“What unites Indians is a love for songs”: Adivasi music – Rajasthan and Gujarat

Alu Kurumba art (Nilgiri) | Image © National List for Intangible Cultural Heritage >>

Our historical memory privileges singers – such as Kabir, Mira, Nanak, and Akka Mahadevi – over other cultural icons

It should not be an exaggeration if one claims that in terms of the average citizen’s ability to recall a large number of songs and to hum them in however terrible a voice, India probably tops the world chart.

When I was three or four years old, my father brought home a radio set. This was six decades ago. It was among the few radiograms that the village had by then, a proud possession for us and quite a public spectacle for the neighbours.[…]

Six decades later, I still recall with great clarity the sweet melodies I heard coming through the first radio programme I ever heard. Over these decades, I have been listening to the radio, almost entirely for the musical part of its broadcast. Of course, it was not the radio alone that brought songs to me. They came from older members of the family who used to hum while carrying out activities at home. They came to one during festivals and weddings and during ceremonies associated with welcoming new arrivals in the family. They came from wandering mendicants, bullock-cart drivers, farmers engrossed in sowing fields, women gathered to make pickles and spices, katha and kirtan performers and the sweetest among them came from mothers trying to put babies to sleep.

Later, much later, when I was in my thirties, I started working with adivasis in western India. Whenever our discussion revolved round their identity, they invariably alluded to the traditions of songs they had. By then, I had read plenty of Marx, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Lohia, and I liked to imagine that adivasis would want to speak in agony about the injustice that the ‘system’ had caused them. To my surprise, they were not as much articulate about things political as they were about things cultural. Through my years of work with them, I have met individuals who can go on singing the entire Mahabharata. The Bhils living on the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat have several epics of their own: the singers took immense pride in rendering the entire opus, without missing out a single syllable. I also came across members of the Bharthari community from central Indian forest states who could render, just for the asking, an entire saga of a legendary king. A friend of mine from the Banjara community once told me that the Banjaras have a poetic genre called ‘lehngi’. When I suggested that he should pen them down if he remembered any of the compositions, he said that he could recall close to 6,000 ‘lehngis’. I was not stunned by his claim because previously I had heard from a friend from the Nayak community that he knew more than 9,000 songs. And this one had a great voice. I still recall how mesmerized I was when he sang for a few hours, one song after another. […]

The tribes and castes in India are communities apart. Those who belong to castes belong to no tribes, and those who belong to tribes are outside the caste pyramid. What brings them together is probably their love for songs. […]

Source: “What unites Indians is a love for songs” by Ganesh [G.N.] Devy (The Telegraph, 1 November 2019)
URL: https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/the-musical-legacy-of-kabir-mira-nanak-tukaram-akka-mahadevi-what-unites-indians-is-a-love-for-songs/cid/1716091
Date Visited: 14 July 2022

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

“The great diversity of music in India is a direct manifestation of the diversity and fragmentation of the population in terms of race, religion, language, and other aspects of culture. […] The songs vary in detail, not only from one region to another, but also within a region among the different strata of society.” – NA Jairazbhoy in “Tribal, Folk and Devotional Music” >>

“Religion is a personal matter and should not be politicised.” – Invitation by the Bharat Jodo Abhiyan (BJA) – a civil society platform involving organisations from across 15 states – extended to all like-minded citizens “who take pride in our progressive, inclusive civilization and are committed to our constitutional values of fraternity, liberty, equality and justice” | TheWire (2 January 2024) >>

More about the publication
Tribal Arts in India >>

Related posts

Enjoy a virtual journey across India with the help of an interactive map >>

Regions of India – Tribal heritage & indigenous knowledge

Up-to-date information on India’s Zonal Cultural Centers | Government website

For a list of websites included in a single search, click here. To search Indian periodicals, magazines, web portals and other sources safely, click here. To find an Indian PhD thesis on a particular tribal community, region and related issues, click here >>