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India, This Side

Pilgrimage to Pandharpur: The pit stop at Chinchani

Print edition : Aug 05, 2022 T+T-

Pilgrimage to Pandharpur: The pit stop at Chinchani

This art installation in Pandharpur, the taluka headquarters for Chinchani in Maharashtra, is an assemblage of words.

This art installation in Pandharpur, the taluka headquarters for Chinchani in Maharashtra, is an assemblage of words. | Photo Credit: Photo - Sandesh Bhandare

A rural art installation emerges as a critique of nationalism with its embracing of pluralism.

Chinchani is neither a megacity like Chennai nor an iconic metro location like Churchgate. It is but a tiny rural outpost. Located in Pandharpur taluka in Solapur district of Maharashtra, it came into existence barely a few decades ago when a few hundred PAPs—project-affected persons—were asked to set up the village. Its fewer-than-5,000 population makes it a minor demographic dot on the map of India’s 6,64,369 villages (2011 Census). There is very little in Chinchani that can draw the attention of a geologist, an archaeologist, a historian or a rural economy analyst. Yet, it has been in the news recently for acquiring an innovative public-space art installation which forms a poignant comment on Rashtravad, the idea of nationalism that has been the biggest news maker in India for some years.

The installation is an assemblage of words, just words, or as Shakespeare would have called them, “airy nothings”. Pandharpur, the taluka headquarters for Chinchani, has been known for the deity Vitthal for over a thousand years. “Phenomenal” is the epithet that can truly describe the following and the devotion that Vitthal attracts. There are many folktales about why Vitthal came to reside on the banks of the Chandrabhaga river in Pandharpur, but from a proper historical perspective his origin goes back to pre-agrarian times in Maharashtra. Scholars of ancient migrations and archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation in the coastal region of Maharashtra as long back as 35,000 years ago. The region was less hostile for human existence during the extended cold periods of the pre-Holocene ages. Since the Holocene, with temperatures more favourable for human activities, the movement towards the interior regions started. After the hunters-gatherers took to a more civilised pastoral-nomadic lifestyle, migration from the Konkan to the desh (the Maharashtra plateau) increased, creating set routes. Later a mix of agriculture and pastoralism became the widespread pattern of livelihood.

Devotees dance to the beats of Mridunga at a temple in Dehu near Pune on June 20 ahead of the annual Pandharpur pilgrimage.
Devotees dance to the beats of Mridunga at a temple in Dehu near Pune on June 20 ahead of the annual Pandharpur pilgrimage. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

About five millennia ago, people developed the habit of engaging in agriculture during the monsoon months and moving out with their herds and flocks during the dry months. With the prehistoric routes kept alive and given the certainty of the seasons, the migration months, too, got built into the yearly calendar of activity. Pandharpur marks the eastern limit of the annual human migration from the entire coastal and western Maharashtra belt. The long walks involved in it came to be known as “wari” or “the Vari”. The ones who participate in it are known as the Varkaris, the makers of the Vari. Since the environment and the seasons were the context that helped Vari to evolve as a cultural practice, the pilgrimage to Pandharpur came to be seen as “life-giving”. Vitthal, despite being a male deity, with his consort Rukmai, was described in the past as “mauli”, the all-benevolent mother. Over the last 800 years, a number of Marathi saint-poets have written paeans to this “mauli” and those songs, written in the abhang and the bhajan forms, echo through the year in every Marathi household. The varkaris sing them and dance to their tunes as they move towards Pandharpur during the annual vari. If one imagines the rich literature in the Marathi language as a house, those “vari” songs by various poets from different centuries are like the bricks of the house. The proper English term for this would be “episteme”. If one were to draw an analogy from biology, the vari songs are the genes of the Marathi language and the cultural sensibility of Maharashtra.

The poetry of saint-poets such as Eknath, Namdev, Janabai and Tukaram, in turn, drew linguistic sustenance from many tongues including Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Prakrit, Gujarati, Persian, Arabic, Turkic, Odiya, Hindi and Sanskrit. Chinchani, the tiny rural habitat of the dam-affected families, falls on the main route of the Vari. Every year, millions walk past it, singing and dancing. A few years ago, a group of artists, inspired by the photographer and film-maker Sandesh Bhandare, initiated an annual exhibition of creative expression to coincide with the Vari.

“The Marathi words chosen for the installation are drawn from other languages.”

This year, Bhandare and his artist colleagues made a 24-feet-tall image of Vitthal which, despite the steel, wires and acrylic used for making it, gives the impression to the viewer of being a body of words. The words chosen are the ones that exist in Marathi but are drawn from more than two dozen other languages, all of which are the languages that have made the Marathi language what it is today. The Vittal of words—a phrase used by the 16th century poet Tukaram—was installed at Chinchani as public art on July 2. Thousands thronged to view and admire it, sang and danced, bringing back to life the poetry of centuries.

What does all this have to do with nationalism? Well, it is an artist’s statement that we, the people of India, are who we are because we have accepted with open arms the languages and cultures that came to us all the way from Syria, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Tibet, Nepal and China. We are a nation because we did not think of ourselves along narrow national terms. Besides, the celebration of Vitthal, the mauli, the life-giver, makes us a nation founded on the feminine rather than masculine sensibilities.

The ‘Vari’ brings a strong reminder that the idea of civilisation for us is as firmly rooted in non-sedentary society as it is rooted in land-tilling and land-holding sedentary society.
The ‘Vari’ brings a strong reminder that the idea of civilisation for us is as firmly rooted in non-sedentary society as it is rooted in land-tilling and land-holding sedentary society. | Photo Credit: AJAJ SHAIKH

To think of the installation on the main route of pilgrimage to Pandharpur, the Vari brings a strong reminder that the idea of civilisation for us is as firmly rooted in non-sedentary society as it is rooted in land-tilling and land-holding sedentary society. Perhaps, if we are a “desh”, it is not just because of the land that we inhabit. It is also because we have a sensibility that links us to the land in a relation of possession as well as negation of land. Ours is a country of nomads as well as “citizens” with unique land-related addresses and identities.

What I say here may sound more like an imagined and a forced analysis of the installation. But substance is provided to its truth-value because the Chinchani villagers, who have faced not too long ago the experience of being alienated from their land, readily made their land available to the artists at no cost. They do not have the language of a cultural analyst at their disposal, but they do possess the intuitive knowledge of who they are and how they have come here.

If the tiniest village in India is ready to reject jingoistic, masculine, militant nationalism and a false pride in “purity” that the RSS-driven regime is trying to pump into people’s minds, it is clear how far jingoism can go. It may result in electoral triumphs and it may help in whipping up communal frenzy. Yet, a cultural phenomenon like the vari, organised entirely spontaneously by the people, can outwit the emotions of rage, hatred and pride. Empires have come and gone, kingdoms emerged and vanished across time, yet the vari continues to enchant people, for it speaks of a mother’s all-encompassing love and of a language that accepts all that comes its way. Chinchani knows it the way a village in India alone can.

Ganesh N. Devy is a thinker, cultural activist, and institution builder best known for the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh, Gujarat.