Dandari-Ghusadi festival gives Telangana's Adivasis a chance to foster marital alliances, promote awareness
The Dandari-Ghusadi festival of Telangana is a fine example of how forest-dwellers evolved rituals to keep themselves connected
During the 10 days preceding Diwali, every Adivasi village across the four northern most districts of Telangana gets transformed into a festive arena where the Raj Gond and Kolam aboriginal tribes celebrate the exuberant Dandari-Ghusadi dance festival. The ethnic dance is an exhilarating visual display of tribal culture through which these ethnic tribes also look to foster marital alliances; it also provides a platform to promote awareness on key contemporary issues faced by the Adivasis.
For many centuries, the Raj Gonds and Kolams have inhabited the tribal heartland of north Telangana, in the districts of Adilabad, Kumram Bheem Asifabad, Mancherial and Nirmal. Predominantly an agrarian community, the religious festivals of these tribes revolve around the agricultural season and the Dandari-Ghusadi is the most important post-harvest event.
The aboriginals themselves have little knowledge about the origins of the dance festival. Michael Yorke, the former BBC journalist who made a documentary film called Raj Gonds — Reflections in a Peacock Crown in 1981-82, observes that the festival, in accordance with Raj Gond mythology, is an annual celebration and re-enactment of the marriage procession of Yetma, the daughter of God of Creation with a Raj Gond suitor.
When a Raj Gond falls in love and marries Yetma, a procession accompanies her to her marital home. Dandari, which means a 'collective', is akin to a baraat or marriage procession. The Ghusadi-thado or Ghusarks, sporting huge hats made of hundreds of peacock feathers are the personification of the God of Creation. They accompany the marriage procession to provide protection from wild animals as the procession traverses through dense forests. Adolescent boys who are dressed as women, called para-porik are believed to represent Yetma.
Every village inhabited by Raj Gonds or Kolams has a Dandari-Ghusadi troupe which travels to other villages where they have given their sisters and daughters in marriage and vice versa. It is this journey that symbolises retracing the arduous one from the Adivasi mythology.
At the start of the festival, Raj Gonds perform Bhogi puja, an offering of special prayers to the Dandari-pen (or the Dandari god) comprising the majestic peacock head gear, the musical instruments, the small sticks used by Dandari dancers and the masks of Kodal pen (or the saviour god). At Mallapur village in Sirikonda mandal of Adilabad district, this ritualistic puja was performed at the house of the patel or village headman Durva Raju Shambhu Patel. The men from the village assembled and offered their prayers reverently, and the ritual was completed by women seeking blessings from the Dandari pen.
A resident of Mallapur, Athram Bheem Rao, who is also the chairman of the local Village Development Committee, says with great pride, “It is our tradition to celebrate Dandari-Ghusadi and we follow it every year without fail. Our Ghusadi-thado (thado means 'old uncle') will don their typical make up, smear their bodies with holy ash and sport the peacock crowns. After performing the necessary rituals here, the troupe and some villagers will head to Thummaguda, located six km away.”
At Mallapur, Bhogi is followed in the same evening where the Ghusadi-tados are made up by para-poriks. The bodies of the five Ghusarks are smeared with ash and designs made, they wear false moustaches, beards, large strings of beads around their neck and bells around their waist as well as feet. In addition to peacock feathers, the extraordinary headgear also has a pair of ram horns, a mirror, and is decorated with colourful shiny flecks.
As Madavi Babu Rao, a Ghusark from Mallapur, gets into the elaborate costume, his mother explains, “This ritual is like a deeksha. He leaves home today and returns only after a minimum of five days. He will travel to the designated villages and during this period he must sit or sleep only on the deer-skin and will not even take a bath."
“The Ghusarks are an embodiment of God and because God is pure and omnipotent, what is the need for a bath?" says Pusam Anand Rao, an elder, as to why Ghusarks are not expected to sleep or wash themselves.
In the village of Pittabongaram, eight Ghusarks are seated in front of the Dandari-pen, all of them eating from the same plate. The Ghusarks here belong to the host village as well as the visiting troupe from Kannapur located about five km away.
After the meal, a bugle made out of the horn of Indian bison is played, and all Ghusarks assemble in the dance arena. When the drumbeats follow, the crowd takes cue and clears the ground, making way for the dancers. As the robust beats of traditional percussion instruments and tunes from pepre (a smaller shehnai like wind instrument) waft around, the Ghusarks enter the arena in a line, taking simple steps. They gently follow it up with circular formation, leading to an ‘S’ and eventually coming back to the circle effortlessly. The accompanying live music has a fairly even tempo and the entire audience is engrossed, eagerly awaiting the next sequence. With every step they take, the dancers' peacock crowns sway gently, enhancing the visual spectacle.
The dance moves of the Ghusarks are but an imitation of the movement of the wild animals and cattle, more specifically the deer, peacock, rabbit, nilgai and bison. Having dwelt in the forests and sharing the habitat with wild life as well as domestic animals, these have also become an integral part of their rituals.
After the Ghusarks complete their first round of dance, the Dandaris stand in a large circle with sticks in their hand. The lilting music is now dotted intermittently with the dancers tapping each other’s sticks. The Ghusarks make an inner circle while the Dandaris dance in the outer periphery. When a routine is soon to change, the leader hums “Cha-choi Cha-choi” and the rest of dancers respond by humming “chah-ve”, in acknowledgement.
The Dandari dance provides the bachelors of the visiting troupe an opportunity to draw the attention of the parents of unmarried girls from the host village and impress them with their dancing skills. The girls watching the performance, which runs for a night and a day, can also choose a boy of their liking and convey their interest to their parents. After the conclusion of the festival, the families of the eligible girls and boys follow up on the nuptials mutually.
To lighten the mood, as well as provide a breather for the dancers, a skit or two is staged as a comic interlude. These skits are usually themed around serious contemporary issues that the Adivasis face, but are presented in a humourous manner.
Between the dance performances at Pittabongaram, Mesram Raju and a group enacted a play about the impact of the Purification of Land Records, an ongoing programme undertaken by the Telangana government for making necessary correction in records pertaining to agricultural lands. Through a hilarious skit, the performers tried to drive home the point that the correction of the land records will reveal the Adivasis as the true owners of the lands which had been encroached upon by non-tribals.
"We hope to get justice through the land record purification. The exercise should reveal the extent to which the lands of our gullible ethnic people is under encroachment," asserted Raju.
During the entire course of the festival, for about 10 days, the Dandari-Ghusadi troupes in every village make it a point to visit as well as host troupes from other villages. The Dandari-Ghusadi festival is a fine example of how these forest-dwellers evolved rituals to keep themselves interconnected and underscores the importance they attached to maintaining kinship.
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