Theatre of the Invisible
An excerpt from The Museum of Broken Tea Cups

The performing arts in India have traditionally been the domain of dalit communities. To this day, these men and women continue to nurture and foster their chosen art forms in the face of discrimination and prejudice.

Gunjan Veda's The Museum of Broken Tea Cups: Postcards from India’s Margins, using the symbology of the used, broken tea cup that upper caste households leave outside their doors for the use of dalit workers, is an effort to recognise the immense cultural contribution made by dalit communities through the stories of individual artists who languish in the forgotten gallis and mohallas of our villages and towns.

The following is an excerpt from the chapter "Theatre of the Invisible" of the book.

Image courtesy SAGE

Almost all the musical instruments that we see today are a legacy of these communities. They may or may not have been invented by them but they have been preserved, nurtured and developed by the Madiga, the Mahar, the Mehtar, the Valmiki, the Bhangi, and the Turi Barot. This is particularly true of the drums, most of which use animal hide.

And finally dance, that godly art which, as Indian mythology tells us, can enchant the most pious of men. Classical forms like Bharatanatyam and Odissi are important accomplishments that we wish to include in the repertoire of our kids. Where did they originate? Bharatanatyam can be traced to the Sadir dance of the Thevadiyal of Tamil Nadu; Odissi to the sensuous Mahris of Orissa; Mohiniattam to the Tevidicchi of Kerala—all devadasis. Yet, even as their art form was sanitized and co-opted, they, the creators, were ostracized and reviled. They were not given the reverence due to a Guru (teacher). And that is the tragedy of our times. The teacher was simply used and abused, never acknowledged. The same is true of folk dance forms like the Lavani. When the Kolhati women, the original progenitors of this dance form perform, they are looked upon as ‘loose’. But when women from other communities learn this dance, they acquire acclaim on stage and in theatre.

The list of the cultural accomplishments of communities that are traditionally seen as ‘uncouth’ is endless. There are Godna artists that will put to shame any modern tattoo maker, not to mention the Chitrakathi and Kalamkari painters. All these great accoutrements for cultural connoisseurs have Dalit roots, roots which are seldom acknowledged.

This Museum is an attempt to trace these roots, document them. The human capital that you see in the other galleries is something we encountered along the way. And it was so invaluable, so inspiring, that we could not leave it untended, unseen, unappreciated.

But this gallery is about the legacy of ostracized communities. This is about seeking, learning, respecting. It is about seeing the people who have remained invisible even as their creations have won accolades. The task is humongous. It cannot be completed by one person or one group. We invite you to join in our quest to better understand our cultural heritage and to recognize the faces that have dedicated their lives to create and preserve it.

Meanwhile, immerse yourself in the Theatre of the Invisible!


Dear Reader,

‘With peacock feathers artfully arranged around our arms, ghungroos called chaap tied around our waist and feet, long hair made up in style, earrings, piercings, face-powder and cosmetics, we were a sight to behold. Girls queued up to see us.’ As he sits on a brown plastic chair inside a tiny room, eyes dancing with mirth and fond memories, Bishwanath Baghel looks decades younger than his 97 years. Few lines have the temerity to mar his shimmering coppery skin. His wavy black hair with their salt and pepper roots are slicked back neatly in a Johnny Deppesque bob. Moisture glistens on his late afternoon stubble, as the temperature rockets to an unforgiving 40 degrees Celsius. There is no electricity or fan inside the room. But the nonagenarian sitting before me in a short grey t-shirt and a printed brown loincloth folded above his knees, is oblivious to the heat inside the small brick house. I am in Mapada, a village of 120 Dalit households in the Balangir district of Orissa.

‘Our whole body was our costume! Oh, the colours we wore! I took over an hour to get ready. You should have seen me. I would perform cartwheels and acrobatics. My father was a bajania (a community of acrobats and performers from Gujarat). I could lift a needle or a blade with my eyelids,’ he reminisces. Baghel was part of a music troupe called Singh Bajaa.

In the Bora Sambhar region of Western Orissa, bordering Chhattisgarh, these music troupes were once an integral part of social life. Called the Ganda Bajaa, they were instrumental musical orchestras, composed solely of men belonging to the Ganda or Pano communities. The word Ganda literally translates into foul-smelling and is a reference to the activity of tanning leather for the drums and musical instruments. The Ganda people were considered ‘polluted’ as they played instruments made of cow-hide and touched their own saliva while playing aerophones like mohuri. Ironically, as we have seen before, while the people who made the music and the instruments were considered impure, their music was not. It marked all important events in the life of the community, be they weddings, funerals or religious rituals. The rhythmic beats of the Ganda orchestra were used to invoke the goddess and call her to earth, yet the Ganda were not allowed into her sanctum.

Social anthropologist Lidia Julianna Guzy is Director of the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre(MEWSC) at the National University of Ireland. She spent 30 months in the rural regions of Western Orissa with Surendra Kumar Sahu, a local folk musician and music director, to create what is perhaps the only anthropological documentation of the Ganda Bajaa, their music and its ritual significance. In her book, Marginalised Music: Music, Religion and Politics from Western Orissa, she notes, ‘Music in the Bora Sambhar region has both: a polluting, marginalizing as well as a purifying, sacred character…. The instruments mediate and manifest the other world of the goddesses, while the subaltern social status of the musician, as we have seen, paradoxically qualifies them for communication with the divine world. But although it is the musician alone, who has the capacity to control the goddess, he remains socially marginalized even while interacting with her.’1

1. Lidia Julianna Guzy. (2013). Marginalised Music: Music, Religion and Politics from Western Orisha/India. Wien: LIT Verlag, pp. 18 and 74.

These are excerpts from The Museum of Broken Tea Cups: Postcards from India’s Margins written by Gunjan Veda and published by SAGE. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Gunjan Veda is a story teller, a public policy and international development strategist and a gender policy specialist.