain islands of calmness in that storm.

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During the four kilometer long procession, the varghoda, musicians in colourful costumes set the tone with vigorous drumbeats. Close to thirty bullock carts, carrying the diksharthis and their family, follow.

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Romal Shah throwing his wealth, symbolized by bundles of rice, into the crowd. There is a tussle to grab the little packages being thrown off the procession. The parade brings traffic in Andheri to a near-standstill.

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Binal listens to her best friend, Anjali, just before walking to the stage. Through the week, Anjali has been right by Binal’s side. She seems to know what Binal is going to ask for even before it is said out loud.

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Binal and Bina bow towards Muni Tirthabhadra who is on stage.

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Amar Shah dances with ecstatic abandon on stage just before his mundan which is a ceremonial tonsuring. He needs to be held by a muni, so that he doesn’t lose balance.

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Bina Shah pays her respects to one of the elderly sadhvis. Bina will leave for her mundan ceremony, where her head will tonsured and he will be given her white robes.

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In their finery, Amar and Bina Shah greet the audience. The strength of the community is evident; to participate in the event, Jains from all over Bombay have gathered for the week, braving the merciless Bombay summer. The time has finally come for the diksharthis to formally join the faith and start their new lives as ascetics.


Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju




Sea of white

If we’d met them in any other circumstances, it would have been difficult for us to picture Neha and Bineeta as novice ascetics.

Both of them, young and beautiful, were giving up all familial and material attachment to choose a path that is austere and often difficult. We followed them through the diksha ceremony which would initiate them as Jain nuns.

Having spent time around them for a week we noticed that through all the chaos and grandeur of the ceremony they had found a sense of deep internal strength and calm. Like they were ready.

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Bineeta walks onto stage behind the other diksharthis on the first morning of the ceremonies. The audience settle in for what is going to be a week of extravagant celebration, pomp and show.

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Binita has her hair blow-dried by her sister, Anjali, as she gets ready for the evening ceremonies with some of the other women diksharthis. As she stands over her sister, almost protectively, she tells us that she’s a fashion student and has designed all Binita’s outfits for the diksha.

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Neha waits silently for the make up artist to start on her. There’s a lot of fussing and discussion over her getting ready and she seems excited about having a say in choosing the colours that are painted on to her face.

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As the girls are getting ready the atmosphere in the room is abuzz, with mothers, sisters and aunts flitting around them, adding extra touches and chattering. The girls seem to enjoy the attention and shimmer, choosing the right shade of eye-shadow and having their hair styled.

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Neha twirls in her skirt to see how much it can flare up and we’re struck by how young and full of life she is, and by everything that she’s giving up.

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Neha’s hair gets a final flourish. Soon, in the mundan ceremony, she will have her head tonsured. Once she becomes a nun, she can no longer have long hair for the rest of her life.

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We tell Binita that she’s looking like a princess. She smiles at us with her eyes still closed and says “Not for long”.

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The make-up artist works on the final touches on Bineeta’s face. She gently asked a few times whether she needs to have so much on and was told that the next week of finery would make up for her entire life of austerity.

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Bineeta in the ceremonial procession known as the varghoda, surrounded by her family. Below, the crowds scramble and even get violent in an attempt to grab the smallest scrap thrown down by the diksharthis.

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Having sat through the varghoda for hours in the morning sun, Bineeta is brought immediately back to the venue with the other diksharthis. Exhausted and weighed down by her heavy clothes, she tries to get up to go to the bathroom. Before she can even get to her feet, she is pulled back by other attendees, who don’t let her leave.

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Just before the mundan,Neha’s family say their final goodbye to her in this present form.

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Neha takes her first few steps as a nun, or a sadhvi.

As soon as her mundan was done and she shed her heavy finery for white robes, she is absorbed into a sea of white. This is her new family who now assumes responsibility to fuss and fret over her.

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Neha pays her respects to elder sadhvis before she stands on stage. She will face the audience for the first time as a young nun. In this new incarnation, she seems totally washed over by a sense of calm and deep contentment.


Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju