Pune’s Rosy Winters Once known for its historical traditions and now an educational and commercial hotspot, Pune rediscovers its roots each year in its invigorating winters.
There comes a day when the early rising Punekar will step out of his house, pause in slight surprise, and try to clear his eyes. When the blurriness remains, the Punekar realises that the light fog is to blame for the reduced visibility and that winter has arrived on padded feet.
Winter arrives quietly in Pune and is greeted with relief by the city, especially since an unpleasantly hot October is a common postscript to the rainy season. Pune has always lived, figuratively and literally, in the shadow of a metropolis that makes much of its monsoons. But winter is a season Pune can lay claim to as its own. Unlike the disruptive machismo of the Bombay rains, Pune's winter is gentle in both arrival and tenure, mirroring the laidback ways of the place. A trip down the sleek Mumbai-Pune expressway through the misty Western Ghats more than amplifies this difference.
In the Pink The phrase that the locals use to describe the first month of the winter says it all. Punekars bask in “gulaabii thandii”, literally the “rosy cold”. During this time, citizens, in their light woollens, can be seen bearing a light rosiness of both cheek and demeanour.
Since Pune's winters are temperate, especially in comparison with the frigid bitterness of many North Indian towns, they can rouse residents to action rather than cause them to cower behind a thick quilt. Once the indolence of the early cold morning is defeated, a walk in the balmy ambience is the best way to kick off a day. Given that parts of commercially booming Pune are sometimes bedevilled by smog towards the evenings, the mornings remain the best time to soak up the sun-kissed winter.
A favourite variation of this is to walk up the nearest ‘tekdi’ or hillock. Pune is blessed with an abundance of these easy-to-climb hillocks, which offer vantage views of the city, especially in the late evenings. Many of these tekdis have a temple at the summit, providing the spiritually-minded with a reward for their exertions. For the more material at heart, tekdis also offer flat summits for exploration, hot snacks and tea, and the pleasant company of fellow wanderers. Much higher than any tekdi is Sinhgadh on the outskirts of Pune which boasts of a legendary fort of the Marathas. It is a favourite with both trekkers and foodies. The traditional pithla-bhaakri or onion bhajjis washed down the special buttermilk gains a special tang after a pleasant wintry ascent.
Avian Season For those with their feet firmly on the ground, the season offers other charms. The many lakes in and around Pune receive several varieties of migratory birds. Chief among these are different kinds of ducks, geese, and herons. However, the chief headline-hoggers are pink flamingos that come in from the West and the North, via the Rann of Kutch. Apart from trekking expeditions, local adventure groups organise bird watching tours to places such as Pashan Lake, Bhigwan Dam, Kavdi, and Sinhgadh, and have inspired many an amateur ornithologist.
Cultural Capital Pune's cultural calendar is packed in the winter, with music events ruling the roost. The days during the festival of Diwali, especially the “Paadva” day, are marked by early morning classical music concerts by top musicians. However, the undisputed star on the cultural firmament is the “Sawai Gandharva Music Festival”.
The festival is named in memory of Rambhau Kundagolkar or ‘Sawai Gandharva’, a leading Hindustani classical music exponent of the 40s. Of the Kirana gharana, Gandharva tutored several students who later rose in musical prominence. Chief among these was the legendary Bhimsen Joshi. Led by him, these students started this festival, now over fifty years old, which always features a stellar list of classical musicians.
The event is held on three successive days, beginning in the afternoon and going on till well into the night. Held in the open with some partly covered areas, the result is a very unique experience for spectators. Sweaters of increasing thickness are worn as the evening wears on, blankets are used to reserve areas for groups to recline during the night, and a thermos is pulled out for tea & comfort. Municipal rules prohibiting shows past 10 o clock are cheerfully violated (permission is eventually granted). But nobody in the neighbourhood really minds, especially when some of the best musicians in the country are on stage.
The performers on the bill are usually singers and instrumentalists of various Hindustani classical music styles. The event also showcases leading musicians of the Carnatic form of classical music, and dancers. For each performer, an appearance at the Sawai Gandharva is a stern test in front of the connoisseurs, who have cast discerning ears at many a pretender over the decades. The Sawai is very much a home of music, especially an open-air, wintry one.
The fastidious Sawai attendee will tell you that for several people, the Sawai is the social event of the winter calendar. A chance to meet friends, and to have tea and snacks with them at 1 in the night. But for the average music lover, it is a once-in-a- year opportunity to hear some of the best sounds in the business, and to do it in the company of the stars above.
In recent times, a number of other cultural events have sprung up during the winter months, such as the Pune International Film Festival and the Pune Book Fair. Another festival-in-memoriam is “Pulotsav” which commemorates Pune's most favourite littérateur, P. L. Deshpande, or “Pu La” as he was fondly known. A man of immense artistic talents, a keenly observant Pu La used humor writing, theatre, film, poetry, and song to depict life around him in ways no one else has. This two-week festival is devoted to the arts, featuring Pu La vignettes as well as theatre, music, and reading performances.
Since winters in Pune rarely descend into single digit temperatures, the city is never hobbled by the weather. As January ends and the sun becomes less oblique, winter fades away just as gently as it arrived. Each year, the hard-to-impress Pune old-timer will insist that the city was not what it used to be. But come next November, this sentiment will be assuaged by the winters of Pune's content.
1. Thanks to Sumant for sending the publishers my way and Nikhil for his inputs.
2. While setting out to write this, I realised I knew hardly anything about Pune winters beyond the usual minutiae. There's quite a bit more to this place.
3. If you thought the title was slightly diabetes-inducing, I can explain.
4. Ironically, this time, the winter only showed up towards the end of December (and then with a set of frigid knives).