The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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‘Handi’ Govindas scale new heights
- Janmashtami ritual craze mounts

Mumbai, Aug. 20: Pain, panic, prize and the pot (handi).

For Mumbaikars, the contest to get to the pot of gold on Janmashtami, the day the city enthusiastically celebrates Krishna’s birthday, is getting bigger, meaner and more lucrative than ever before.

Topping the list this year is a handi at Thane. The prize: a whopping Rs 5 lakh.

Sar pe paon mat rakh yaar (Don’t step on my head),’’ shouts Pranjal Trivedi as he glares at Abhishek who is clawing his way up a 25-foot human pyramid in an attempt to break the handi with Rs 75,000 inside it.

Built like a jockey — those chosen to lunge at the money-filled handis are usually the smallest and most agile — Abhishek shouts back: “I have to step on your head yaar, your shoulders are too slippery. Endure it till I get to the handi.’’

The handi-breaking game is not just about the prize. It is also about fierce pride and territorial contests.

Traditionally, a time for politicians, businessmen and, how can you leave them out, the underworld to flex their financial muscle, handi-breaking competitions have reached a high — quite literally so — that was unthinkable a few years ago.

This year, the highest cash prize of Rs 5 lakh has been offered by Thane-based Nationalist Congress Party MLA Jeetendra Awhad. A member of his Panchpakhadi Mandal says the money is just the “glitter’’. “The real gold is the prestige.’’

With all the money on offer, the handi has become higher.

Last year, the highest handi stood at 36 feet, about the top floor of a four-storeyed building. This time, it has reached 40 feet. Mumbai’s tallest handi, near Dadar’s Kohinoor cinema, was last broken by a 10-year-old girl, Prajakta Pandurang Tawri.

Handis offer big rewards to wannabe Govindas. Thane’s Open House Circle has reportedly offered Rs 50,000 to each member of the mandal that gets to the handi after forming a seven-level human pyramid. This is apart from the cash award for reaching the handi.

Reflecting the times, even the Govindas, the fiercely competitive crew of handi-crackers, are sponsored by companies, Indian and multinationals alike, often by powerful and moneyed individuals.

Some of the better known Govindas, such as those representing Shiv Sena MLA Bala Nandgaonkar’s Mazgaon Dakshin Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal, will be sporting logos of United Breweries and Reliance on their T-shirts this year.

With the stakes rising, the Govindas have begun training weeks before the event. Prajakta says it is easy to train because most of her “team mates’’ are her friends and like her. She also has her father, an expert Govinda, to look up to for inspiration. “The money is there but we are made to believe that a lot of reputation is also at stake,’’ she adds.

Back at the Regency, Pranjal continues to wince under the weight of 20 people above him. Abhishek has now reached the third level and is inching closer to the handi. But just as he gains a toehold over Hrishikesh, somebody gives way and the Govindas fall in an embarrassed heap on the ground that is splashed with a thousand Holi colours and littered with small pieces of sweets and what was curd once. Govinda gira re. Govinda phir ala re (Govinda has had a fall, but he is at it again), a shout rings out.

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