Published: September 23rd 2011August 24th 2011
Dance of joy
For Lambadis, dance is dominance when two villages compete.
“Tonight everyone will go to Chadmalthanda to sing and dance,” the young man said, cuddling closer to a short tree that shielded us from the unexpected showers. The drums have already woken up in the Lambadi hamlet. Villagers from Mirmalthanda brave the rain to be at Chadmal on time. Tonight the two villages will sing it out. During an interlude in rain, Rajeev and I ride after them on the muddy road flanked by endless corn fields.
All the rain and slush could not dampen the previous day’s festivities at Niralthanda, where all the families wanted to host Rajeev, who runs one of the schools in the nearby town. He was still trying to convince his students and parents about the limits of our stomachs – we had already feasted from three huts – when the clouds darkened. We waited out the rain till the village poured into the square facing one of the few brick-and-mortar buildings.
The men formed a jagged semicircle facing the three identical and adjoining houses while the chief brought out four satin flags from inside. An earnest song swept over the community as the elders began to loop the totem flags around long wooden
The phallic hairdo and associated jewelry mark married women
poles. The men sang of Krishna and clanged the pair of cymbals. The birthday of the dark god who herded cattle on the banks of Yamuna is prominent in the Lambadi festival calendar.
Gandhari, a remote town off the Hyderabad-Nizamabad highway, seemed like any other in Telangana until I saw the colourful women who wear their hair like a pole on their heads. The phallic hairdo and associated jewelry mark married women. Old women go bald with years of exertion on their hair. Men in white kurtas and dhotis are hardly distinguishable from peasants anywhere in India. They speak among themselves in scriptless Lambadi and to outsiders in fluent Telugu.
Lambadis who live in the hamlets around Gandhari are a notch above their nomadic counterparts in social hierarchy. Men boast of belonging to ‘backward castes’ and women wear sari unlike their ‘scheduled tribe’ cousins in mirror-dotted ghagra/choli. They own acres of farmland, where they raise corn and graze cattle. They have their own moneylenders, contractors and merchants among them. But they seldom move out of their shanties.
Chatru Singh owns Gandhari’s tallest building, comprising a liquor shop, bakery, garment store, electronic shop and seven apartments. The patriarch
and his overgrown family, however, live in a thatched hut in Niralthanda. “I am a poor man. I have only this,” he tells me with an ironical smile before inviting me to dine at his hut, where his wife and daughters-in-law serve food to members of the extended family and any hungry visitor. His grandchildren watch a Telugu flick on TV.
The community bars any member from building a concrete house in the village unless he has at least Rs 10 lakh on him. The rule reserves the concrete roof to a handful, but protects the rest from the burden of debt. Chatru is finally building a house for him. The rest of the rich men live under palm thatches, like their buffaloes and sheep and tractors and Nanos kept in similar huts in the courtyard.
Most of Rajeev’s students come from these hamlets, called thandas. ‘English-medium’ schools have mushroomed here, reflecting the prosperous Lambadis’ desire to educate their children. Many of the elder boys go to colleges in Kamareddy or Hyderabad.
The boys in colourful vests take over from seniors as night falls and the rhythm rises. The gentle singing gives way to furious beats. The
Rise of rhythim
Drums call out to revellers in Niralthanda
boys dance in a circle round the drummers. It’s ritualistic a moment and ecstatic the next. It’s spontaneous and choreographed at the same time. As they fly between the steps the circle contracts and expands like a dancer’s pulse.
Women who have been squatting on the fringes of the dance field are lured in by the music. They form their own circle around a wrinkled matriarch. Little girls jump in the formation. Their song is as composed as a lullaby and dance as disciplined as the rocking of a cradle. The two circles go unmindful of each other. The entire village is celebrating.
“We should document this,” says Rajeev, spellbound by his students’ artistic skills. The next evening found us under a crooked tree waiting for the sky to clear.
Chadmal is a cluster of three hamlets. Villagers guide us through a maze of dung-strewn alleys between huts until we reach the square, more than double of Niralthanda’s. Boys in identical silky shirts and ornamental vests and a few elders in white go in circles, humming monotonous harvest songs. But it pays to wait, now we know.
Villagers from the neighbouring Mirmalthanda arrive. It’s a senior
Women dance around a wrinkled matriarch
team, sticking to the conventional white and white. The hosts give them water to wash their feet, only to stomp the slush later. All of them pray in front of a wide hut. Then they join the circle of monotony. “We will beat them anyway,” says Gulabi Singh, sandal paste on his earlobes and temple.
Gulabi invites us into the hut. I have been anticipating the feast, my tongue yet to recover from previous day’s assault of the chillies. But it was cooked for an entire village or two and lacked the finesse of Niralthanda, where the hostess served pooris and rice with her palm. They do it only for members of the family, I was told. There were pulses and curd seasoned with chilli along with chilli curry and fried chillies served on three big leaves stitched together. The other houses we dined had slight variations, such as sweet pulpy rice, sweetened pooris or ghee and sugar for dessert. But the theme was chillies and ghee everywhere. They make mutton too, but the community is on a month-long abstention.
The meal was blander in Chadmal, but the dance grander.
The gentle dance of the women has
Their dance as disciplined as the rocking of a cradle
started in the background. Inside the male circle, emcees smoke bidis and yell instructions at their team. Boys too young to join the circle, dance around. The main drummer puffs in a final bidi before rejoining the group of three at the centre. The brass-leather drums costs Rs 20,000 each, a villager says. The beat changes, so do the steps.
While the home team tries to synchronise, the visitors change their pace. With a baton in one hand and a kerchief on the other, they turn and swirl, run and leap, shifting steps to the whistles of the captain. Gossips and squabbles stop midway. The show begins. The dancers, their white clothes contrasting the darkness, command total audience.
The home team tries its best. Its managers try to set a weak flank right, but they have lost the rhythm. Suddenly the music stops, provoking frustrated catcalls from the dancers stopped on their track. It’s the terrain, Gulabi explains the poor show by his village. The two teams switch sides, the visitors now confined to the uneven ground between the drummers and the large hut.
Gulabi proved right. Chadmal team gets its acts together. Once on better turf,
A group of boys descends on the dance field, eclipsing all that happened there
the boys in uniform vests excel the older team’s energy. They try formations that miraculously avoid colliding with each other. It has to be a tie. The Mirmalthanda villagers are fed and seen off ceremoniously while other boys join to fill the circle. At 9 in the night, they have already been dancing for three hours and show no sign of stopping.
A fresh group of boys – perhaps Chadmal’s B team – takes position. After an initial round, their leader shouts at the drummers. The beats are not supportive enough. They bring in their own drum and drummers. The tinny rhythm is contagious. The group breaks into an impossible dance, the rest of the village enthralled by their sheer energy. I carry the tribal rhythm home.