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11 Oct

Why East Indian culture must be preserved – Savitha Suri

This post was written by one of our participants, Savitha Suri on her visit of Dharavi Island with local expert Mogan Rodrigues. You can find the original post here.

Imagine for a moment, that you woke up one day and found that you have forgotten your native language, food and attire. And to your horror, you are at your home that is filled with strangers who feel more at home than you do.

What if you found that your family – and your community – is in the same predicament as you?

What is your social and cultural identity then? Who are you really? Where will you go – if you wish to – to reclaim your identity?

Will you give up and forge a new identity? Or pick up pieces that still survive and cling to them hoping that they will lead you to your roots?

I am guessing the answer to that would depend on how vulnerable, threatened, insecure, motivated or inspired you are by your past and present.

Now imagine an entire community seeking answers to these questions.

The pieces of the East Indian community’s history lie scattered across a vast region; from Bandra to Vasai crisscrossing through villages such as Manori, Gorai, Uttan and Culvem – which are part of Dharavi.

That’s right. Dharavi. But not the sprawling urban slum that springs to your mind. Dharavi Island.

It is home to a community that was created out of the native Hindu population when they converted to Christian Catholicism during the Portuguese rule.

A community who chose to be called thus as a way to differentiate themselves from the migrant population that was encroaching their land.

Proclaimed East Indian by royal charter, the community’s members lie scattered all over the world. Their early exposure to European powers and their steady anglicisation meant that their traditional ways of living slowly receded into the mists of time.

Dharavi island remains one of the last bastions of the East Indian community and their traditions.

You will find it in the lugda they drape, in the jewellery they wear, their distinct East Indian Marathi (which has a few Portuguese words as a throwback to the Europeans who forced a new religion on them), their script, their Indo Portuguese cuisine and even their names.

A community that got it’s members from all castes of the Hindus, the East Indians were by no means immune to the Indian Independence movement. It was after all, an East Indian – Kaka Baptista who coined ‘Swaraj is my birthright and I shall fight for it’ made popular by – and often incorrectly attributed to – Tilak. He also represented Tilak and Savarkar during their incarceration.

The tiny museum named after him attempts to put together pieces of a not so distant past. It’s shelves are filled with clay ovens, pans, serving dishes, ladles, musical instruments, jewellery and books that are poignant reminders of a community that is clinging to remnants of their traditional lifestyle.

They wage lonely battles to prevent their quaint villages from being over run by modern monstrosities like amusement parks, SEZ zones and waste management plants that serve as a grim reminder of how vulnerable they are.

Their relative isolation from the megapolis is a double edged sword. And if it has to swing in their favour, they need their stories shared, valued and appreciated.

Walk down the lanes of their villages or run your hand along the ruins of the first church that was built.

Read the names on the memorial plaques at another ancient church or look up at the quarry where the stones for the Bassein Fort came from.

Gaze into the vast sea whose shores have a memorial for Brother Herman who rid the village of witchcraft and made it habitable again or tuck into an authentic East Indian meal at one of their homes.

And when you leave their shores, you will find yourself sending a silent prayer to the heavens that they succeed in forging a stronger identity that is built on a judicious foundation of their rich history.

The Kaka Baptista East Indian Museum mentioned in the post is run by the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (www.mobaikar.com) and is open for visits on weekends. It is located at Theresa Villa on the Manori-Gorai Road, five minutes from the jetty at Manori.

It is a stop on the East Indian Heritage Tour run by Swadesee with local expert Mogan Rodrigues. 

26 Jul

A Visit of the Warli Tribe – Arshi Shaikh

The Warlis are a tribe known for their art, nomadic lifestyle and it’s customs. Their community is a believer of nature interdependency and is accustomed to rural methods of living. They are known for their style of community living and collective sharing of responsibility, be it building someone’s house or working together on a farm. One such Warli village that I recently happened to visit through Swadesee, is Khambale village, located in the outskirts of Mumbai, in the Dahanu taluka of Palghar district.

Surrounded by urban settlements and cities like Mumbai and Valsad, this village is threatened by urban encroachment, which is already visible as you notice the transition from it’s closest station, Vangaon to the village. Outside the station are concrete buildings and cement related commercial setups, and mud houses come to sight only once we reach the village.

The village has pakka main arterial village road and narrow mud roads that provide access to individual houses.

We were welcomed to a Warli artist, Sanjay Parhad’s house which is opposite a local Marathi medium school, Ashram. This school caters to a majority of the local kids till the 10th grade. People who can afford more fees send their children to English medium school in Vangaon, which is till the 12th grade.

A long chat with Mr. Sanjay over a cup of tea, enlightened us about the inspiring lives the Warli lead. They carry immense love for nature and believe in the correlation of the existence of nature and humans. Evidence of this is seen in their style of construction, celebrations and customs. Sanjay’s house is made of natural materials with techniques of wattle and daub walls and mud flooring. They had recently replaced thatch roof with corrugated sheets to avoid yearly maintenance. Walls are made from boru stems weaved through strong bamboo frames and daubed with moist mix of mud and cow dung. A layer of cow dung is plastered over the wall for protection.

The house is decorated with Warli paintings on the walls, on lamps, handicrafts and musical instruments made of natural materials like fruit or vegetable shells, bamboo, palm leaves, etc.

This age-old tradition of building their own house is threatened today, as we see natural buildings as less as 50% out of 100-120 houses in the village.

The introduction of the scheme by the government, the ‘Pradhan Mantri Yojna’, that started 15 years ago provide help with funds and construction to the villagers to convert their strong, traditional, natural kachha houses to harmful, non breathable, cement constructed pakka houses. In the name of development, the village incurs heavy loss on their traditions, culture and self sustenance. The government’s interference in trying to erase the concept of mud houses which allows the tribe to build their own houses with locally available natural materials, which are better in strength, permeability, thermal insulation and resistance to seismic disturbances than the “modern” cement buildings, takes a heavy toll on the villagers by increasing their dependency on external factors leading to the villagers becoming lesser self sustaining each day.

Rather, the meaning of self sustenance has acquired a new meaning altogether. Earlier, they were dependent on forests and farms for almost all their needs, a large number of which are being lost in land acquisitions. Although they have easy access to materials in markets in Vangaon, Chinchoni and Dahanu, which are in convenient proximity, they have to be obtained in exchange for money, which generates the need for higher income. However, many practices have not been given up like the practice of Ayurveda since olden times for minor illnesses. Government hospital in Vangaon, and few private hospitals in the neighbouring urban settlements are approached in the need of major medical attention.

It is ironic how major disruptions in an otherwise peaceful community of the Warli tribe are caused by the government and their development schemes. The Dhamni and Surya dams and canals, constructed with promises to provide water and electricity, displaced an entire village and parts of other villages. These villagers are yet to be compensated, even after 35 years of it’s construction. Similarly, big factories were brought up with the vision of providing opportunities of electricity and employment. Amidst these unstoppable constructions, land acquisitions and false hopes, the villagers lost their fertile farmlands, and with them, their primary occupation of agriculture. They were left with no other choice than to accept employment as labourers in such factories for income.

Amidst these struggles with outside influence and their own survival, their love for nature remains constant. Minimum waste is produced to prevent accumulation in the environment. Compost is made from food and vegetable waste, dry leaves and other organic waste. Dry leaves are burnt over farms to fertilize them and prevent weed from growing. Plastic is burnt. During festivals and celebrations, colors are prepared organically with plants, flowers, fruits and even, ash. However, this practice is slowly seen to be deteriorating with convenient availability of synthetic colors in the market.

Another aspect that the community is known for, is it’s art. Warli art is the identity of the tribe and the villagers are proud and happy to share their traditions, art and knowledge. The origin of Warli art traces back to 15,000 years ago, when paintings were used as a medium of communication. The tribe, since then, has been using paintings as a part of their culture, celebrations and community gatherings.

Warli art is a depiction of their daily routine and the nature in equilibrium. They also convey stories through their paintings by portraying tiny details of the story and it’s components. The paintings are made from basic geometric designs such as triangles, circles, semicircles, dots and lines to make human figures, animals, mountains, sun and other instances from nature. Even though Warli painting is an accumulation of basic shapes, it requires years of practice and skills to achieve excellence in this art. Sanjay, one such artist who can paint Warli art flawlessly and in exquisite detail, taught me how to paint a few figures which I was able to perfect after a lot of practice!

The beauty of Warli art lies in it’s humble nature. The paintings are done using natural materials only. They are done either on walls or cloth, smeared with red mud, cow dung or ash for base. White paint is made with rice flour mixed with natural gum from tree. Paintings are done, merely with hands or thin bamboo sticks.

A specific Warli painting is done every year after harvesting rice.

It is followed by making of toran at the entrance, offering harvest to the Lord, feeding the cattle and finally sitting together and enjoying the feast in hopes of being able to enjoy a rich harvest again, next year. Another such ritual is ‘chowk’ painting done before a wedding by the bride. No marriage in the history of the Warli tribe is done without this painting.

The tribe understands Warli art as legacy and attempts to pass the art on to their kids. They are trying to include Warli art as a subject in academics in the local school, too. Warli art gained recognition in 1976, when people and government noticed the artistic abilities of Jivya Soma Mashe, who received National award for Tribal Art that year and Padma Shri Award in 2011. It was after this recognition that people started pursuing Warli art professionally. Other instances like exhibition of Warli paintings of artists from Ganjad village, in Delhi exhibition by Vishwas Kulkarni, brought this beautiful art to people’s attention.

Today, various groups work in preservation of the Warli art and tribe for future generations to see. Artists like Sanjay Parhad and many more are able to include Warli art in their economic life by exhibiting their work directly and indirectly in and outside India. A group ‘AYUSH’, created and maintained by the tribe itself, enables direct interaction between the tribe and the people. Rural tourism groups create awareness amongst people making them sensitive about their tribe. Such initiations help in the socio-economic development of the tribe as well. However, awareness is just the first step in the preservation of this tribal lifestyle and people need to understand the importance of their culture and avoid external, threatening interference for them to live peaceful and stable lives.