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Happy Karva Chauth: Here’s to the marriage between tradition and modern tastes

Ranjit and Payal Saxena live in Noida, near Delhi, in a new apartment block. Ranjit is a software consultant with a multinational, while Payal, an engineer herself, is a stay-at-home mom. Apart from everything else, Payal loves Karva Chauth for the fresh feeni, the thread-like concoction that is soaked in milk and eaten early in the morning. The sweet is available in the shops just a couple of days before this festival and isn’t to be seen the rest of the year. Feeni is traditionally eaten by the wife before the start of the day, presumably to ward off the hunger pangs occasioned by the fast, but the entire family loves it and joins Payal in the morning to enjoy this delicacy. Feeni is an import from Rajasthan, certainly not native to Punjab and UP, the two largest states where Karva Chauth is celebrated.

No Holi in the Marwari neighbourhood of Mumbai’s Andheri is complete without the traditional thandai, a cooling drink made with exotic ingredients like almonds, black pepper, poppy seeds and crystallised rose petals (gulkand).The Deshpandes in Amravati in Maharashtra always have one dish on the platter on the day of universal fasting: Sankashti—sabudana khichdi. Sabudana, or tapioca sago, was originally an import from distant Tamil Nadu. So, how did it end up in Amravati?

modak

 Image: Shutterstock

For Satyanarayan Puja, a key component is the prasad, the holy offering, which is almost always sheera, made from rava or semolina. The tradition of Satyanarayan Puja goes back to a time when the household staples were wheat flour and unrefined jaggery, certainly not semolina and white sugar. These, one would assume, were manufactured products from a distant location and offered to the gods as an exotic food, made especially for this festival. Even little Krishna’s favourite food, maakhan misri, comprised homemade butter and big crystal sugar that came originally from Egypt—called Misr in Hindi!

In fact, there’s a distinct pattern in the way festivals are celebrated across India. Festivals are and always have been a cultural licence to feast and indulge for the individual and the family. Every celebration is accompanied by food that was once upon a time considered exotic. In the days of cooking at home from scratch with local raw ingredients, upwas items like sabudana, rajgira (amaranth) atta, bhagar (wild rice), sweet potato and festival foods made with besan, maida, dates, sevaiyan, sherbet and exotic fruits, were actually processed in distant factories or imported from far away places. Weren’t they the equivalent of today’s olives and tofu to the young women our great grandmothers were, then?

Camphor, a vital part of all puja rituals, is of East Asian manufacturing origin. Such items imported from distant lands and manufactured there must have been really exotic, rare and expensive at the time of their introduction to our customs. Like silk garments, perfume (attar) and gold ornaments, even these food offerings were probably examples of the best skills and creativity known to communities then. Festivals seem to have been celebrated with the most modern food and offerings of the time. Perhaps the travelling priests of the day became channels for bringing the exotic foods from distant lands and introducing them into the lives of their follower communities. In any case, one fact is obvious—festivals and fasts promoted consumption, trade and modern food habits. All this, with the licence of tradition and offering to god!

Somewhere down the line, the custom of importing and innovating with exotic things during festivals got stultified. Now it is no longer considered extraordinary to use semolina for sheera, and sugar is a household staple. But the practice of offering sheera as prasad continues. And yet the hankering to do something new and different on a festival remains. With income growth and prosperity and confidence all around, there is a renewed eagerness to experiment with ideas and foods. Ten years ago, it was considered cutting edge to have sweets that resembled sliced watermelon. Now every sweet shop worth its salt offers cashew sweets in different shapes and colours, making the gifting of a box of sweets an exotic affair. The humble clay diyas, a part of Diwali festivities across India, now come in different shapes and colours, with pre-filled jelly wax to overcome the hassle of making wicks and immersing in oil.

Indians love two things—their festivals and their growing economic status. And they are increasingly learning to merge the two. Confident Indian customs have become even more ‘inclusive’ and experimental than before—as we just saw, they always have been so. Confident communities will go farther afield to bring in new ideas into the way they celebrate their loud and colourful festivals. No longer do they insist on sticking to traditional formats. The mehndi ceremony has now migrated all the way from the deserts of Rajasthan to the backwaters of Kerala. No urban wedding is complete without a party that is an amalgam of Indian technicolour rituals and Western sophistication. Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated with even more gusto now, increasingly by non-Maharashtrians. Traditional modaks are offered alongside kaju katli and chocolate barfi as prasad.

Indians don’t need to look any further than their own backyards for the variety of festivals and the myriad ways of celebrating them. And savvy marketers don’t need to look any further than these festivals for finding new ways of joining in. A confectionary company is already doing this in a big way. Chocolate gift boxes have now become a mainstream festival gift, mutating the mithai box, further. Why can’t ice-cream manufacturers, for instance, participate in the Kojagiri Poornima of Maharashtra, offering ice-cream ‘kheer’? Can’t smart retailers promote the Bengali ‘Jamaai Shashthi’ as the big gifting day for the son-in-law? With a little insightful marketing, given the Indian proclivity for sticking to culture while accommodating modernity, surely such an approach will be hugely successful? After all, as we discovered, our grannies, helped by their innovative gurujis, have done it for generations.

Organised markets and organised marketers are slowly entering the Indian mainstream. What better way to seal this rishta than to slide into the culture of festivals? So the next time Payal celebrates Karva Chauth, perhaps she will get to buy branded feeni and chauth snacks from brand Bikano! And Indians will increasingly say, not Happy Valentine’s Day, but Happy Karva Chauth! Happy Karva Chauth, Payal!

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Good reading. One of the good thing about observing festivals traditionally is that it keeps one's mind engaged. Cricket,festivals and traditions are some of the things which have kept Indians cool headed and busy.See the countries where there is lack of these occupations, there is violence, killings, terrorism or people going haywire,irreligious and upset.
@SupermarketWals
Suresh, I would not jump as far as saying our fasts and festivals are mere distraction or 'opium for the masses'. We are far more positively involved, increasingly only by choice in urban India. That we have far more eclectic and deeper history than the other places you refer to, I do agree. Thanks..,
This was an insightful read. Thanks! Certainly gave me a new perspective. Our forefathers seem more 'modern' in outlook having added innovations to traditions - thought leaders of the day were able to influence the formation of these traditions. As much as I love traditions and respect it's sanctity, we have probably gone into copy+paste mode - often loosing the spirit of the festival for its mindless replication. In today's age of digital dharshans maybe traditions and technology can intersect without eroding the old world charm of our culture. Maybe Payal can place an order for all the items required for her next Karva Chauth on an app from her iPhone which will also tell her the significance of each item and the story behind how it got there!
@SupermarketWala
Spot on, Vijay. To my mind tradition is not doing exactly what our grandparents did but owning the spirit of the occasion and taking acts and symbolism forward. As we have seen above, our forefathers did exactly that. So having 'girls only' pre karva chauth party with continental food and husbands fasting with wives on Karwa Chauth is not a rebellion but actually owning up the occasion, giving it contemporary form and keeping it flourishing in our lives, I would imagine.....
Indian festivals are deep rooted with traditions and hence deeply connected to community living. Whether its buying chania-choli for Navratra, or fire crackers and chopda [books] for Laxmi-pooja, or traditional attires, dry-fruits and sweets for Diwali, the shopping actually happens in the traditional bazaars, and not in the modern retail formats. Traditional flowers for Dussehra are never bought from a hyper mart; similarly mithaai [sweets] and wedding dresses are never shopped in malls. The fervor and community feeling of the traditional markets cannot be matched by the super markets. The malls cannot create the maahol.
@supermarketwala
Very correct, Vimal. My observation is, if you are in the consumption business and wish to connect with real India, there is dollops of inspiration and ideas within our festivals. These have always been about eating, meeting, gifting and celebrating - often with most modern things of those times!
very well written, in particular "...No Holi in the Marwari neighbourhood of Mumbai’s Andheri is complete without the traditional thandai..." wonder which is this neighbourhood!
@SupermarketWala
Thanks. Am glad you liked the expression of the observation and insight! Look out for a locality called J B Nagar in Andheri E in Mumbai. Thandai in every other home during holi... :)
Just kidding Damodar....I was born and brought up in J.B.Nagar and new this was the location! nevertheless, a fine mouth-watering article!
Indian festivals are unique and still traditional and fortunately, to this day, they have largely been untouched by greedy marketers of selfish corporations. I really hope the religious and cultural significance of our festivals is not lost on our younger generations by "smart" retailers peddling their wares on "son-in-law day", for example. Look at what has happened in the west. Just ask the average american the pressure he/she faces to "buy" something during Christmas. where's the tradition in that? For Payal, the fun is probably in eating "freshly made" feeni, handmade lovingly by someone in her family, that she cares about- not eating something in a box that has an expiry date on it!
@supermarketwala
Many thanks for sharing your point of view. The curious observation above is, around our festivals, our folks seemed to consume the most modern, manufactured and 'imported' foods of those times. Feeni, sabudana, rawa, dry fruits, mishri were not traditional, local or home made items then. Festivals have always been times for 'new' foods, it seems. Who serviced these exotic needs then and who services them noe may change. Modernity and happy consumption have always been woven with our festivals.
Much easier to inculcate this change or upgradation now with Modern Trade around the corner (pun intended). In the meanwhile the affluent go back to stringent traditions rather than packaged processed products..similar to Tea...only at the 'bottom' and 'top' is 'Loose Tea' bought...the rest buy packaged tea...similarly authentic home made pdts for all festivals followed by bottom and top..rest all choose to migrate
 
 
Damodar Mall
‘Born to be a grocer’ has a different meaning for me. After the traditional career track of IIT, IIM and Hindustan Unilever, I was going to be a grocer, much to my family’s disbelief. Selling ‘daal-chawal’ as a chosen vocation for the educated son was not their idea of smart choices. I wasn’t alone. I walked down the path with R K Damani of D Mart and Kishore Biyani of Big Bazaar, both avid customer observers and business creators by betting on the Indian consumer. Customer observation and insight hunting is now an instinct with me, after over a decade of consistent aisle running in all parts of the world.

To my wife’s delight I love visiting stores, but much to her chagrin, I equally love chasing women customers to see what they are buying!

Food, brands and retail, my vocation, catches everyone’s fancy. I’ve stirred up some recent excitement for myself shaping food stores for different ends of the market spectrum including upmarket Foodhall and now Fresh produce led neighbourhood store RelianceFresh, etc.

I’m excited by various cuisines, languages and recently, learning to play music. But through all my adventures, one thing has stood by me always, a good cup of masala chai! Meet me @SupermarketWala
 
 
 
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October 25, 2013 21:20 pm by @SupermarketWals
Suresh, I would not jump as far as saying our fasts and festivals are mere distraction or 'opium for the masses'. We are far more positively involved, increasingly only by choice in urban India. That we have far more eclectic and deeper history than the other places you refer to, I do agree. Thanks....
October 18, 2013 03:54 am by suresh
Good reading. One of the good thing about observing festivals traditionally is that it keeps one's mind engaged. Cricket,festivals and traditions are some of the things which have kept Indians cool headed and busy.See the countries where there is lack of these occupations, there is violence, killing...
October 16, 2013 06:43 am by @SupermarketWala
Spot on, Vijay. To my mind tradition is not doing exactly what our grandparents did but owning the spirit of the occasion and taking acts and symbolism forward. As we have seen above, our forefathers did exactly that. So having 'girls only' pre karva chauth party with continental food and husbands f...
October 15, 2013 18:02 pm by Vijay Vasant
This was an insightful read. Thanks! Certainly gave me a new perspective. Our forefathers seem more 'modern' in outlook having added innovations to traditions - thought leaders of the day were able to influence the formation of these traditions. As much as I love traditions and respect it's s...
October 10, 2013 19:04 pm by Rakesh Rathi
Just kidding Damodar....I was born and brought up in J.B.Nagar and new this was the location! nevertheless, a fine mouth-watering article!