Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Sri Krishna Janmashtami festival, Granville

On the first day of spring, we arrived in a taxi at the town hall in this distant suburb of Sydney, a place where the high-rises haven’t reached and where the train station at night is almost empty of passengers. The town hall was lit inside and there was a sign that had been placed on the pavement welcoming people to an event. I saw a group of young men walking toward the door and asked them if this was the right place for the festival. The one in the lead, dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket, said he had come for the same purpose, but didn’t explicitly, except with his smile, confirm my analysis of the situation.

We walked through the front door and down the passageway floor, which had taped to it round pieces of paper each with a footprint marked on it, to the main hall where there was music playing. There was a woman standing at another doorway who looked as though she was from the subcontinent but who I learned later was originally from Singapore. She held a tray in her left hand and with her right was making a pale mark on the foreheads of visitors, using her index finger to make a vertical smear out of a dab of ochre-coloured clay.

To my right a thin man with a mark on his forehead who held an iPad in his hands was talking but I didn’t catch exactly what he said. He motioned toward a stocky man dressed in a brown robe standing between the doorway and the interior of the room. This man held a plastic box in his hands. I gave him a twenty-dollar note and he reached into the box and extracted a ten-dollar note, which he handed to me. A man to his left held out two paper raffle tickets that had black numbers stamped on them and yellow ink in a strip down the side. There were many people in the room and at the front, where there was a curtained stage, three women in elaborate costumes were dancing. They were wearing green-and-red sarees and moved their hands in time to music that was coming, I presumed, from large black speakers mounted on the back wall of the room.

We walked through the crush of people and found seats in the rows of plastic chairs that had been put out on the floor, facing the stage. Next to me, on my left, a boy aged about ten years old was sitting on a chair that was identical to mine. He moved around a fair bit and got up at one point to leave the row and go to someone who was standing elsewhere in the room, then he came back later. There were children all around the room, some on these big, adult-sized seats that they inhabited like accidents in search of a cause, others standing in the aisles. One small girl had wrapped her arms around her mother’s left leg and flatly refused to let go. Her mother ended up squatting down to her level to talk with her.

At the back of the room was a table that was covered with knick-knacks people could buy, including blue felt representations of the god. These had cardboard labels tied to their legs that advertised the goods and had a price in hand-lettered print on them: $25. Behind this table was an A-frame made of unfinished lengths of timber that held a swing in which a representation of the child-god, with black skin, was nestled among flowers. Children came up to the Krishna-child and pushed it, so that it moved back and forth, and to have their pictures taken with it. Mothers and fathers squatted down at the level of their children’s faces while other people took their pictures with mobile phones.

Eventually, the dancers finished their routine and the curtains draped across the width of the stage were drawn back to reveal a colourful display with lengths of artificial flowers hanging in strands from a looping length of similar stuff that had been strung across the back of the stage. In the middle of the stage was a representation of the god playing a flute. A cloth-covered ring was placed immediately behind this object, framing it for the audience. The cloth was yellow, and the god’s robes were also yellow. He had an object mounted on his head I could not identify, and necklaces of flowers around his neck. There were pot-plants on the stage that added variety to the scene, along with beaten-metal pots standing at regular intervals. On either side of the stage were banners with representations of the god printed on them. He had blue skin and expressive eyes in these pictures.

A middle-aged Anglo man with short hair and regular features prostrated himself on the stage in front of the statue of the god, and held his hands stretched out for a good twenty seconds as he did so. He then got up and performed an elaborate ritual that involved waving in the direction of the statue objects that he took from a draped table positioned at the side of the stage and, turning his body toward the audience, waving them in front of the crowd as he traced circles with his right hand. At the same time, with his left hand, he gently rang a small bell held in his fingers. Finally, he picked up a large shell and blew a hollow note with it by applying his mouth to one end and expelling air from his lungs through his lips. Once he had finished his lengthy performance he prostrated himself again on the stage and came down to the hall using the stairs I could see through the door to the right of the stage. He went to a microphone that was mounted on the floor in front of a chair and gave instructions to the audience while the band continued to play.

There were three men on electric guitars, a woman using an accordion that sat on a table, and a man who played a large bongo drum. On occasion this man alternated his delivery by playing an electric drum that was set up next to his seat. The man who had performed on stage took up one of the guitars and began playing. In total the band played about four tunes, one of which resembled Debby Harry’s ‘Heart of Glass’. Another tune was more insistent and at one point one or two of the people in the audience stood up and raised their hands in the air, moving them in front of their bodies like congregants do in Pentecostal churches when they watch bands playing religious music. I learned later that the band had come down from the Gold Coast.

While the band was playing their rhythmic ambient music people were lining up on the left-hand side of the room where tables with boxes of fruit and flowers on them had been set up. Visitors chose offerings from these, which were handed out by devotees, and took them past a series of dioramas illustrating the life of the god, to the stage. They put their offerings on the tables in front of the stage and on the table on the stage in front of where the statue of the god sat during the whole event, anchoring people’s attention as they went about making devotional bows, sometimes placing their foreheads on the floor, or placing their hands together in prayer. At one stage I saw the young man I had spoken with outside the building praying briefly in front of the statue. His back filled his black jacket as he bowed his head in the direction of the statue.

The crowd of people coming in through the doors from the street was constant, and people calmly joined the queue lined up along the left-hand wall of the room in a steady stream. Most of the organisers were Anglo, including the band, which was led by a young, blonde woman who sang in a clear voice for several hours, while most of the visitors were from the subcontinent. The man who had led the devotions got up at one stage and fronted the mic again, introducing a man with dark skin who spoke for a few minutes. The host then made some announcements about sponsors and then closed the proceedings, instructing people to head to the building’s entrance for food.

A line of people snaked along the corridor and we joined it. In a room off to the side of the hallway near the front door they were giving out containers of sweet rice pudding and plastic boxes containing warm rice with vegetarian curry on top. The curry was made with tofu and had peas in it and had a nutty flavour. People gave their raffle tickets to a man at a table by the door to the room, and at another table other devotees gave out the food. Out a side door, on the narrow path next to the building, young people sat on some steps eating. Inside the room, others were sitting on plastic chairs eating their food. Once we had finished eating we left the building, walking across the road toward the shopping centre. We walked up the ramp that leads to the train station, used our Opal cards to get access to the tracks, and went down the stairs to the platforms.

On the train there were few people and it went along quietly, stopping at a few stations before Central. As we waited in the moving train’s vestibule prior to alighting at the station, two young women who had been on the upper deck of the train started talking with us. They were Hindus and told us that the date of the festival changes each year. They also said that different Hindus worship different gods in the pantheon.

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