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Friday, November 03, 2006

Flower Sellers: Ecumenicists of India

Delhi’s festival of flower sellers honors Hindu and Muslim heroes alike.


The President Shri K.R Narayanan receives ‘Pankha’

from the members of Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan

Phoolwalon Ki Sair, New Delhi, October 5, 2001

Photo: Government of India

Flowers are the best cement. So proves the Phoolwalon Ki Sair—or flower sellers festival—which began yesterday in Mehrauli, an ancient district of southwest Delhi. Half a world away, India is often portrayed as torn by tensions among Hindus and Muslims. But in fact, millions of people devoted to these two faiths live and work hospitably together every day in India.

This particular occasion ritualizes harmony, as flower sellers parade through the streets bearing giant pankhas (floral fans) which they deliver to the shrine of beloved Sufi/Muslim leader Kaki, to the Yogmaya temple, sacred to Hindus, and to local and national officials. Let’s spread the flowers out, share the honors. Let’s everybody be reconciled.

Indians of every station join the throng. B L Joshi, Lt. Governor of Delhi, inaugurated the three-day festival on Thursday “by presenting a floral ‘chadar’ at the holy shrine” of the Sufi saint. “This festival is a celebration of friendship and brotherhood among different communities of our country and I hope it continues for generations to come,” he said. 

Usha Kumar a member of the festival committee, stated, “By organising this festival we are only taking our cemented bond further.”

imageShrine of Sufi saint

Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki

The flower festival has some fascinating political overtones as well. Phoolwalon Ki Sair dates back two hundred years, “to the days of the Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah 11 in the 19th century. However, the festival’s popularity reached its peak during Bahadur Shah Zajar’s reign. Zafar was the prince chosen by the British to succeed Akbar Shah 11.”  Queen Mumtaz Mahal, however, convinced Akbar to name as his successor her son Mirza Jahangir instead. The British didn’t go for this.  When they objected, Mirza, “a spirited but spoilt boy… took a shot at the British Resident, Seton.” Though Seton only had his hat knocked off, Mirza was exiled.

Pleading for his return, the Queen swore that if her son were permitted back to Delhi “she would make an offering of a four-poster flower bed” at the holy shrine of Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki.  “In the olden days, the king used to go both to the tomb of Khwaja Bakhtiyar and to the Jog Maya Mandir and the Muslims and Hindus alike followed him. The famous poet, Mirza Ghalib, referred to the secular nature of the festival saying, ‘In this city, is a festival called the flower men’s festival. Everyone in the city from the nobles to the artisans goes off to the Qutub Minar. There they stay for two or three weeks. All the shops in the city of Muslims and Hindus alike stay closed throughout this time.”

Phoolwalon Ki Sair became a time of national pilgrimage to Delhi, celebrated with gusto until 1942. It was then, according to writer Amit Sengupta, that the British banned Phoolwalon Ki Sair, “afraid of its pluralist bonds of unity.”

imageMembers of Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan present pandha

to Lt. Governor B.L.Joshi, 2005

Photo: Tribune India

We’ve read in a couple of sources that Nehru revived these ecumenical floral rites in 1962. Of course, Nehru had the power to do so, but the real force behind its revival seems to have been cultural leader Yogeshwar Dayal. In his day, Dayal organized many historic dance, music, and film festivals, as well as the celebration of the Buddha’s 2500th anniversary in 1956.

Perhaps it was that happy, holy undertaking that inspired him to pressure the Indian government to resume the fall festival of flower sellers.  “In 1961, Dayal revived ‘Phool Walon ki Sair’, which had been stopped by the British in 1940 because it attracted masses from far and wide and was proving to be a potential unifying platform for Hindus and Muslims.” Born to affluence, Dayal was ” a member of the Anjuman-e-Sair-e-Gulfaroshan, an association of flower lovers and sellers.” He died less than two months ago, September 7, at age 93.

Though at one time the Phoolwalon Ki Sair lasted “two or three weeks,” the contemporary festival is just three days long. It winds up tomorrow. Happy wishes to our readers of all faiths—and none—in Delhi and across India.

Posted by Julie on 11/03 at 02:59 PM
Culture & SocietyPoliticsReligious RitualsSecular CustomsPermalink

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Bornes de Memoire

A French scholar traces roadside tributes over two years.


Guardrail memorial for a 30 year old (d. Sept. 12, 2004)

Chabrières, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France

Photo: Laetitia Nicolas

Today is All Souls, a day to remember all the dead who, for whatever reason, may not qualify for sainthood. (Sound like any relatives or friends of yours?)

In years past, we’ve reported on expressions of this custom in Italy and the Latino festival El Dia de los Muertos, with its sherbet orange displays of cempasuchil.

imageMemorial to an Unknown

Saint-Martin-de-Crau, Bouches-du-Rhône, France

Photo: Laetitia Nicolas

Thanks to Laetitia Nicolas, an anthropology student in Aix-en-Provence, this year we gratefully report on a widespread memorial tradition as practiced year ‘round in France. Nicolas has been investigating the public tributes we in the U.S. call “roadside memorials.” She’s named them “Bornes de Memoire” (landmarks of memory). For two years, she’s traveled throughout Southern France photographing the bouquets on electric poles, ribbon decorations along isolated country roads, and shrines in the middle of nowhere. These tiny monuments are made, of course, to turn “the middle of nowhere” into an honored “someplace,” where a loved one perished. And in nearly all her pictures, we see flowers, both fresh and fabric.

One of the most interesting aspects of Laetitia’s research is her effort to track down the story behind the bouquet. In some cases, she’s found the newspaper articles that reported on these highway fatalities; with others, she actually interviewed survivors.  Nicolas’s documentation is especially valuable because she has pictured not only the memorials themselves but the context, showing us what these tributes look like from afar, to the approaching, unsuspecting traveler.

imageMemorial to an Unknown

Saint-Martin-de-Crau, Bouches-du-Rhône, France

Photo: Laetitia Nicolas

Over the two years of her study (which wound up in September 2006),  Laetitia also created an online archive of the “bornes de memoire” as she discovered them, inviting comments and new information and linking to research on this topic from other parts of the world. Her intriguing site reflects new trends in open scholarship, made possible by the Internet, and furthered by her generous contribution here as well.

After looking over her site, you may want to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for further information about this custom and/or her research methods.

Note from 3/24/07: Here is a link to Laetitia Nicolas’s full thesis (in French).

To read the abstract of her study, also in French ....

Continue Reading

Posted by Julie on 11/02 at 01:51 PM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsTravelPermalink

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Chrysanthemums - Too Human

A brief look at anti-chrysanthemumism.

imageExhibition winner

Photo: Southport Chrysanthemum Society

There IS such a thing as flower bigotry. Consider pansy disdain and the aspersions cast upon Bradford pear trees, carnations and chrysanthemums. One of our heroes, Pierre Bourdieu, spent many years studying the social and economic structures that underlie such “trivial” opinions. He argued that expressions of taste, even in things as seemingly subjective as flowers, belie an ongoing social struggle. One of the more bonehead—and prevailing—tactics in this culture war is the declared “preference” for things that are rare over things plentiful. The Fall Chrysanthemum Syndrome, if you will.

“The main opposition,” Bourdieu writes in Distinction, “is between the practices designated by their rarity as distinguished,” (what rich and culturally powerful people “like” and do) “and the practices socially identified as vulgar because they are both easy and common.” As chrysanthemums are common come November 1.

Back in the spring we came across a story in the Western Mail (Wales) reporting that the “Southport Chrysanthemum Society has been banned from putting their blooms at the local shopping centre because they’re not fashionable enough.” Dave Taylor, of Wildbunch Florists in Newtown, Powys, told the paper, “Chrysanthemums and carnations are so boring and old fashioned, no thought goes into buying them at all. The one good thing about them is that they can last for up to six weeks if taken care of. But service-station flowers just look so awful and cheap, it’s almost insulting to give them to a loved one.”

Dave isn’t alone in his view. Garden blogger Matt Mattus posted quite a screed back in June. “I am one who despises the bushel basket mums one sees at garden centers and home stores starting in September, opting instead for more interesting and unusual varieties.” His post takes an appreciative look back to the heyday of chrysanthemum clubs; these groups have been dwindling for several decades, but it seems only recently that mum fanciers, like those in Southport, have come in for overt condemnation.

Chrysanthemum antipathy is nothing terribly new. In a February 1892 edition of Garden and Forest, C.S. Sargent wrote, “It has been said that the popularity of the Chrysanthemum is on the wane. No doubt, the Japanese varieties have been overdone, but that the Chrysanthemum will ever become unpopular I do not believe. There will rather be a return to a larger variety of types, and many of the old kinds will come into favor. Already we see this.” Just as Bourdieu describes, to be “overdone” is anathema. Cultural salvation may come in the form of the “interesting or unusual” or the revival of “old kinds” that, like homespun blankets or Dedham Pottery, have become hard to find. In fact, banishment from shopping centers seems like a strong indication that these flowers are regaining a whiff of unacceptability, the first painful step on the road to grandeur.

imageChrysanthemums (detail), by Claude Monet, Musee d’Orday

Photo: Julie Ardery

Chrysanthemums may also be maligned for carrying strong associations with death, notably in France. Today, in fact, is Toussaint (All Saints Day), when thousands of chrysanthemums will be taken to cemeteries across Europe. This Parisian blogger advises, “If invited to a French home for dinner, don¹t show up with a big chrysanthemum even though it is objectively a thoroughly attractive plant, it is too associated with cemeteries to be offered as a house gift!” (Monet clearly thought otherwise.)

U.S. garden writer Carol Wallace has the same dreary associations. “I grew up in the funeral business,” she writes, “and to me the ultimate funeral flower is the gladiola, followed by the chrysanthemum. I grow neither. For a longtime after leaving home I didn’t even like flowers because they were too associated with death. Maybe it is still why I am so fascinated with foliage, and why I have never had a cutting garden.”

Cees Dekker, who owns a major mum production facility in Northern Holland, is understandably spooked by anti-chrysanthemumism, taking it very seriously. “We are helping to give the chrysanthemum a new image amongst national and international consumers,” he says. And how to do that? “With new, striking and strong varieties such as the Madibas, with their strong, varied colors….” Dekker’s also named one of his company’s new varieties for Yoko Ono—funereal, slightly, but “easy and common,” not at all.

“Overdone” by hybridizers, hobbyists, marketers, morticians, the chrysanthemum seems to have been bruised by too many human fingerprints. In a peculiar book from 1902, however, we came upon an altogether different point of view. In his work The Double Garden, Maurice Maeterlinck devotes an entire chapter to this flower.

“I love the chrysanthemum,” he writes. “I follow its evolution with a brother’s interest. It is, among familiar plants, the most submissive, the most docile, the most tractable and the most attentive plant of all that we meet on life’s long way. It bears flowers impregnated through and through with the thought and will of man: flowers already human, so to speak. And, if the vegetable world is some day to reveal to us one of the words that we are awaiting, perhaps it will be through this flower of the tombs that we shall learn the first secret of existence.”

Posted by Julie on 11/01 at 03:53 PM
Culture & SocietyCut-Flower TradeFloristsReligious RitualsPermalink
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