Tribal rhythms – the sound of music!

Rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul – Plato

It is truly alluring to observe how India’s tribal communities add a distinct feather to the very colourful cultural hat that our country adorns. As city inhabitants, while we often struggle to cut chords with our robotic lifestyles, tribal communities effortlessly continue to live in the present. Their awareness of time is related to nature and natural phenomenon. For them, life and art are complementary to each other, which is why I feel that their art is pure and aesthetically pleasing.

Amongst all of the art forms, music and dance are an integral part of India’s artistic heritage and the primary pulse that binds it together is rhythm – a spontaneous expression of joy. From the simple beat of the drum to the complex rhythm of a cultivated art, it is the love of rhythm that creates the sound of music. The folk dances and songs of the peasants, hill folk and our tribal communities are simple yet powerful tools that add a dash of happiness and recreation to their predominantly simple communal life.

Members of the Baiga tribe getting ready for their dance, a practice followed on most nights.

Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are home to several tribal castes, with Gond being the prominent amongst the Baiga, Korba, Abhuj Maria, Bison Horn Maria, Muria, Halbaa, Bhatra and Dhurvaa tribes. A deep connection with nature reflects in the folk songs and dances of forest-dwelling communities of the region. Most of their dances are community-oriented, in which every one, from young to old, takes part and the stories behind their origin are still narrated with truckloads of enthusiasm.  Take the Shaila dance of Madhya Pradesh as an example. The story is that a Gond youth was ambushed by dacoits on his way to his wife’s paternal house, but because of his extraordinary skill in wielding the sword and stick, his attackers could do nothing. In times that followed, that tale changed the traditional fighting style of the Gonds. Out of that, a dance practice emerged, which has rightfully found its place in the rich cultural heritage of India.

The tribal dances performed by the Baiga tribe are performed around a bonfire.

My tryst with the Kanha region goes back to little over two decades but even today the various sounds from the wilderness, with its eternal forms and rhythm never fails to take over my senses. Every year, a buffalo-horn trumpet called hakum, announces the joyful harvest festival and varying types of drums called mandri, kotoloka and kundir take over. It is thus of no surprise that at Singinawa we always curate musical experiences for our guests in conjunction with the natives of the region and the symbolic association of a dance form with the corresponding time of the year.

The rhythmic movements of the Baiga dancers captured with a slow shutter speed.

Visit us in February or March and be ready to immerse yourself in the beats of the Karma dance form that announces the arrival of the spring season (outset of March). Performed by the Gond, Baigas and Oraon tribes, this dance form involves men and women who dress up in bright and colourful clothes and perform this dance around trees. Various musical instruments also accompany the songs sung during the dance. The Baigas from the region are known to perform in elaborate costumes and headgear, with woven grass braids, peacock feather shafts in their hair, and heavy metallic anklets on their feet. Traditional instruments include a drum called mandar and a wooden instrument with knobs called the thiski. The songs the Baigas sing are mostly about the monsoon, the harvest, and nature. Musical nights at Singinawa are all about watching these magical performances around the bonfire, with guests joining in the celebrations. Let me tell you a little secret – often I join my guests with a hope to get the performing steps right – something I have yet not got the hang of, even after countless attempts around the bonfire!!!

Bhagoria dance on the other hand, is performed during the celebration of the Bhagoria Festival around the time of Dussehra. The festival witnesses several traditional folk dances and songs of the Baiga tribe of this region. One of the predominant folk dances is Dadariya. This dance is particularly special as it involves a unique tradition. Men of a marriageable age from the Baiga tribe visit their neighbourhood villages and are welcomed by young girls of that village with songs and Dadariya dance. The girls and boys interact, during which the girls have the chance to choose the man of their choice and marry him. I always encourage my guests to experience this festival as its atmosphere is lively and one is sure to be swept away by the nuances.

Traditional drums used by tribes to render music to their dance performances.

Now that we have got talking, let me take you all on a quick musical tour of the region…

Another form of popular dance form among the Baiga community is Pardhauni. Performed mainly to welcome and entertain the bridegroom’s party, the dance is primarily to convey happiness and the spirit of the auspicious occasion.

Tertali on the other hand is a one of a kind folk dance performed by the Kamar tribe of Madhya Pradesh. Two or three women dance together and start their performance by sitting on the ground. They have small cymbals made out of metal, called manjiras, tied all around their waists and two in each hand. The dance comprises striking the cymbals together according to the rhythm. There is another level to this dance that involves balancing a pot on the head and a sword between the teeth. Watching this dance is definitely a different experience that one must witness.

Gudum Baja is a musical instrument played by the elbows. Popular amongst the Gond tribe, the idea of playing Gudum Baja while performing traditional dance moves has become a distinct tribal dance form in itself. It involves performers carrying different types of folk instruments. The main performers carry percussion instruments, while a single musician plays the clarinet. Their movements are as varied as the musical instruments. When they roll (with their percussion instruments hanging around their neck), they perform double-somersaults with each other interspersed with crawls and aerial jumps. Apart from Gudum Baja, Gonds also sometimes uses other musical instruments for their performance such as Shehnai (clarinet), Manjira (clash cymbals) and Timki (small side drum), which makes this dance form more interesting and exquisite to watch.

Last but not the least, the Saila dance involves multiple movements performed with a stick that is used as a prop in the dance and the artists form a circle and hop around while supporting each other. Saila dance is popular among the Gond tribe and is much-loved for its unique presentation. It is performed to mark the completion of the harvest season and is considered as one of the most engrossing folk dances of Madhya Pradesh.

So next time you plan a visit to this region, grab up the opportunity to join a tribal jig and join the party! Like Elton John once said, “Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a little while.”

Tulika Kedia
MD, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

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