India

Viewpoint: Diamond Jubilee 'similar to' Indian festival

Composite images of Hindu/Jubilee celebrations

Riveted by television coverage of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations from her home in Mumbai, Indian columnist Bachi Karkaria reflects on unexpected parallels between the pomp of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the thrumming energy of Indian festivals.

When you are on top of the world, it is natural to celebrate. When you are down in the dumps, it is imperative, almost life-saving.

Sitting in my Mumbai flat, I watched the BBC Entertainment channel for three muggy nights, following the celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Why had I put aside all else for a show that ostensibly had nothing to do with me?

I was continents away with no expatriate yearnings. Commonwealth? It is okay for games, literary prizes and functions with heads of state swathed in fancy turbans. But the colonial hangover is fading fast.

The sheer power of spectacle as a thousand boats glided down the Thames? Soggy nostalgia over the songs of Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Elton John? The moving thanksgiving service at St Paul's Cathedral or the gobsmacking pageantry of the royal procession?

When I had stopped marvelling over the kind of pomp only the British can muster, whatever the circumstance, I realised there was a different, somewhat unlikely bond.

As reflected on the images of crowds lining the Thames, the people dancing with complete abandon and the magnificent glide of gilded coaches rolling past the crush of spectators, the penny dropped. The same universal release of mass celebration is to be found in India.

Frenzied revellers

Image caption Crowds thronged the Mall all the way towards Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee

If you set aside the audacity of such a comparison, this very public display of emotions in wet London did not seem that different from the exuberance we in India witness every year during the five days of Durga Puja - the Hindu festival celebrating the goddess Durga - when all of Calcutta is on uninterrupted holiday.

Or when all mundane life comes to a standstill as massive idols of the elephant-headed Ganpati - during the festival celebrating him - are borne majestically to Mumbai's Arabian sea for immersion, accompanied by frenzied revellers gyrating to the music throbbing out of amplifiers piled high on flatbed trucks.

Peel away the cultural contexts, and it was the same unselfconscious celebration.

There must have been some in London asking what over-the top pop idols had to do with commemorating the jubilee of a monarch known most for the underplayed Brit virtue of keeping calm and carrying on.

Similar views are expressed by snooty Mumbai residents who turn up their noses at what they see as the supposedly religious Ganpati festival now reduced to manic dancing in the street.

Such critics miss the point. In a society trapped in repression or recession or simply drudgery, celebration is an important social glue.

Which is why the founding fathers of independent India politicised the private worship of Durga and Ganpati, converting them for public festivals to forge a sense of nationhood.

More important, especially for communities trapped in economic pressure cookers, such mass festivity is a vital safety valve.

Personal release

Many years ago, a British sociologist based in Calcutta astutely observed that, without the annual release of Durga Puja, there would be mass suicides in Bengal. The economic recession has drawn Europe back to hard times, however removed a Greek shopkeeper might appear to be from an Indian farmer.

Image caption s

As in these Indian festivals, it seems the exuberant response to the Queen's jubilee celebrations was as much about personal release as about genuine tribute to a much-loved monarch.

True, frenetic English crowds did not burst crackers and fling clouds of vermilion powder as is done in India, and, no, the resplendently attired Elizabeth II - flanked by her family just like the goddess Durga - was not carried through London's streets atop a lorry. But from my perspective, it came close enough.

And if you really wanted to stretch a point, as the longest reigning crowned head in Europe, it wouldn't even be sacrilege to say that she has acquired an iconic elevation close to that of the giant idols riding high through tumultous Indian streets.

Certainly the otherwise staid Queen had dressed up for the part in Swarowski crystal and gold brocade, and even appeared to be gung-ho about being on show.

She may not be worshipped, but she was certainly the rallying point of a people who find themselves bereft of traditional anchors.

We are all like that only. And we all like that only.

Bachi Karkaria is an Indian journalist and columnist who was also an editor at The Times of India

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