These photos are my partial documentation of a popular festival held in Goa, India and also celebrated along other parts of the Konkan coast and southern India. The festival commemorates the defeat of a
powerful demon, Narkasur, by the beloved deity Krishna, and one of his many sons. Various attestations of the story exist throughout India, but none is quite like the Goan celebration. People who live in the area will pool their resources to build a demon out of papier-mâché, wood, metal frames and various other lightweight materials. Children and teenagers are especially involved in the work, and half-formed Narkasur demons can be seen in many of the state’s alleys and laneways well before the festival arrives, gaining limbs and features day-by-day like a stop-motion animation.
The period of October-November still sees the occasional downpour in the region, so builders have to take care to cover their creations in the days before Narkasur. When the night finally comes around, falling one night before the grander festival of Diwali, the demons are lit with spotlights, festooned with strings of LED lights, and in many cases accompanied by speaker stacks that play loud, bass-heavy music.
My friend and guide to the festival, Cecil Pinto, told me that the preference for what to play changes year-by-year, but in 2017 the major movement was to play thumping, psychedelic Goa trance beats, in
tacit recognition of the state’s position within a global trance-psychedelic music and travel scene. As Cecil told me, this has been the case for a few years, but around some of the figures one could still find bands of boys and young men bashing out a pulsing, syncopated rhythm on dholaks, a medium-sized drum that is a feature of almost every public celebration in South Asia. An even rarer few opt for recordings of recognizable Bollywood songs from the present and past. Passing by some of the music and drum circles, you can see the state of absorption some party-goers enter into, whether Bollywood,
drum or Trance stimulated. Might there be some extra-sensory stimulation at work here? One can only imagine what might give some of the young men the stamina to drum and dance all night without pause.
In the capital city, Panjim, and in other towns like Madgao, Vasco and Ponda residents like to hop on their scooters and make a grand tour of the town on the night, taking in all the astonishing forms that
Narkasur has taken. Passersby stand agog at Narkasurs with internal moving parts, arms that wield enormous battle axes, mouths that swing open to devour the careless, and eyes that blaze with lights mounted inside the figures. The level ofabsorption can be so intense that heads swivel, eyes locked in stares and the scooters underneath threaten to collide with each other in a slow motion pile-up in the
unusually crowded streets and lanes. Limbs have to be held close lest one become an unwitting victim of the Narkasur mania. Anyone careless enough to be caught in a car as the night kicks in might find their usual trip lengthened by an hour or more as the scooters flow around them in a dense thicket. Those looking for a more casual, calm experience stick to their neighborhood and prefer to go on foot.
One of the remarkable things about the festival, beyond the dazzling array of colourful figures and their sometimes elaborate crèches is the way in which Narkasur appears to be bringing Goans and migrant communities together in a common celebration. On the evening of the festival around Panjim, the state’s capital, one doesn’t only hear Konkani or Marathi but Hindi, Bhojpuri, Gujarati, Tamil and Kannada as well. These groups have moved into Goa to trade, work on the fishing trawlers that ply from the state, or else to supply labor in the state’s enormous tourism and construction booms, but their long stays and in many cases assumption of a new home have led them to join in the bacchanal of the night as well, eagerly building their own demons in the areas where they have taken up residence and staging no less dramatic musical and visual shows. Occasionally the inter-linguistic tensions in the state can run high, usually at the say-so of vote-seeking politicians, so it is encouraging to see that other forms of community are taking shape where people meet without suspicion.
Hopefully over time this festival will further grow as a force for shared community in the state. Along with Carnival, this is emerging as one of the most widely celebrated festivals in Goa, which leads the
various religious authorities to anxiously ask whether the true meaning of the festival is being lost in all the revelry. Is Narkasur definitively the villain in this story? If so, then why is it that people in Goa sometimes seem to have even more fun on Narkasur night than on Diwali, the Festival of Lights generally thought to be the more important occasion by most Indians? Although some would like
Goans to keep their mind unswervingly on the triumph of light over darkness, darkness seems to have its own appeal, coming back bigger, better and more elaborately every year.
When the madness of the night is over and the sun is threatening to edge above the horizon, hundreds and hundreds of demons are set ablaze with any fuel to hand, sometimes in a blaze of fireworks, which in the most elaborate versions are used to touch off the spark that will spell the end of the beast. The mostly young men who’ve made it this far will watch as the last embers fade and the scent of ashes and
gunpowder hangs in the air. Some will head home to catch some sleep, others move the party on to somewhere else. The festival season has well and truly begun...