Monday, November 10, 2008

Holy Cow - Shooting with Paul Merton in Junagadh

Last March I worked on the now-infamous British documentary series Paul Merton in India. The most talked-about, debated and hated/loved story in the show was Paul visiting Junagadh, a town in Saurashtra, Gujarat. Lots of Hindu groups and individuals in the UK found the story on Naga Sadhus at the Shivratri festival offensive and insulting to the Hindu faith. Read the comments here on the Telegraph site and here on the Hindu Voice site.
Lots of Desis in the UK, stuck in the typical NRI time-warp, felt any mention of a Shivling and penis in the same sentence was insulting to the Hindu faith. As one of the production coordinators on the shoot, I took the crew to Junagadh to meet the crazy Naga Sadhus.

I know about Junagadh because I was born there and grew up there. I had seen the Shivratri fair and the antics of the Naga Sadhus since childhood and saw nothing particularly odd or bizarre about them. These were a group of men who had discarded everything including clothes and if they could pull trucks with their dicks, it just meant that Hinduism was too big or too huge for us to comprehend and this was just one of its manifestations - however bizarre.
It was a revelation filming the Shivratri festival, the sadhus and the millions of devotees who came from villages all around Junagadh. The devotees' reverence and faith for this crazy lot of Sadhus was amazing - it was there for everyone to see. Often we'd find a poor farmer or a bank official in a Safari suit sitting amicably with a stark naked sadhu and sharing a chillum - knowing that his faith allowed him this minor digression and the sky would not open up if they enjoyed a couple of heady drags. There were strange sights all around, and that the religion and society had space within them for this extreme-ness was exciting in itself.

Oneof the Sadhus was dressed like Merlin - with a pointy hat, dark glasses and purple hair - rightout of Hogwarts School, and a female Sadhvi walked around wearing a pink hat and nothing else. One of the disciples of the Sadhus we were sitting with said very proudly, "Maharaj can perform 501 tricks with his ling (penis)!".

None of the villagers or even the very respectable middle-class Hindu Gujjus found any of this strange - nobody's faith was threatened and nobody raised an eyebrow. Well, nobody except the devout in their plush sitting rooms in Leicester and Southall.

Naga Sadhus and Akharas are extreme forms of the Hindu faith - they are strange, bizarre and outlandish - like many other things in India and we were just there filming it. India is a fascinating mix of cultures, religions and no film can do complete justice to its huge store of bizarre and strange stories. It might embarrass us, but it's all unmissably there.

An Indian from the UK I bumped into at a hotel recently told me that she thought the Paul Merton show made fun of India. Well Ma'am, slimy, cunning Westerners did not put all those nutty things there - they have been among us ages and will continue being here forever - or at least I hope so!

While we can live happily amongst the squalid and the bizarre, there is a strange coyness about showing any of it, especially among fatcat NRIs who have happily abandoned all of it to live in the sanitised West, and are suddenly very protective about the image of 'their' land and religion. Yes, the Tatas have bought Jaguar, and we are a booming economy, but that doesn't stop your average Naga sadhu from enjoying his occasional chillum. Bum Bhole!
- Amit (for a change!)


Banno said...

Great to hear you, once in a while. I couldn't agree more. What's this fear of anything that doesn't look 'normal'? Preserving traditions seems to mean hiding them under the carpet. Sick. Nice photos. Didn't know that these sadhus did a bit of fancy dress too. Dhanno will love the purple hair. She wanted to get a streak during the holidays, don't know if she'll do it now that he's beaten her to it.

Vinayak said...

Bum Bhole! Bum Bhole!

Anonymous said...

hi, nice one

Anonymous said...

fact is, inclusive we may be, but here too the naga sadhus are part of the lunatic fringe, no? maybe the TV show projected them as kind of a mainstream cult just for some laughs at the exotic... Also, slightly off-topic but staying with the UK media, a recent headline in the Independent read 'Indian Giant with a begging bowl' where the story was about how Jaguar, a very recent acquisition of the Tata's was reeling under the severe recession in the auto industry in Britain and would have to look at the Indian principal to bail them out so more Brits wouldn't lose their jobs!! Am not peeved or upset at all, just saying... Altho' I'll admit that unlike in the past, the UK media's coverage of India these days features a lot more than the stereotype of a land of snake charmers and child labourers..