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‘Kumbh The Other Story’ Changed My Perception Of The Kumbh Mela

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As a Mumbaikar who abhors religion, my imagination of the Kumbh was restricted to old Hindi films. Most of these films had a pair of siblings who inevitably got separated at the mammoth Mela, only to be reunited several years later, in a classic twist of fate. This plotline was used and abused to such an extent that it became a comical trope in everyday conversations. When you couldn’t spot a friend in a crowd, you joked about them getting lost at the Kumbh.

Pawan Shrivastava is a 38-year-old, independent filmmaker from Bihar. Shrivastava marks his documentary debut with, Kumbh The Other Story. He has previously made films such as Life of An Outcast (2018) and Naya Pata (2014).

As I grew older, my imagination of the Kumbh was transformed by images of the mysterious Naga Babas and the not-so-mysterious herbs they smoke. Filmmaker Pawan Shrivastava makes clever use of compelling visuals, featuring these disrobed ascetics, as an entry point into the holy hullabaloo. His debut documentary film, Kumbh The Other Story, opens with the Babas getting ready to take a dip in the Ganga on Mouni Amavasya (silent no moon day). Covered in ash and with dreadlocks adorning their face, it’s hard to take your eyes off them.

The film is divided into three parts: prologue, the other story and epilogue. It runs slightly longer with a screen time of 91 minutes, more than one would have liked, but it keeps you hooked. The music and the cinematography of the film complement the mood of the film beautifully.

In a particularly dark and witty moment in the film, a boatman opines while looking at the camera that the scaled-up “Mela is also an advertisement for Modi ji”. Shrivastava agrees, “Kumbh Mela of 2019 was being strategically used by the BJP for electoral gains. No wonder its budget was hiked threefold. This is the reason why I decided to show the other side of the Kumbh.”

Kumbh Mela Baba
A still from the film featuring a Naga Baba staring intently into the camera. Naga Babas worship Lord Shiva. These Shaivite sadhus are distinct in that they are naked yogis who have ash-covered bodies and matted dreadlocks.

Apart from the Babas, Hindu devotees congregate in Prayagraj (erstwhile Allahabad) every 4 years. Why? To take a dip in the Ganga. Why? To get rid of all their sins. Or so it is believed.

No wonder there were posters of the BJP plastered everywhere. All that footfall and so many eyeballs, how can one let it go to waste. If only the administration had bettered living conditions on the ground instead of building castles in the air.

The filmmaker highlights three vulnerable groups in his documentary: the Safai Karamcharis (sanitation workers) who talk about not being paid enough and the long working hours they have to endure to make minimum wage; the common people who haven’t been able to take a dip in the Ganga because of how crowded and inaccessible the Mela has become; and the Kinnar Akhada (a religious monastery with a guru-shishya, or teacher-disciple, tradition) headed by activist, media personality and trans woman, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi.

“With time, the face of this fair has changed. Now, it has just become an event where the focus is to attract tourists and to influence the Hindu voter, simultaneously. Providing facilities to a common devotee and fair wages to the workers are not the priorities anymore,” laments the filmmaker.

The Kinnar Akhada’s fight is a fight for acceptance and inclusion. I may not agree with their politics but wanted to understand their purpose. As a trans person, I wanted to find out why Shrivastava thought it was important to spotlight the said Akhada.

“Laxmi Naryan Tripathi had important things to say about gender, which is normally not found in the discourse of a religious event. She was the most visible face of transgender rights at the fair. For me, a Mahamandaleshwar (highest level of traditional, Hindu, spiritual guardianship) talking so strongly and bringing the discourse of trans rights in the mainstream was worth highlighting.”

A paltry number out of the thousands of sanitation workers contracted for the Mela organised a strike to improve their working conditions but to no end. Those who are tasked with keeping the Mela, and its numerous toilets, clean, don’t have access to basic, adequate safety gear. An old man in the film goes on at length about how he and others like him are forced to live in squalid conditions and struggle to walk kilometres to get to the Sangam ghat.

Shrivastava admitted that shooting in an uber-crowded space, where no transportation was available within the Mela premises, was a big challenge. I am glad that the filmmaker and his team braved the challenges of making such an impactful film that has forever challenged Kumbh’s imagination for me. It is a film that asks several important questions about society and the government. Quid pro kyun?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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