"India’s greatest strength is her pluralism": Shabana Azmi on celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi

The formidable Shabana Azmi, a vocal Muslim activist and considered India’s finest dramatic actor, says her father the legendary poet Kaifi Azmi inculcated the most secular values in his children

Shabana Azmi (photo: National Herald archives)
Shabana Azmi (photo: National Herald archives)

Subhash K Jha

Ganesh Chaturthi is a big deal in Shabana Azmi’s home. “My sister-in-law Tanvi brings Ganpati home. It feels terrific because we celebrate Eid and Ganesh Chaturthi with equal enthusiasm. So we go straight from Biryani to Modak! Such is India’s syncretic culture, which I’m proud to be part of.”

Shabana Azmi recalls many Ganesh Chaturthis from her childhood. “As children my brother Baba and I would be taken to Sarvajanik Ganpati mandals in our area in Girgaum. I have warm memories of those visits. I love the mangalmurti aarti. Many of my close friends bring Ganesha home. And we go visiting them. Among the people we visit are Neetu Kapoor, Rani Mukherjee, Anil Kapoor and his wife Sunita and Manish Malhotra. No other country boasts as many religious festivals as we do. The diversity of religious celebrations is our strength. Abba (father Kaifi Azmi) used to be big on celebrating all festivals. We carry the tradition forward.”

The formidable Shabana Azmi, a vocal Muslim activist and considered India’s finest dramatic actor, says her father the legendary poet Kaifi Azmi inculcated the most secular values in his children Shabana Azmi and cinematographer-filmmaker Baba Azmi. 

“There was an absence of religious practice in our house but religious festivals were and continue to be celebrated both in our home and the film industry. Diwali , Holi, Eid, Ganesh Chaturthi are major. Both my sisters-in-law, Tanve Azmi and Sulabha Arya are Maharastrian. Ganesh Chaturthi is  big in our home.”

Shabana Azmi feels the spirit of cultural and religious pluralism is embedded in India’s DNA. “India’s greatest strength is her pluralism and her composite culture. My father Urdu poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi instilled a love in the family of our rich cultural heritage which has at its core diversity and exclusiveness. We grew up celebrating Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas, Ganesh Chaturthi and continue to do so till date.”

Shabana Azmi recalls her exceptionally secular mother’s love for cultural assimilation as reflected in the home she kept. “My mother Shaukat Kaifi travelled extensively all over India with the  internationally known theatre  group Prithvi Theatre, and even the one 200-square feet room that we had (I lived in a commune of the Communist Party called the Red Flag Hall till the age of 9 where 8 families shared one bathroom and one toilet) had curtains from Orissa, kalamkari bedcovers from Hyderabad, cushion covers from Gujarat . In my mother’s final home Janki Kutir there were temple bells, icons from Rome, Allah written in ceramic from Iran. We learned about diversity as a virtue by a process of osmosis.”

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Published: 20 Sep 2023, 11:11 AM