From 17 to 70, they went head to head with the men.
The first time I see Simran Lakhan Khadale, she is perched atop a human pyramid. Slender yet strong with an average height and a dusky complexion, she sports a pink T-shirt, slightly damp from the sweat, shining brightly under the scorching sun, as she slowly rises, hitting the handi hard with a stone. The surrounding crowd erupts in cheers as the liquid falls from the handi and the pyramid slowly but systematically dismounts. Simran, however, remains unfazed. She gracefully and quite effortlessly climbs down and hugs her team-mates. Part of Bandra's first ever Dahi Handi pyramid team, the Gopika Mahila Govinda Pathak, Simran has been breaking Handis since she was in the 5th standard. She tells me frankly that she has never, ever felt scared -- not even the first time she climbed the pyramid as a 10-year-old girl.
Ready to be broken
This confidence, I assume comes from her sporting background. “She is a celebrated Karate player in our area,” her friend states nonchalantly. As she prepares to break yet another Dahi Handi at Bandra Bazaar with the same fervour and energy, I watch, impressed, remembering my own days as a martial artist and thinking that if I try, maybe even I would be able to form and climb the pyramid. But perhaps not as fearlessly as Simran does.
“Pursuing martial arts has made my legs strong and flexible. Moreover, it has made me brave. I am focused on performing, be it a Karate tournament or a Dahi Handi pyramid. I do not think of the consequences,” she adds.
The human pyramids at the Dahi Handi are all about power, precision and teamwork. Each and every person who is part of the formation plays an important role. One step gone wrong could prove dangerous, can disturb the formation and seriously injure other teammates. Thus, practices for Dahi Handi pyramids begin months earlier to ensure flawless execution. Simran, who is at the top and perhaps at the highest risk of falling mentions that she has been training hard. “Only after warm-ups, exercises, test runs and forming pyramids hundreds of times are we truly ready to execute,” she states.
"And what is the criteria for being chosen as the Handi breaker?", I ask curiously. “They choose the best ones. My experience helped,” she adds coyly.
Women of different ages, caste and creed come together in the spirit of Dahi Handi
But as the case is in every sport, there are times that you lose, times that you fail. While Simran narrates stories about her experiences in several Dahi Handi events, her friend interrupts to tell us how Simran almost did not make it to the team today, as she had fallen and injured herself during practice, the previous day. “But she cried and she cried and then she performed, so we took her in,” the friend adds.
Though Simran tells me that she is feeling much better, I am appalled to see women forming human pyramids without any safety harness and gear. Only Simran sports a helmet -- a must for the girls on the top, standing out of the crowd, ready to break the next handi at Chapel Road for which she and her team generously invite and take us in their own bus.
The women of Gopika Mahila Govinda Pathak in action
I observe the spirit of these women. There are little girls, teenagers, newly married women, mothers and even grandmothers of all caste, creeds and even religion who’ve come together for the festival, to celebrate the spirit of Janmashtami. I meet a plump, 70-year-old woman who seems extremely enthusiastic. She is not part of the pyramid but stands at the base with her hands raised up to catch anyone who falls. As Simran breaks her third handi for the day and the pyramid dismantles, the women break into song and celebration, uninhibited, unscared. I see little Simran too dancing with her team members. “Dahi Handi goes beyond just being a sport, a competition or a Hindu Festival. It’s about having fun, making memories and enjoying together,” she adds excitedly.
However, female teams at Dahi Handi have also become an expression of women empowerment. Saurav Shelar who coaches the Gopika Mahila Govinda Pathak too feels the same. Talking about his experience in coaching Simran and the other girls, he proudly states that women have equal potential and enthusiasm as the men’s team. “It has been a pleasure to watch them grow as a team and learn these skills so diligently.” Simran agrees. Pursuing Karate and being part of an all-women Dahi Handi team definitely makes her feel empowered, though she clearly states that she has never faced any discrimination in her own family. “My parents have always encouraged me to follow my heart,” she adds.
Competing with the men
It is pleasantly surprising to see many other women on the team repeat what Simran says about having faced no backlash from their families to be part of the Dahi Handi team. “Why should women stay behind when they have every right to do what they want,” Shobha, the team mentor and manager states ambitiously. Simran looks up at Shobha and smiles, encouraged to break yet another Handi at Pune, where the team is heading next. She is ready to be on top, once again.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com.
By Devyani Nighoskar
Photographs by Eshna Goenka