Nine Nomadic Tribes Of Maharashtra: Their Unique Art Forms To Express Themselves

In modern urban culture, there has been a noticeable interest in natural remedies, yoga, and nature treks. As people seek holistic approaches to well-being, their curiosity about the arts and traditional cultural performances of various tribal communities has also grown.

July 26, 2023: In Maharashtra, a land known for its rich tribal diversity, we shed light on nine unique traditional arts that these tribal communities proudly preserve. These artistic expressions are a testament to their cultural legacy and the artistry passed down through generations.

A quest for vibrancy: Limited documentation hinders understanding

Understanding the vibrancy of these tribal cultures becomes a fascinating quest. However, one significant challenge is the limited documentation about most tribes. The lack of historical records forces researchers and enthusiasts to rely on textbooks and anthropological studies to recollect and comprehend the depth of their heritage.

Nomadic diversity: Traversing the country with unique traditions

These tribal communities, with their diverse sub-sects, follow a nomadic lifestyle, traveling across the country. Their constant movement contributes to the richness and uniqueness of their customs and traditions, making them all the more intriguing to explore.
Unveiling Maharashtra’s Tribal Heritage: Preserving Nine Unique Traditional Arts

Challenges in the modern era: Socio-economic issues and the threat to traditional professions

While the interest in tribal cultures grows, these communities face various socio-economic challenges. The caste system remains a tricky political ground, impacting their social status and opportunities. Additionally, with the advent of technology and the resultant information explosion, traditional professions of several ethnic groups and tribes are facing unprecedented threats. As resources multiply, attention spans contract, and many of these tribes struggle to sustain their livelihoods in the face of modernity.

The Gondhali community and Marathi folk theatre

The Marathi folk theatre form of Gondhal, meaning ‘commotion’, involves the dramatic narration of mythological tales and folk legends and is generally performed after essential ceremonies such as weddings and births. Gondhalis are performed exclusively by men – the Kadamrai worship Bhavani of Tuljapur, and the Renurai worships Renuka of Mahur in Nanded.

In an initiation ritual, five married males from the community give young boys a string of cowrie shells called ‘genial’, which they wear during Gondhal. As the chief Gondhali leads devotional singing or dramatic narration in front of the host’s house, he is dressed in traditional knee-length attire, cowrie shells, gondas (tassels) and kanganidar pagri (turban). Three to six men accompany him with cymbals, sambal and chaundke drums, conchs, and stringed ten tunes. While the Gondhal performance follows a specific structure, what’s interesting is how they attempt to incorporate several social messages and anecdotes through their jokes. The Gondhal dance offers many nuggets of wisdom, whether you want to preserve the peace between your wife and mother-in-law, dedicate your time and money to your family, or treat everyone equally. In addition to being performed in front of fewer people, it is more intimate than one performed in front of many people.

Potraj-worshipping tribes and Kadak Laxmi (self-flagellation) practice

The Potraj tribe hails from Maharashtra and worships the goddess Kadak Lakshmi. Traditionally, their profession requires them to travel and ask for alms in an exhausting manner. Men flagellate themselves with heavy, knotted whips made of jute, leather, or woven coir while the women mount their deity on a platform on their heads, play the dhol, and dance and twirl to the beats. If you’ve ever seen one of these performances on the street, you will likely remember the resonant sound the whips make when they land on their backs. This ritual is often initiated at a young age to build pain tolerance, with the whip weight increasing as the child ages. Potrajs travel from city to city, living hand-to-mouth due to their negligible earnings and harsh living conditions.

The Dombari community and their street performances

The Dombaris are primarily found in Maharashtra around Pune, Kolhapur, Satara, and Sangli, where men and women perform the popular theatre form tamasha. In addition to being dancers, singers and performers, the Dombari community earns a living by performing street shows such as girls walking on tightropes between bamboo poles or gymnasts displaying their talent on city streets. Their exposure to the elements and the gruelling conditions they live in contributes to an inferior quality of life, and the Marathi social drama film ‘Dombari’ sheds light on many of the problems they face, including limited access to shelter, medicine and education.

There are Doms spread across most of India. As described by medieval history, these community members have traditionally been known for their affinity for music. Some ragas are named after them, such as Dombakriti, Dombakriya, Dombakr and Domb. Recently, acrobatic feats, juggling and street performances have taken precedence, and the entire family takes part in a show called Dombaryacha khel (Dombar aata in the south of India). Older male members exhibited gruelling self-flagellation, while younger members balanced an hour-glass shaped object between two sticks on a string. With uncanny prowess, this object is thrown nearly 50 feet up before being caught in the row on its way down. As a part of these performances, dogs and pets are often adopted and trained.

Street performances with monkeys by the Makadwalas

From the Nilgiri hills in Tamil Nadu, the Makadwala community eventually migrated to Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, arriving in Mumbai only after 1950. To earn a living, the Makadwalas have dabbled in many occupations, including street shows with monkeys. Additionally, they have started making brooms and baskets in recent years.

Warli art by the Warli community

Warli art has also made its presence felt in the urban sphere, with rudimentary paintings dating back as far as 2500 or 3000 B.C., one of Maharashtra’s most popular and easily recognisable traditional art forms. This art form is also practised by the Malkhar Koli, Kathodi, Kokana, and Dhodi tribes in Mumbai’s north. With only a circle, triangle and square, the monosyllabic ritual wall paintings often depicted hunting, fish, dances, trees and animals rather than showing mythical stories. Circles and triangles were derived from tribal observation of nature around them – the sun and moon, trees, and mountains – while squares are relatively ‘man-made’, representing pastures.

The Warli Art Form
Generally, these paintings are built around squares called ‘chauks’, which can either be lagnachauks or devchauks, the latter featuring ‘palaghata’, a fertility goddess. It was common for Warli paintings to be done on the ochre walls of huts constructed from branches, earth, and cow dung. The walls were painted with white pigment that contained rice paste and water, along with gum to bind it together, using bamboo sticks chewed at the end. These primitive paintings depict animals and humans with two triangles joined at the tip, symbolising the precarious balance of the universe. This simple figure has now become popular in animations and fabric prints. They were the mainstay of the women in the community until the 1970s.

The Gond community’s rich storytelling & Digna art

Undoubtedly, the Gondi has an unmatched flair for aesthetics and are one of the most populous tribes on the Deccan peninsula, perhaps in the world. By lineage, Pardhan storytellers narrate stories about Gond myths and legends rooted in a rich oral tradition, with narratives like the Gondwani and Ramayana binding communities together. Various myths about the origins of the Gond kings, of different trees, including the mahua, and of flowers and fruits are central to the Gond mythology of creation. The walls of Gond houses are often beautifully decorated with dignified, traditional geometric patterns, and bhittichitra, an amalgam of animals, flowers, and leaves, painted with handmade brushes of neem or a babul twig.

Gudna, or tattoos, are also ways they express their creativity, with images of the sun, moon, and other elements of nature etched on their bodies. These tattoos are said to follow them into the next world after death. A Gond woman’s sense of dress is also distinct; they usually don’t wear blouses, drape their saris differently, and wear various hamachi or necklaces. Additionally, they wear a series of hairpins, a bhimindia dhar, and multiple types of jewellery. Aside from floor painting, pottery, and basket-making, they enjoy music, dance, and create musical instruments using their available materials.

The versatile performances of the Bahurupi community

In the eponymous community, Bahurupi, which means ‘various appearances,’ the artists play out their characters on the roadside or at crossroads unaffectedly as they change their visas, mannerisms and modes of speech to assume different personalities. Their performances had a lot of exaggerated dialogue, melodrama, and social commentary.

Bahurupi artiste Shuvas Das Bairagi performing a skit

As legend has it, Bahurupis were kings’ spies in the past, and they were known in Karnataka as Bahurupgyaru, Khandesh as Rayaran, and Marathwada as Rayadar. The community also performed plays, dances, dramatic narrations, and traditional folk entertainment with various renditions of gods and animals in ancient times. Throughout the 20th century, however, education, information technology, and urbanisation significantly waned, resulting in a significant decline in such rudimentary forms of entertainment.

Snake-charmers – The Garodi community

Garodis or Garodiya are generally found in Northern Karnataka and Maharashtra (Belgaum, Kolhapur, Sangli, Pune, and Miraj). A wandering tribe of snake charmers and jugglers, considered a Muslim sect, converted from Scheduled Castes. Similar professions are practised by the Irula tribes in Tamil Nadu and Kerala; they extract and collect venom from poisonous snakes.

The Paithani paintings & rich storytelling Of the Chitrakatha community

A pot is a bundle of 20 or more paintings or citrus depicting one story from legends, mythical folklore, and the Puranas. There are many similarities between paithani images or Chitra Katha and puppets, especially in terms of their expressions, and the stories vary depending on the region. Oral narratives such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas are often performed in temples in the Konkan region on special occasions.

In Maharashtra’s Konkan region, Chitrakathi is typically performed on festive occasions. In a certain-style of performance, Chitrakathi’s oral narratives are accompanied by handmade paintings depicting characters and events from texts like Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas. Two or three others attend the lead performer for keertan performances by folk instruments such as the dholki and veena; two or three others assist the lead performer. Two to three co-artists assist the Naayak, or lead performer.”

These nine nomadic tribes from Maharashtra have managed to preserve their distinct cultural identities through their unique art forms. These art forms serve as a means of expression and bridge between generations, keeping their traditions alive. The nomadic tribes of Maharashtra remind us of the richness and diversity of India’s cultural tapestry, where each community contributes its unique art forms, stories, and ways of life.

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