Despite lack of funds, govindas are back as they celebrate Mumbai’s Dahi Handi festival.
Amid a maze of ageing chawls in Tadwadi, Mazgaon, is a small muddy patch facing a temple that nurtures some of Mumbai's most successful and award-winning ‘govindas’.
At 8 pm, it's dark and empty. But two hours later, scores of boys and men would gather here to prepare for the big day on Monday (3 September). That's when one of Mumbai's most-awaited celebrations – Dahi Handi – was scheduled.
The team members are on their way from offices, informs Bala Padelkar of the famous Shree Dutt Dahi Handi Mandal, one of the oldest govinda associations in Mumbai dating back to 1950s.
"We practise after office hours. That's how hectic it is for us this entire month. But employers are generous enough to allow us flexibility in shifts or even half-shifts on many days."
Padelkar, who is 58 but looks much younger, walks with a brisk gait to the temple steps, a stray dog blissfully sleeping in the premises. "The deity watches us when we practise. That's why we use this ground," he says.
Padelkar, a government employee, is president of an umbrella organisation representating 1,500 mandals in and around Mumbai called Dahi Handi Utsav Samanvay Samiti. That covers almost half of all of Maharashtra's Dahi Handi associations.
After a lull of four years, his troupe is all geared up and excited this time. "The festival is slowly seeing a revival," he says.
Padelkar is referring to the court intervention in the festival in 2014 that came as a jolt. In a controversial order, the Bombay High Court (HC) in 2014 imposed a 20-feet cap on the height of human pyramids and kept minimum age of participation at 18 following a public interest litigation. The petitioner had cited cases of accidents and deaths during pyramid formations for demanding restrictions.
The specified height would limit the tiers to four, at a time when teams are aiming for 10. The age restriction would keep the children, who scramble to the top of the pyramid easily, completely out.
"That year, it was no less than a shock. The order came just two weeks before the festival," recalls Padelkar. "Na ke barabar hua us saal. (there were negligible celebrations that year)."
In 2015, the samiti joined the Maharashtra government in challenging the high court order in the apex court.
"The court passed a diktat based on one-sided version. They did not hear us at all. But when we presented our points, they considered our view," says Padelkar.
Their hopes were rekindled as the Supreme Court of India asked the HC to hear the case afresh.
The court drama culminated in 2017 when the HC gave major relief to the mandals by removing height restriction and allowing children above 14 years to participate.
The jury's observations in the case, that it is not just during Dahi Handi but also in sports like cricket, gymnastics and aerobics that lives are lost in accidents, left the govindas feeling vindicated.
"After the first order (in 2014), we all felt that the court singles out Hindu festivals for its diktats. It was just so unfair," says Bharat Patil, a neighbour of Padelkar and member of another famous association, Mazgaon's Dakshin Vibhag Sarvajanik Mandal. "But thankfully we got support from the state government," he said.
The government not only challenged the court order but also helped the govindas' case by declaring pyramid formation as an adventure sport in 2015, thereby enabling it to be regulated like any other sport.
But well, the court verdict was too late to salvage the celebrations last year as it came just a week before the festival. "Most sponsors had already backed out," says Padelkar.
So all hopes were pinned on 2018.
"This time, there are far more organisers (of the competitions) and we hope for better prize money," said Padelkar when we met him on Thursday (30 August).
Newspapers reported on Monday (3 September) that several high-profile handis were organised by politicians across party lines, particularly by the Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Nine-tier pyramids were formed at several events.
Padelkar admitted that a lack of sponsors in the last four years dried up the mandals' coffers and hit them hard. At its peak, political parties and large corporate houses organised competitions with big money on offer, in some cases reaching a mammoth Rs 1 crore. Govindas put up their best act by reaching unbelievable heights, above 40 feet in some cases.
But in this period, prize money dropped to a paltry few lakhs as far fewer competitions were organised for the fear of defying court rules. Patil explained how carrying on became almost unsustainable: "Even the most ordinary mandal provides the govindas with customised clothes, food, insurance, and a truck for the day to move from one competition to another. For us, it comes to about Rs 2.5 lakh in just one day. A lot of money is spent in the run up to the festival too. The prize money wasn't enough to even sustain us, let alone motivate us," he said.
Asked if this kind of glamour and big money is even desirable for a festival, Padelkar said he only saw merit in it. "The festival drives a lot of economy," he said.
"Prize money motivates the govindas. The festival itself gives young men a purpose who would otherwise be roaming about wasting time. In the idle months of monsoon, they exercise in gyms to prepare for the festival. It also teaches team spirit and co-existence. More women are participating by each passing year. It also inculcates values," he said.
A woman visitor to the temple, who has been listening in, says, "You have to see how beautifully they start their practice. It begins on Guru Purnima with a puja. They even worship the handi and the rope with which it is tied. The entire colony is lit up. It feels like Diwali."
She adds that both Padelkar's and Patil's mandals, that had humble beginning, bring the non-descript Tadwadi immense respect across the city.
Mayuresh Shinde, who is just 17 and goes to school, has been part of Patil's mandal since he was seven. He has been to the top of the multi-layered pyramid several times, balanced perilously on the shoulders of his elder neighbours. He says the entire school knows him because of his association with Tadwadi mandal.
That's not all. "On Dahi Handi day, we get special entry at the events because of our stellar reputation. We are never made to stand in waiting," he says proudly. Asked if his family ever objected to him trying these dangerous stunts, Shinde said his father has himself been a participant for years.
Patil says, "To say that this festival puts children's lives in danger is wrong. I agree there have been a few fatal cases but that happens in every sport. We treat our young participants like our own children. Indeed, my own daughter used to be on the top till six years ago. Now she is 13."
He adds, laughingly, "Even when the court order was in place, policemen didn't object to us doing anything. Most children in our mandals are children of policemen only."
By now, men have begun to gather in the ground, all set for the practice session.
"We hardly trained in these four years," says one. "But while the sponsors backed out, we never did. We carried on the tradition. On one occasion, we carried black flags while forming the pyramid. But we were certain of a favourable verdict.”