In the gondhal, an attempt to commune with the divine: Unravelling the origins of Maharashtra's folk art form

  • Having its origins in the word gondharne, which means to make noise, the purpose of the gondhal is to allow the divine to descend on the earth and wash over the human soul, purging it of all corruption and vice.

  • The dance form was said to be created when warrior-sage Parashuram killed the demon Betasur. He made a musical instrument out of the sinews of the demon and played it as he danced.

  • Gondhal is one of the few rituals free of the shackles of caste and a gondhali asserts this by virtue of treating everyone on par.

Editor's note: This article concludes a five-part series documenting the folk dances of Maharashtra. Read more from the series here.

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The story goes that the dance form known as the ‘gondhal’ was created when the warrior-sage Parashuram, having killed and beheaded the demon Betasur, sewed the sinews of its head into its crown and fashioned a musical instrument out of it. Playing this macabre instrument, Parashuram danced to thunderous, alarming rhythms, in praise of his mother, the Goddess Renuka. Parashuram’s dance was called the gondhal. Even today, the gondhal is performed as a ritualistic folk dance to appease the goddesses Renuka, Bhavani or Amba.

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Humans took to dance and music from as early as the first stages of evolution to express themselves; to celebrate a successful hunt or a good harvest or even relationships between men and women, says Prakash Khandge, the founder and head of the Lok Kala Academy of the University of Mumbai.

So also, he continues, “All folk art came to be when human civilisations started appeasing supernatural powers. Subsequently, with the advent of the agrarian culture, we started the tradition of ritualistic dances for deities that would guard our homes and would take care of the fields.”

Ahead of a wedding or a thread ceremony, male and female members of the Gondhali tribe, better-known as waghya-murali, are called upon to set up a “jagran-gondhal” and ward off the evil eye on a night filled with dance, music, and lore.

Drought-prone villages or towns engulfed in woes and conflicts also summon the travelling troops to call upon the goddesses, to infuse hope and provide a respite from their predicaments.

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 In the gondhal, an attempt to commune with the divine: Unravelling the origins of Maharashtras folk art form

A gondhali cries out to the goddess during a performance to awaken the warrior within her, who would protect the village from all evil. Illustration by Rini Joseph/ Firstpost

In a typical performance, the booming voice of the Gondhali leader cries out to the goddess to awaken the warrior within her, calling on her to destroy the evil that has engulfed society. In powerful intonations, he invites the goddesses to the gondhal, seemingly casting a protective shield around the community and gradually putting everyone in a trance.

Gondhal mandala ga Ambe, gondhala la ye,

Gondhal mandala Bhavani, gondhala la ye

In one such popular gondhal, the leader sings in a loud voice to awaken the goddess’ vitriolic avatar, ‘Aai Bhavani tuzhya krupene tarasi bhaktala (Oh Ma Bhavani, save your devotee)’, and calls upon her to ameliorate the crisis that has befallen the villagers.

In another song, the gondhali cries out, ‘Ambe che gondhali, amhi ambeche gondhali (We are the gondhalis of the goddess Amba).’

Udhe ga ambe udhe, Udhe ga ambe udhe

(Hail goddess Amba!)

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Performed to a great extent in the Marathwada region, the Gondhali tribes also hail from around these parts. The Kadambrai worship goddess Bhavani, whose seat is at Tuljapur in Osmanabad district, while the Renurai sect sings songs of the goddess Renuka of Mahur in Nanded.

The waghya-murali dance together in a circular formation surrounded on all sides by the village-folk, holding the ghati, a cymbal-like instrument in one hand.

The sambal, a pair of wooden drums played with two sticks, is thrown around the shoulders of a few others. It rests on the musician’s thigh and produces the high-pitched ‘trun-trun-trun’ sound that had once seemingly emanated from Parashuram’s instrument.

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As long ago as the reign of Shivaji Maharaj, centuries before the Peshwai, the Gondhalis were a widely respected group who were invited for the ritual by the rulers themselves.

They were said to be knowledgeable about politics and economics and would often sing about social concerns, spread social messages through their songs such as respect for one’s elders and dedication to the well-being of one’s family.

In spite of being performed in front of a large audience, the gondhal has always been a community dance, or a ritualistic performance accompanied by a small puja for the goddess, as opposed to folk art forms meant primarily for entertainment (such as the lavani).

Smearing their foreheads with halad (turmeric), the waghya-murali dance in a bent-back posture (or kamal kalika) to the gondhali’s verses and elucidate the victories of the goddesses over demons.

The hand gestures of the murali strongly resemble the gajagras, or an elephant picking sugarcane in his trunk, while their performance has a lot of rapid jumps, leaps, circular movements and occasionally a dramatic gesticulation of the story.

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As a tribe, the Gondhali community has stringent rules of conduct. Performers are eligible to participate in a gondhal only after amassing knowledge about social structures, scriptures, traditional teachings, and forming their own observations. Gondhal is one of the few rituals free of the shackles of caste and a gondhali asserts this by virtue of treating everyone on par.

The dynamic, energetic movements of the dancers, who are heavily ornamented, dressed in bright coloured clothes and tossing flaming torches back and forth in their hands, produces a certain momentum, a flow of energy moving towards the supernatural, thrusting the gathering into a feeling of oneness. Sometimes, the dance is so invigorating that the men in the crowd also begin whirling round and round in a dream-like state, as though in communion with the divine. Letting their hair down, women participate in the ritual as well, by rotating their necks round repeatedly, and inviting the deity into their being.

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Until the early last century, children between the ages of 4-5 were given away to the Gondhali community in fulfilment of a navas — a promise made to Lord Khandoba in return for his blessing. These children were taught to play sambal, tal (cymbals), chaundke drums, conch and the stringed tuntune, all of which lend the gondhal its ear-splitting music.

After an initiation ceremony in which the novice is adorned with a genemal (a string of cowrie shells, presented to him or her by five married males of the same caste), the child is considered eligible to participate in a gondhal.

Like most performances presented before an audience, the gondhal too begins with a prayer to Lord Ganesh. The chief gondhali, boasting a string of 64 cowrie shells and 64 gondas, has anywhere between 3-6 comrades behind him to chant the chorus. After the initial invocation, the gondhali bellows a spirited verse calling upon all the 33 crore gods and goddess in Hindu scriptures for the recital.

Jagran is a popular form of worship especially during the navratri, the festival of the goddess. Having its origins in the word gondharne, which means to make noise, the purpose of the gondhal is to allow the divine to descend on the earth and wash over the human soul, purging it of all corruption and vice.

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Updated Date: Dec 05, 2019 09:02:43 IST