Mali – Encore

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Guess the title is apt for a country that’s known more for its music than any other. Though music was indeed the reason that drew me to Mali some 30 years ago, the interest has since then stretched out to other entities such as its ethinic diversity, culture, the colours, markets and of course the people and their hospitality. In general, I don’t travel to a country more than once, but had to make an exception for Mali too among a very few other places. This time around, it was after a gap of 16 years and the living-colours and rhythms could be seen and heard below  –

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Mali’s ethnic diversity is among the most colourful and  facinating. Following offers a glimpse into the ethnic wear of Bamanan, Bobo, Bozo, Peul, Dogon, Khassonke, Senouto, Soninke, Songhai, Toureg, Jogorame and Maure ( not in that order)

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Rhythms galore –

 

 

 

 

Affable Massambou below has worked with some of the leading musicians of Mali including Ali Farka Toure and Oumou Sangare –

 

 

 

 

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Folk arts of North Eastern India

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The horn played above in the beginning is called Penpa

The seven sister states of North-Eastern India (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura) are rich in folk and tribal traditions for centuries. Though largely converted to Christianity by the missionaries during the colonial times, one could still find native traditions alive. The state of Assam alone accounts for some 90 tribes and over 220 ethnic groups in all states. Each group has their own attire, dialect and culture. Handicrafts of bamboo and cane, wood-carving, hand loom-weaving are common.

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A Karbi girl in pekok(top) and pena (bottom)

 

 

 

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An Ahom girl in chadar (top) and mekla (bottom)

 

 

 

 

Bihu being Assamese, notice all the men wear ‘gamocha’ as a head-band. It’s a cotton towel woven out of white thread with intricate embroidery in red at the ends. This piece of cloth is highly revered and serves as a cultural identity in the state of Assam.

The cymbal played above in the band is called Bhortal

 

 

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Dangs of Gujarat

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Dang dance is performed by Dangi tribe of Dang region of Gujarat. This dance is usually performed during Holi and other festivals, also at fairs, ceremonies and rituals connected to worship. It is quite swift, vigorous and highly rhythmic. Musical instruments used are percussive Kahaiya and Dholki  besides short shehnai. Men and women stand alternately in a circular form and dance by going round and round, creating various choreographic patterns. They may have their arms around the shoulders or waists of the neighboring dancer. The movement builds gradually and reaches a fast tempo before winding to a halt. The women climb on the shoulders of men and form a human pyramid. The two and three tier formation moves clockwise and anti clockwise.

 

The Dangs live in the rocky, hilly forests of western central India. They are primarily located in the Dangs district of Gujarat State.

They have always lived close to nature, depending on it for survival. Animals are respected and treated as equals. For this reason, they are often called the “children of nature.” The Dangs district contains many protected forests that the Dangs are allowed to use for cultivation and residence. They live in one-room bamboo huts made with thatched roofs.

Despite their poverty, the Dangs enjoy singing and dancing. The villagers are skilled in creating objects out of stone, wood, and clay. Hindu artisans often help them with such crafts. Tattooing has also become an art among the Dangs.

The majority of the Dangs practice ethnic religions, and all of them are involved in ancestor worship (praying to deceased ancestors). Their lives revolve around rites, rituals and folk beliefs. Many are animists, believing that all objects have spirits. Trees, animals, demons, serpents, and spirits are worshiped through magical rituals. Wagh-Dev, the tiger god, is their sacred animal god and their emblem of worship.

The Dangs believe in magic, witchcraft, and sorcery, along with their many tribal gods and Hindu deities. They believe that the supernatural world contains both good and evil. Their constant fear of the spirits keeps them revolving around a circle of prayers, rituals, offerings, and sacrifices. The Bhagat (priest and medicine man) is thought to be the ultimate “good man.” He is believed to be a spiritual man who communicates with the gods. He is considered a friend, a philosopher, a guide, and a healer.

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Folk dances of Mizoram

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Chheihlam is generally performed over a round of rice-beer and it reflects joy and exhilaration. While a pair of dancers dance in the middle, others squat around, clap, sing to the beat of a drum. Those sit around take turn to join in the middle

 

Cheraw is one of the popular folk forms of Mizoram, also found in other north-eastern states of India. I recall watching a similar performance done by an ethnic group from Taiwan. It is as well found in other far-eastern countries such as Philippines.

Men sitting face to face on the ground tap long pairs of horizontal and cross bamboo staves open and close in rhythmic beats. Girls in colorful Mizo costumes of Puanchei, Kawrchei. Vakiria and Thihna, dance in and out between the beats of bamboo. This dance is now performed in almost all festive occasions. The unique style of the Cheraw is a great fascination everywhere it is performed. Gongs and drums are used to accompany the dance.

The bamboos, when clapped, produce a sound which forms the rhythm of the dance. It indicates the timing of the dance as well. The dancers step in and out to the beats of the bamboos with ease and grace. They need to keep up with the timing with high focus and concentration, as they jump in and out alternately. A misstep by a single dancer may throw the entire set off and may result in injury too.

The origin of this dance form dates back to 1 CE

Chawnglaizawn is a popular form of a community called Pawi. It is performed by a husband to mourn the death of his wife. The husband would be continuously performing this dance till he gets tired. Friends and relatives would relieve him and dance on his behalf. This signifies that they mourn with the bereaved.
Chawnglaizawn’ is also performed in festivals and to celebrate trophies brought home by successful hunters.

 

 

 

 

Thol Bommalattam – Shadow Puppetry

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This is an ancient form of entertainment and story-telling that continues to this day, though sparingly. It uses articulated cut-out figures made of thol (leather) that are made to dance, act, fight, nod, laugh so on between  a source of light and a screen. This art form is still found in many countries across Asia, notably China, India and Indonesia have always been major players.

 

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European merchant ships played a role in importing this art form to parts of Europe.

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Puppets are held close to the screen and hands and legs are manipulated with attached canes. I took a peek behind the screen while the women work and hundreds of puppets strewn across the floor. The team members were scurrying around to pick the right characters for the scenes to follow.

 

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Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata form the repertoire, used to be performed by itinerant artists on temporary platforms during temple festivals. It is believed puppet-theater dates back to 3rd century BCE. The puppets in general are three to four feet tall.

 

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Momasar – a Rajasthani village festival

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Stage for home-grown folk arts

As my taxi changes gear from highway to village-dirt-lane, a street dog barking furiously runs along for it finds a foreign moving object in its neighbourhood in this early hour of the day. We outdo the dog by a long way, and I could hear strains of music wafting in through morning stillness. I ask the driver to head in that melodic-way. Musicians belong to Islāmic faith singing Hindu bhajans in the courtyard of quaint Hanuman Dhora temple at dawn opens the festival. Villagers sitting cross-legged on the blanket are taking in the bliss. White-clothed and turbaned elders walk in at their pace while head-covered women in bright red Rajasthani sarees gather in a corner on the blanket. A few SUVs to my left and camels inside house walls to my right. Desert sand underneath my feet and peacocks trot at higher elevations looking for breakfast, this hour is indeed sublime !

Momasar

A village 160 miles north-west of Jaipur in Rajasthan is hosting the 6th edition of Shekhawati Utsav, organized by Jaipur Virasat Founndation that works to keep and promote traditional art forms of the state. The festival runs for 2 days, staging 200 artists from various regions and attracts a few thousand crowd to this remote hamlet, mostly from nearby villages and also a handful of die-hard fans from abroad.

We break for tea and simple refreshments at a local temple-hall. I meet up with a group who come from US and various European countries. “Marc and I chanced upon this festival last year and this year we are here to play. Yes, we were suggested city gigs but we settled for this unique village one” says Markus from Germany. In a first, this edition would feature a non-Rajasthani band in Marc Sinan and Iva Bittova. Energized by tea and with the help of a local guide, we stroll through the maze of lanes for local attractions such as temples and century old charming havelis that are painted with frescos, belonged to wealthy merchants of yesteryear.

Music at rural settings

I enter Patwari ki Haveli, an exquisite heritage building of Momasar, for ‘Music in the afternoon’. A group of women sing welcome-songs at the massive door. An array of activities in the courtyard include men spinning yarn from drop-spindle, rope-making demonstration and young students of wood-craft display their creative works. “This reflects the motive of our Foundation – preserve and encourage tradition in all forms” says Vinod Joshi, Director of JVF and the force behind this festival, which also serves him as a pay-back to his birth place. Along the wall, Kathodi performers present a unique image as two men blow into a mouth-piece of a vertical wind instrument, a man on scraper and another rubs a thin metal rod placed over a brass plate to produce the drone effect. “They live in the forest and make their own musical instruments” says Joshi. A flight of stairs in the haveli brings up a compact hall that is open to the skies where the 80 year young Safi Mohammed sings with gusto often tossing and turning the tanpura on his hand, more than strumming on it.

A quick stop for snacks at the temple hall and as the light starts to fade, we head to a farm. Though it is dark, I could get a sense of the expanse of the place and feel my respiratory system is more at ease now. As the wind blows across under starry sky, a dimly lit make-shift platform offers space for more folk art traditions. A red-turbaned, white dhoti clad man with anklets thumps his feet and waves his arms around to the beats and singing of two men playing on maante drum, a large clay-pot – their silhouette leave a surreal feel. While Marc and Iva sounds are a novelty in village-ears, the day ends at Taal Maidan, an open-air ground, at midnight with “Kuchamani Khayal”, a folk-theatre tradition from the Nagaur region of Rajasthan and is very much on the decline.

Curtain downs with a bang

Second day begins with ‘Baal Mela‘ that features a few thousand young boys and girls from 13 different schools in the village to get them re-acquainted to their rich roots and help them understand that tradition and progress could go hand in hand. “This is very crucial for the future of what we are now involved in” says Joshi, who sounds keen on covering the entire spectrum in his quest. The children get to see artists who do not make it to center stage this year, yet perform amid children’s’ competitions and workshops.

On the grand finale evening, hoards of villagers stream in one direction, young girls giggle their way in, boys bond with arms around shoulders while women look in unwind-mode with their day chores done with. Now my taxi struggles its way through this mass in this otherwise no traffic zone. As I reach brightly lit Taal Maidan, the place is buzzing, children play in sand chasing each other, flies and bugs have a field day around high wattage lamps and even crawl on people, excited in their sudden-found-illuminated-lives. The stage that exudes Rajasthani decor is all set for the show. An endless kaleidoscope of folk forms that include Dhol-thali, Kalbeliya, Gair, Bhapang, Kachhigodi, Sahariya Swang dance unfold on front that last well into the wee hours.

Though a comfortable hotel stay is some 25 miles away, the festival affords to experience folk art at its provenance. While Langa and Manganiar musicians are hot invitees on world stage, JVF aims to bring the world to their homes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This piece by yours truly was carried in India’s national daily –

http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/A-stage-for-home-grown-arts/article16644617.ece

 

Sex in stone

Well, if you think we have ‘evolved’ in our innovative ways in the centuries past, going by the carvings in stone, the answer is a big ‘No’. I have left out documenting scenes of gingerly orgies, perhaps personal taste unconsciously played out in that omission. The temples in Odisha seem to have been lot more ‘liberal’ than the ones in rest of India. I wonder if the proximity to Khajuraho had its influence here, as the temples in both places built around the same period. Most of the temple sculptures consist of erotic, music and dance in nature giving the impression that it must have been one party-town! At large, the niches on the walls alternate between eroticism, musicians and dancers. No wonder the most sensuous of the Indian classical dance form Odissi has its origin here !

In general, the artists and sculptors seem to have had lot more freedom to express themselves though the administration in those days was primarily under the ruler of the province. There is even an inscription belong to circa 10 CE of the famous king Rajaraja in Thanjavur that says only the administrators are reportable to the court whereas the sculptors have full freedom to express their art. After all, how many gods and animals the sculptors could think of chiseling in, as they needed variety in subject. It is said the reason behind finding such bold and blatant erotic sculptures in the outer walls of Indian temples is that the pleasure-stage has to be ‘passed’ before we ‘reach’ higher-consciousness that is in the form of a deity at the sanctum. And on the ground, after satiating this strong and powerful force of nature, through self-inquiry, one is expected to reach the higher plane. Kamasutra by Vatsayana too written with similar views on life. This perspective is in tune with the four entities, Dharma (duty/righteous living) Artha (wealth) Kama (pleasure) and Moksha (liberation), that Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) prescribes for a common man. These stages help mellow gradually, as not everyone is blessed with ‘sudden-enlightenment’. Whatever be the reason, the sculptures certainly evoke curiosity and interest and draw tons of tourists to these temples. Let alone the text Kamasutra, nothing in comparison did ever exist to these ‘open sex manual’ anywhere else on this planet.

From being so liberal, how did India become conservative? I recall watching a documentary on Africa where the local black women express a confused-look at topless European women on the African beach, and the narrator goes ‘ these women must be thinking when they were ‘topless’, the colonial occupants covered them up in the process of civilizing, and now their colonial descendants come over here and look ‘uncivilized”. Many of the famous Chola bronzes of the 10 CE are topless. So the colonists in India too must have had a role in bringing about a conservative mind-set. Prior to that, the burka-clad Islāmic invaders enforced their fuddy-duddy ways and many Hindu Indian women started to cover to save themselves from invading rapists and kidnappers whose idea was to expand their faith numbers.It is said this is the reason behind the practice of women covering their face today, particularly on the western front states such as Gujarat, Rajasthan as through these regions Islam forced itself into India. These are indicative of an open society that changed with Islāmic invasion followed by Victorian/colonial values from the West.

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Women in Rajasthan today