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Faith : September 23, 2001
Songs from a broken past
The author is an art critic and documentary film-maker based in Mumbai. She is currently Editor, Art India.
"Why do we perform gondhal?" asks Tanaji Thite rhetorically, and answers his own question: "To control the chaos of the world."
R. Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile
Tanaji has inherited the folk tradition of gondhal (which literally means "confusion" in Marathi) from his forefathers, and as we lurch in an auto-rickshaw towards one of his performances, in Mumbai's eastern suburb of Ghatkopar, he elaborates on the paradox of controlling chaos with chaos. "First the gods created the rakshasas. But the rakshasas became so powerful that they challenged the gods themselves. So the gods took the form of Adimaya (the Great Mother) to destroy them and put an end to their gondhal," he says. "Adimaya's shakti kills all the obstacles created by evil forces, whether they occur at birth or in a marriage - so every auspicious occasion is flagged off with a gondhal performance."
We arrive at Nityanand Nagar, the shantytown where Tanaji is to perform a gondhal at a wedding. The bride and the bridegroom sit facing the sugarcane mandir in which Ambamata sits, her pot-and-coconut form having stolen some of the sky's silver. A coconut is put into the mouth of the goddess, and stalks of sugarcane cross each other to form a cordon around her. On the sari blouses placed before her in offering, rice and wheat grains are arranged like stars in the sky, as though to mark a gentle re-ordering of day, the beginning of night.
Tanaji, his father and two brothers, begin the Ganesha-stuti, the prayer to Ganesha, remover of obstacles. With the first beat of the sambhal, the night shakes like a coal-black backdrop. A fast train zooms along the tracks behind the performers. The groom's drunken father interrupts the Adimaya bhajan with disconnected slurs.
Tanaji punctuates the bhajan with jokes like "bayko sodayla, gondhal karto" (We perform gondhal so that the groom leaves his wife). His brother Shivaji, playing the tuntuni, cuffs him playfully on the head and sets the record straight by singing Adimaya's virtues. A strong halogen light shines down like a midnight sun on the pandal. The performers sweat profusely in the strong light, their heads hit the overhead mike as they dance gracefully with small torches in their hands. I wonder why a halogen light is needed in such a small performance area, and the monster amplifier that ruptures the songs with its electronic thunderings. "The bridegroom's family has spent a lot of money on these arrangements," laments Tanaji, "so we have to use these things to preserve their status."
The night is divided between a gondhal and a murali performance. A lethargic child trails a parrot-green sari over the heads of the audience. Tanaji's uncle wears the sari over his kurta-pyjama and bows his head like a shy murali. "When a couple don't have a child, they pray to Khandoba and promise the god their first-born," says Tanaji in explanation. "If it's a girl she's called Murali, if it's a boy he's called Vaghya. Both vaghya and murali devote themselves to Khandoba. Some muralis also end up as devadasis."
But why does a woman not play the role of the murali in their performance? Tanaji grumbles that women do not inform them when they attain puberty, and continue to perform to earn some money. I can scarcely be comfortable with his insistence on maintaining the age-old taboo concerning menstruation, but the gondhali is adamant: "We don't want to commit a sin, so men in our family perform the role of the muralis." The question of economics emerges again and Tanaji explains that his father combined the two performances so that people could get two entertainments for the price of one. Besides, a man dressed as a woman is always guaranteed to raise a laugh.
The murali-katha is narrated with robust folk wisdom. The daughter of Indra, king of the gods, had been cursed that she would only get married on earth. So the gods put the girl in a box and flung her down from the heavens. The box fell among the dhangar (shepherd) community of Chandanpur, who named the child Banu. Having grown up, Banu worshipped the saint Kanifnath of the Navnath pantheon and asked him, "Where will I see my husband?" Kanifnath replied, "Your husband lives in Jejuri."
Now Khandoba, the lord of Jejuri, started dreaming of the beautiful Banu. Obsessed with her beauty, he took the form of a dhangar and left for Chandanpur. Banu set her suitor a difficult task: "Take these goats to graze, and don't return without giving them a good bath." When Khandoba tried to do so, the goats kicked him in the shins. In his confusion, he looked across the river and saw the dhobis washing their clothes, rhythmically dipping the clothes in the water and then beating them on the stone. Taking a cue from them, Khandoba dipped the goats in the water and beat them against the stone, then threw them on the bank to dry.
In the afternoon, when Banu brought Khandoba his meal, she saw him resting under a tree. When she asked about the animals, he pointed to the scattered flesh and bones of the "washed" goats. "You will have to bring them back to life," she cried, "otherwise the dhangars will throw a fit." Khandoba promised to revive the animals, provided that she married him as soon as he did. Opening his tiger-skin pouch, he sprinkled turmeric on the goats, which began to bleat again. Thus the gondhal over Banu's husband and the dead goats was resolved.
But Tanaji's story was interrupted many times by calls from the audience, before it could reach this climactic stage. People would dangle two-, five-, and ten-rupee notes before the performers. Tanaji and Shivaji bent over several times to take the money and announce the denomination before pinning the notes on the sugarcane mandir.
Such folk performances are like the dhangar's goats today, brutally beaten on the stones of time. What we confront are pieces of flesh and bone, which sing the songs of a broken past. With each new audience, these shreds of stories and songs are beaten into new shapes. "The story does not interest this urban audience," laments Tanaji. "What they want is song and dance." Overhead, an aeroplane that has just taken off from Santa Cruz Airport casts its shadow on the dispersing audience.
Tanaji and Shivaji are dancing like the wind now. Both brothers are pot-bellied, but once they pick up the storyteller's torch, their bodies become light and ductile. Behind me, a man slams open the window of his milk booth - it's morning. The performance ends abruptly in the middle of a song.
On the train back to Victoria Terminus, Tanaji says ruefully, "You should not have seen this performance in the slums. Generally we take dakshina only once during the performance, but here we were constantly interrupted. It's different in the villages, people don't have this kind of money and they watch the whole performance seriously. I did this for my old father, he's come all the way from Pimpripendhar in Pune."
It seems like such a long journey. I first met Tanaji in my office at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai: it was my first job, and as I sat at my desk planning a national symposium on the crafts, in he walked, with a garland of bulbs around his neck. Before I could make sense of the apparition, he explained that he was there to replace a faulty wire. The next time he came, he brought an album of photographs with him. In it, I found the picture of a man posing in a traditional nine-yard sari, his hair tied in a tight bun. Staring at the photograph, I wondered who this end-of-the-century Bal Gandharva could be.
"I sometimes go shopping with my wife, dressed in a sari," laughed Tanaji. Only after I saw the performance at Nityanand Nagar that night did I realise that, since he was performing the murali's role, he could cross the borders of sexuality with ease and transform himself into a woman at will. He enjoyed this role-playing and was very proud of his ability to change gender both in performance and, seemingly, in reality.
But the Tanaji I see before my eyes now is a man with a puffed-up face and glazed eyes. His crinkly hair, which always blazes like a black fire, hangs limp with sweat. Tanaji gets off the train and disappears into the crowd at VT station. He will put in "overtime" at the Centre to earn some extra money. And then his proud words, from an earlier conversation, come back to me, no longer convincing: "Oh, now that we have jobs in the city, we are no longer wandering beggars with tuntunis."
Has the condition of the gondhalis really changed? What position do they occupy in the metropolis? Have Adimaya's bards been reduced to entertainers by an audience that no longer cares for its old gods? Perhaps Adimaya's shakti is an old make of weapon now, ineffective against the dollar-bolt of Mumbadevi, this city's patron goddess. And perhaps Tanaji, too, has learnt a new prayer from Mumbadevi: a prayer that marks the end of living, the beginning of survival.
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