Apr 25, 2016

The Chattisgarh of Deer Horn and tribal Dances

 I came out of the air conditioned Raipur airport into the harsh sun and had my first look at Chattisgarh. A black tar road, shimmering in the heat, veered away from the airport into a vast dry landscape. The vegetation was sparse, the few trees lining the road were dusty, their leaves brown and wrinkled, fluttered slowly in the meager gusts of wind. The strong sun had withered whatever grass there was into tufts of drying yellow. The monsoons had come and gone many months back and even in December, the land stretching on both sides of the road looked hot, parched and in desperate need of water. 

The reason I had said yes to this trip was because the words ‘Bastar’ and ‘Tribals’ held some sort of Magic for me. For this was a world that I had only read about through the pages of the National Geographic magazine and here was a rare chance to see it come alive.

We were guests at the Royal Palace of Kanker. Something that we were to realize later was an incredible stroke of good fortune. Not only was the royal family the greatest example of humility and grace but also instrumental in showing us the Chattisgarh we would have never seen otherwise.

Chattisgarh along with Madhya Pradesh has the largest tribal belt in India. Some tribes known to the world, the others still half hidden, valiantly trying to protect their individuality, their customs and traditions against the onslaught of modernization. It was into this world, so alien, so different from our urban existence that we hoped to get a peep into in the coming days.

The good people at Kanker Palace had decided to initiate us into Tribal life by sending us off to a tribal village to see their local dances. The village we went to belonged to the Deer Horn Muria tribe.

The Deer Horn Muria tribe, as the name suggests are animists. The name Deer Horn stems from the fact that their traditional head dress is made up of deer horn. This tribe like all other tribes is excessively fond of their liquor and dancing and holds many festivities specially during the harvest season.

As we left the main road and turned into a narrow lane, we could dimly see the squat flat roofed mud houses of the village in the distance. The harvesting had been done and the land was yet to be tilled for the next crop of vegetables and lentils. Brown was the predominant color here.

After a few miles of bumping over fields, we reached the village. A simple village, the lanes swept clean of dust, mud houses, doors painted a deep blue or red, a few walls with intricate designs painted on the walls as if to counter the dullness in the landscape around us. 

A communal hand pump, and a lone motorcycle leaning against a wall - the only signs of modernization. Beyond the mud wall, little piglets squealed as they tried to climb over each other.We walk around, watching people go about their daily routine, feeling slightly self-conscious about intruding into their lives. 

Since the village was so close to the city most men were dressed in trousers and shirts and not dhotis and some women even wore salwar kameezes instead of sarees. What fascinated me was the jewelry that the women wore. Thick bracelets, necklaces and anklets made of pure silver with intricate designs on them. I would not have expected the villagers to wear such heavy jewelry as they went about their daily chores. According to our guide, the thickness and weight of the jewelry indicates the financial status of the family. Even now, the tribals rarely use banks and the silver is not only used as ornaments but also provides the family with a financial cushion. The jewelry is sold or bartered in times of need. The women therefore, act as keepers of the family’s fortune. 

We were taken to the house where the dancers were getting ready for the performance. A group of young men and women crowded into two different corners of a courtyard, getting dressed and preening into mirrors. The elders were sitting on a raised platform, looking at them critically, perhaps remembering the time when they were also young and ready to dance at the beat of a drum.

The girls wore sarees of plain white but made up for the simplicity by adorning their hair with colorful ornaments made out of cloth and wore necklaces made of silver coins. With traditional makeup on their face and around their eyes, they looked very pretty. 

 The boys were not to be left far behind. They were dressed in simple yellow dhotis with head ornaments similar to the girls’ but with colorful feathers added to them. True to the name of their tribe, a few sported head dresses made out of deer horn and carried staffs with deer made out of wood attached on top.

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Finally after a long wait, the dancers trooped out in a single file and assembled under a tree. It was a hot day and the sun was at its zenith, yet small crowd had gathered to see the performance. Everyone waited expectantly as the dancers formed a semi-circle around the drummers. The drummers started off at a leisurely tempo, the dancers moved slowly, almost languidly to the beat, singing in low voices. 

Then suddenly the tempo became faster and then faster yet, the drummer’s body swaying as their hands flew over the drum, the air seeming to vibrate with the beat. Taking the cue, the dancers now spun, whirled and leaped into the air till they were just blurs of color. Each one lost to the sound of music, each one innately graceful. The wooden deer that the men carried on sticks bobbed up and down making clanking sounds. I am not sure what the dance was about, but it seemed very much like they were depicting a forest hunt.

We stood there mesmerized, watching the dancers give us an insight into their lives through their dance. We were transported deep into the forest, listening to the cries of the hunting men and of the animals. Then as the beat changed, the song became softer, the steps became less frenzied and more joyous and we felt we were celebrating the harvest season with them.
It all made for a very flamboyant and fitting start to our tribal adventure.

(My trip to Chattisgarh was a recce trip with One Life toTravel. Connect with them on FB to learn about their trips to Chattisgarh and other offbeat destinations)

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