This sonic cinema, by visual anthropologist Rajat Nayyar, is on the folk songs sung by women during the initiation ritual (Janeu or Upanayana) in the Bhadwar village of Bihar and it documents the landscape of the event. While rituals in India are majorly seen as men’s job, not many know that women hold an equally important role in the purification rituals – of expressing the emotions that develop during the ritual through songs.
The journey that began with our visit to Bhadwar village in Bihar was our first experience to be on the field, living with a community for some days. Being there, for five days, helped us in relating to knowledge that existed already, concerning audio-visual ethnography on one hand and folklore on the other. We now realize that this fieldwork still continues, even as I write about it. In this fieldwork, we were invited to document the folk songs sung by women at a local house (owned by a Brahmin family) in the village, where a son awaits his Janeu and a daughter prepares for her wedding. The two major rites of passage (from the sixteen Samskaras in a Vedic life) are being performed around the same date to save the cost of making the Mandap (temporary structure under which the ritual is performed) twice. The son, Rahul Tiwari, by now had already grown up to be an undergraduate student of fine arts. His Janeu has already been delayed too long.
The courtyard was the stage for the rituals and Mandap was its nucleus. Under the Mandap, the local priest had taken his seat and prepared the thread (Janeu) as Rahul observed him carefully. The barber is replacing the blade in the razor. Women sat together on one side of the courtyard and sang songs all day long. Occasionally, a few would get up to do some work and join later. The atmosphere was being set by them. We could not understand what the songs meant, but experienced it with a sense of wonder. The repetitive sound structure of the folk songs began to enter not only our ears but our bodies as a whole. As the ritual began, the music kept changing its frequency ensuring a smooth rite of passage, which neither allows the text in the mantras to be taken too seriously nor permits itself to be seen as higher. These are creative expressions of the emotions being felt around that time by each member of the community, even the ancestors. Without them, the ritual would be dry and textual.
From the viewfinder of my camera, I noticed my field assistant speaking with a charming old lady. I was speechless and watching not only how the ritual unfolded (a young college going boy being clean shaven and made to beg) but also my own body, as it experienced a sensory overload and at the same time aware of being present within the perimeter of the stage set for the ritual, filming. The idea was to give the same experience to our viewers. In trying to do that, we decide not to burden ourselves with the urge to explain the context (in an academic sense) and on the other hand, we remain true to the ‘rasa’ and let it continue to lead us. The initiation rites lasted for about four hours and the women hardly stopped singing during that time. Therefore, the film tries to offer a similar experience with only a few pauses in between the folk songs that concurrently describe, at times in an inverted sense, the situation during the ritual. Rahul, by the end of the ritual, had transformed into a new being, he wore wooden slippers, wore a yellow cloth wrapped around his body, carried a slate in his arm and a plate in the other hand, walked to each member of the community and asked for money. As everyone gives money, we are told “the boy will now study with an intention to serve the society and not only his individual family”. It is much more than that. The boy is being referred to as a donkey in one of the folk songs during the ritual, at the time when his head was being shaved. This donkey, in the folk song, is being given to the Phoofa (father’s sister’s husband) in dowry. Bua (father’s sister) plays a key role in the ritual by collecting the shaved hair in her pearl sari, made in Banaras. Hair, as a symbol of ego, is being given off to Bua and her new family. The ritual makes the boy, for this reason, a twice-born. In the past, as we are told, the boy would go to learn the wisdom of devotion from the Vedas in the holy city of Kashi.
The film is available on our website to watch for free.
In October 2016, I decided to take the film back to Bhadwar village and to organise a public screening of the film for all the members of the community (irrespective of caste or gender) and to facilitate a discussion. When we screened the film, the topic of discussion amongst all members of the community was ‘If you are born a Brahmin, then why need Janeu at all?’. Folklore is constantly evolving and it is never fixed. In this attempt to instil critical thinking in the community about their traditions, we are not only redefining the ways of safeguarding the Intangible Heritage but also making sure it remains sustainable. Through this experience, we realised that our objective, if at all is about preservation, then it must be through innovation. While facilitating this discussion, I also visually documented this process and received various suggestions and critiques on the film from the community.
In collaboration with Rahul Tiwari, we also created an illustrative coffee table booklet on women’s folk songs that are sung during different stages of the Janeu ritual. The booklet was distributed amongst community members and financial supporters of the crowdfunding campaign for this audiovisual project.
I am grateful to our beloved city Kashi and to all the funders who made it possible to give form to this idea. In future, we hope to continue working in this direction and find new ways of presenting the relationship we share with the folklore of our country. In this endeavour, we will need your blessings and support.
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