You could say that, at one level, life in India is all about festivals and celebration: the release, the revelry, the splurge, one festival telescoping into another, the multiplicity, the diversity, the colour, the vibrancy. Not a month passes by without some grand excuse for joy. But why do we celebrate? What is the meaning that underpins celebration? How, ideally, must we celebrate? And then, how well do we know our festivals? Their raison d’etre, their ordainment, the scheme of things? There was one person, then based in the Silicon Valley, who, seven years ago, started seeking holistic answers.
These were questions that launched Soumya Aravind Sitaraman’s long journey, a journey that has today culminated in a resplendent and well-researched two-volume book on South Indian festivals called Follow the Hindu Moon, brought out by Random House India. Scientific in temper, joyous in mood, Follow the Hindu Moon addresses a timeless subject—festivals—interpreted for a generation perennially short of time. The legacy of hundreds of years, all that weight of heritage, is expounded lightly, enjoyably, for the current user, with information presented in a modular, contemporary manner for the present-day reader. What strikes the reader most is its cornucopian nature, range, dimension, and amplitude. The idea was to make the book “thorough, not wide and shallow,” as Sitaraman puts it.
There are 38 South Indian festivals described fully in the text, comprehensively and distinctively, with regional variations built in as well. The book explains how to celebrate with meaning and not get swept away in a tide of mere superficiality.
You get a sense of the prelude to each festival, the solemnity of preparation, as you read. It is respect, more than anything else, that permeates what Sitaraman presents as the essentially free-spirited state of celebration. A festival day should not be one overhung with chores, but rather a day infused with light-heartedness.
Sitaraman offers great practical methods and easy-to-follow guidelines, all with the flair of one who is used to the disarray of a festival-struck household and who knows how to sort out the celebratory chaos!
The book has all relevant Sanskrit slokams, replete with explanations and translations, sankalpas (time-space coordinates chanted before any Hindu celebration involving prayer and veneration), and detailed puja procedures. In the sections on Hindu Cosmology, Sitaraman writes about the Hindu calendar, the Hindu concept of time, of Ayana and precession. She strips the Hindu almanac of its mystical veil and teaches you how to use it. She introduces you to the Hindu pantheon, to each deity’s hallmarks, character, and personality. These chapters are erudite without being esoteric, enlightening without getting abstruse. The language is modern, accessible, and held together with discipline.
This is not all. There are chapters on festoons, kolams, and festival etiquette. The section on festival food is exhaustive and rich, with 61 recipes, tips on preparation, how to get organised, and save and salvage techniques. Today, Sitaraman is the cordon bleu chef of festival cuisine and, now, since the publishing of her book, is invited to television programmes to demonstrate her expertise. In Follow the Hindu Moon, she looks back, sketching an endearing picture of herself as a 19-year-old married woman, awakening to the arcane pleasures of a traditional family kitchen and writes with disarming humour of early disasters in that domain. Storytelling of this kind enlivens the pages of the book.
As a young author in her mid-30s, how does Sitaraman describe what she put into her book? A passion to uphold tradition? An instinct for depth and detail? A self-sustained urge to see it through? “All of it,” she says simply, with reflective appraisal. The challenge of having to explain a festival accurately and in all its nuances to her son, Maithreya, or to friends in the U.S. marked the beginning of her journey. She had to call home every time a celebration was around the corner. “This whole thing sprung from my own need to know, to understand what I was expected to do and why things are practised in a particular way,” she says.
An award-winning artist of 10 years’ standing in the Bay Area, as well as an illustrator, Sitaraman always had the capacity to reinvent herself. Authentic information was sourced for Follow the Hindu Moon; half-baked, hackneyed, ordinary material would not do, she knew. Back in India, Bangalore-based Sitaraman began her journey with vigour. “The joy to learn, the delight in digging around the past, finding meaning to our traditions in old archives, talking to knowledgeable elderly people, delighting in discovery, finding a resource in an unusual place and probing its content … all this was motivation in itself.” Every piece of information was corroborated by a panel of experts: a priest, an astrologer, an astronomer, when needed, a Sanskrit scholar, an ayurvedic doctor, even a botanist.
Sitaraman plunged into her project, spurred by a prescient curiosity. She researched the properties of turmeric, for instance, in ayurvedic texts. Her question was, “Why is Pillaiyar (Ganesha) made out of turmeric and not out of sandal paste?” “That’s the way it’s done,” was the casual remark she encountered. “Not good enough for me,” says Sitaraman. “More probable that it had a logical explanation, since every object is a metaphor for something. In days of early medicine turmeric was found to have antipyretic and antiseptic properties. It was a natural choice for Ganesha. When you begin something auspicious, turmeric keeps you healthy. Things like this, one finds if one pushes hard enough. It’s such an exciting personal discovery.”
What lends mystique to the book are the photographs by Sitaraman’s mother, Usha Kris. Some of them are exotic, some sheer poetry, some a slice of festive life. “It’s a photographer’s dream come true, this book,” says Kris. Full page spreads appear at defining moments through the book—the prodigality of a snuffed day in painted mauves and flashes of pink, a luminous-grey, silky-smooth water lily pond with points of colour, or konna poo, that usually gaudy-yellow spring flower, a demure sprig here, laid against a spotless blue sky.
“Without her work in it, this book would be a three-legged stool,” observes Sitaraman. Kris is an unsparing professional, who understands her daughter’s high standards well. Kris says, “What she asked of me and what I shot, though we were in different places, were in consonance.” There was synchronicity, a meeting of minds, a blending of vision. A vision shared by Random House India.
For Sitaraman, the last seven years have been utterly self-driven; she has been her own boss and relentless critic, has set deadlines and daily parameters, and towards journey’s end, put in indefatigable 18-hour days. “Nothing good ever comes easy,” she declares. “There was no demand I wasn’t prepared to give in to. It was a joy, a work of love. A beautiful purposefulness filled every day with meaning. Every day I felt a lovely sense of personal accomplishment.”
Above all is the complete happiness she feels today in being able to bring to readers’ lives a meaningful connection to celebration.