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Reach for the sky

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Though the Dahi Handi festivities have largely been centred around men, women’s groups are also now standing tall and steady, breaking both traditions and matkas, says Tanmaya Vyas

Dahi Handi, which takes place this year on September 3, is an intrinsic aspect of Maharashtrian—and especially, Mumbai—culture.

Categorised as an adventure sport by the Maharashtra government some years ago, it involves a human pyramid breaking an earthen pot, which is tied high. The higher the pot, the greater the challenge it is considered to be. Though there is no mention anywhere of the gender of the ‘govindas’ who represent the mischievous side of Lord Krishna ‘stealing milk and curd’. this has traditionally been considered a ‘boy’s sport’ because of the dangers involved.

However, over the last two decades, women have been increasingly participating in Dahi Handi. The first Mahila Dahi Handi Pathak to be formed was ‘Gorakhnath Dahi Handi Pathak (Group)’, in 1995 by social worker Bhau Khorgaonkar and his wife. Formed on a basic, yet unpractised, belief of gender equality, this Pathak soon became an inspiration for the formation of many other women’s pathaks, despite the criticism that it engendered. Starting with 15 girls, today over 200 women are a part of this group, aged between 15 and 40, from professions as diverse as beauticians, business executives and even lawyers and doctors. Today, there are hundreds of Mahila Dahi Handi Pathaks in and around Mumbai.

Another well-known women’s dahi handi organisation is the Parle Sports Club Mahila Dahi Handi Pathak. A group formed by a national level Kabbadi player—a common string among many female Govindas—Geeta Zagde brought together 20 women in the year 2000, including policewomen, beauticians and even a chartered accountant. “I used to watch these govindas being applauded and given so much attention. Being a sought-after Kabbadi player, I was used to applause and one day, it struck me—why should I clap for other govindas when I can also do this and get applause? That’s when I brought together like-minded women and formed Parle Sports Club Mahila Dahi Handi Pathak,” Geeta shares.

The response by Mumbaikars has been overwhelming and the perception too has changed over the years, says Geeta. “People are curious to see what women pathaks are going to do. There is a certain curiosity, excitement and glamour attached to mahila pathaks.”

However, this initiative came with its challenges. The biggest of these is pay disparity, as it is for women in many fields. The involvement of politicians and corporates to promote themselves has inflated prize money set for dahi handi events and the highest so far has run into crores. Usually, the pay is based on the levels formed in the human pyramid and subsequent breaking of the pot; while male pyramids have achieved double-digit layers, women have gone up to a maximum of eight levels so far. However, the prize amount given by organisers is disproportionate to the difference.

“When a male pathak forms 10 layers or levels and cracks the pot, the prize money is in lakhs, as much as Rs 21 lakhs. However, if a women’s Pathak forms seven levels, the prize drops to a meagre Rs 11,000. We agree that there are fewer layers, but is this ratio right? If it is not Rs 21 lakh because there are not ten layers, at least Rs 5 lakh should be considered. Unfortunately, the partiality is evident,” Geeta shares.

Another major problem is that no organiser takes responsibility for untoward incidents. Nitin Vichare, coach for the under-19 Kabbadi state team, who also coaches the same team for Dahi Handi, says, “I am a coach for kabbadi for  the girls’ team and their fitness levels are right for being govindas. However, we do it for  the sheer thrill and not to be in any competition, as this is not their career. But the girls enjoy being in the limelight for that day.”

Vichare also warns about the possibility of injuries. “I remind the girls that sport is forever and dahi handi is just for one day,” he says, “Any injury caused during dahi handi can cost them their life and kabbadi career too.”

The Dahi Handi Samnvay Samitee, a state-based organisation to protect the rights and interests of Govindas, has collaborated with Oriental Insurance Company to offer insurance with slabs of Rs 10 lakh in case of death, Rs 5 lakhs in case of loss of an organ and Rs 1 lakh in case of hospitalisation to participants. This insurance is for a one-time premium of Rs 75 as opposed to Rs 100 for Rs 2 lakh insurance offered previously. This is for both men and women pathaks and is effective from the first day of practice to the actual event day.  Samir Sawant from the Samitee, recently also said that this year they have requested the police to make the insurance compulsory before giving permission to govindas.

From going door to door convincing parents to ‘allow’ their daughters to be a part of this sport to crossing international borders, Mahila Govindas have come a long way.

“In 2013, our pathak represented the Dahi Handi sport at Times Square in the United States of America. We were treated like celebrities there, as everyone wanted to click pictures with the ‘human pyramid’. The foreigners were amazed to see the dahi handi. It was a proud moment and gave my girls an ambition to do something more in this field,” Geeta beams with pride. The pathak went down the record books in 2013, for a salami (Mock-show), when they formed a seven-layer pyramid, albeit injuring three members.

Though Dahi Handi has not traditionally been considered safe for women, such Mahila Pathaks have defied patriarchy, standing tall and steady, pun intended.

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