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Dahyabhai Vadhu

‘The earth, in the beginning, was ripe enough to receive the seeds that Parvati the goddess sowed. The forests grew thick and birds and animals lived in harmony. There was a river and a beautiful garden where a man and a woman lounged in all their pristine innocence until they ate the fruit of sin. Mahadeva decided to put an end to the evil rampant in the world and willed deluge. Two each of the innocent would, however, survive on a huge gourd that would stay afloat…..’

This is a translated version of the katha of Kanasari, the goddess of foodgrain, who is believed to manifest herself as a sprout. The tradition of kathas or long narratives is a favourite among the seven-lakh Konkna or Kunkna adivasis, who are said to have migrated to the Dangs in south Gujarat many centuries ago from the narrow coastal belt of Konkan in Maharashtra. They settled as the local Bhil chieftains’ ryots and introduced systematic agriculture to the area. Over the centuries they also rose to be the morally superior populace due to their elaborate religious-ritualistic convictions.

The priests or Bhagats for all the communities in the area are generally Kunknas. And though there are a few Warli Bhagats, it is the Kunkna Bhagat who performs all the familial as well as social or community rituals for all the tribes. The narration of the katha is an important ritual performed by them.

Life for the Kunknas, who take great pride in being producers of grain, centres on the kathas; each birth, wedding or death calls for a katha by the Bhagat– the rituals and tales are broadly divided into three main categories, jaran (birth), paran (marriage) and maran (death).

The Dangi Kunkna is a complex language closely related to Marathi several generations old, with complex influences of Sanskrit, modern Gujarati and Hindi vocabulary as well as grammar.

The live bardic performances held in the middle of the forest transport the listener into a different world inhabited by the spirits of the adivasi ancestors. The narrator, always a Bhagat with an accompanist, is a picture of devotion, as if turning inward to conjure the narrative that sits deep inside his mind.

When the British arrived in the 1820s the Dangs was an independent kingdom ruled by five Bhil rajas and nine naiks. The British, after several unsuccessful attempts to subjugate the royals, tricked them to enter into a lease-agreement that allowed acquisition of certain parts of the Dangs forest to fell and transport timber.

The 1870s Forest Act and other sets of rules provided the framework for the colonial masters to maximize the revenues from timber while the Bhil royals were reduced to nominally independent political rulers. The demarcation of the forest into ‘Reserved' and ‘Protected' areas lead to increasing erosion of the rights of the Dangi people over the use of forestlands and forest-produce. Shifting cultivation, collection of fuel-wood, mahuwa and other forest produce was banned. The Dangis were deprived of their only source of livelihood.

The collective sentiments of the Dangi people are often expressed by the Bhagats in a sharp, witty and humorous manner. To an outsider this is intriguing. The Bhagats appear a curious lot. They reveal little about themselves and their monosyllabic responses to queries feel strange after the marathon katha recitals.

But then one should not expect adivasis who value silence to give in to the demands of a prying outsider. The Bhagats are a handful of people with deep knowledge of nature’s secrets, which are traditionally kept within their circles

My father was a Bhagat. But I did not follow into his footsteps. To become a Bhagat, one needs to do tapasya. It’s an elaborate ritual. You accompany the Bhagat after Naag Panchami to the forest and spend months in an isolated hut learning the kathas from him. At the end of the stay, on the second day of Diwali, the Bhagat tests the disciple and decides if he has made the grade. If he fails, the disciple returns back after the next Naag Panchami.

Nevertheless, I grew up listening to the Bhagat’s tales and songs like any other Kunkna child. We were happy with the least means of life. The earth was our bed and the sky our blanket. Those were days of starvation in the jungle. But we never realised our condition as poverty. I came to know about poverty very late in life, after I started working as a clerk for the State Bank of India in Ahwa , the district headquarters of the Dangs district.

I was one of the few adivasis from the older generation to have attended college. Education inspired and helped me record the tales and songs in the written form, and present our culture and literature to the world and preserve it for posterity.

I picked up my pen to do so in 1982. Since then, I have been documenting the kathas handed down the generations only by word of mouth. I was encouraged by Dr Ganesh Devy and the Kunkna tales were beautifully woven and creatively translated into English by Prof Avnish Bhatt of Mithibhai College, Mumbai.

Success came when the katha of Kanasari was published in ‘Gadyaparva’, a literary magazine in Gujarati language. The English translation of Salvan-Mansinha, a katha rendered at death, won the Sahitya Akademi’s Katha award in 1998.

The latest collection of kathas titled ‘The Ramayan and other oral narratives of Kunknas’ was published in April 2012 by the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore and Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Vadodara.

But for this effort, the kathas could have remained confined to this very sparsely populated area; the Dangs district comprises of 311 villages, and only two or three among them including Ahwa are large enough to be called towns, with populations exceeding a couple of thousand.

Dahyabhai Vadhu is an award winning writer who translates the tales and songs sung by the Kunkna Dangi Bhagats of south Gujarat from the indigenous language into Gujarati. Watch him on youtube

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