In Mapada, a village of 120 Dalit households in Balangir district of western Odisha, writer Gunjan Veda meets 97-year-old Bishwanath Baghel. He tells the story of his life in the Ganda Bajaa, an instrumental music orchestra that has men belonging to the Ganda or Pano communities, who play at weddings, funerals and religious rituals. She also meets 60-something Tula Bivhar, a member of the Murri Bajaa orchestra, who plays the mohuri, an oboe-like wind instrument made of a hallow bamboo pipe. It is one of five instruments that the orchestra plays, apart from the dhol, which is the leading instrument. Made of a tree trunk, it has strips of cow hide running through it, while the tassa, also a drum, made of clay and strung with goat skin on the top, is played with wooden sticks. Nissan, the oldest of the lot, is made of wooden and iron sheets and resembles a melon cut into half. Accompanying them is the dafli, jhang or iron cymbals, and jhumka as the rattle. But the musicians are considered to be “polluted” for they engage with instruments made of animal skin.
“While they are considered impure, their music is not. It marked all important events in the life of the community, and the rhythmic beats were used to invoke the goddess, yet the Ganda were not allowed to enter her sanctum,” writes Veda, in her book The Museum of Broken Teacups (Yoda-SAGE Select, Rs 525), where she documents stories of various artistes, artisans and “everyday heroes” in Dalit communities living in “the forgotten lanes of Indian villages and towns”, along with those of students, teachers, and activists who’ve changed their lives against all odds.
Public policymaker and international development strategist Veda’s book The Museum of Broken Tea Cups uses the symbol of the used, broken teacups, or the rampatars, that upper caste houses keep outside for Dalit workers, to recognise the cultural contribution of Dalit communities in the society. She was approached by Dalit Foundation, a non-governmental organisation working to eradicate caste-based discrimination, to write a book for them as they completed 10 years in 2013. “They wanted someone who is not from the community and has not worked in this field to travel and write a non-academic book,” says the writer, who has previously written Beautiful Country (Harper Collins, 2012) with activist-writer Syeda Hameed.
In the book, Veda writes about the Dewars, a group of travelling mendicants and musicians, who were also the village bards, and meets vocalist Rekha Dewar in Kukusda village, 50 km from Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh, who has been taking the musical tradition forward. In Kanpur, she meets the 85-year-old Gangaprasad Naqqarawadak, who plays the naqqara, a kettledrum instrument similar to the nagada. In Telangana, she meets the Madiga community and its dappu players, and learns how the drum is made using cow skin membrane. She also writes about the traditions of Nautanki in Uttar Pradesh, Yashagana of Andhra Pradesh, Tamasha of Maharashtra and Bhavai in Gujarat. She makes the stories personal and writes them as postcards or letters to the readers from each village and town that she has visited in the course of her travels.
A thread that joins all these together is the exploitation and shame attached to it, and almost all the children Veda spoke to “don’t wish to carry the burden of the art form with them. For them, it is an identity marker that they wish to shun,” says Veda. But the future lies in reclamation and not ostracisation, says Veda. “In parts of Tamil Nadu, the Thappu or Parai drum has been reclaimed and has become the instrument of equality as not only Dalit children but children from all castes are learning the instrument. And I think that is the way forward,” says Veda.
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