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CHAPTER 4

Land of Wealth, Land of Famine: The “Parrot Dance” in Ritual and Narrative

Suā Nāc

The undulating circle of suā nāc (literally, parrot dance) female dancers on village main streets, in the courtyards of wealthy landowners, and even in town commercial districts has traditionally been as inherent to the landscape of a Chhattisgarhi harvest as are images of women, carrying hand scythes, walking to the ripened paddy fields, bullock carts piled high with cut grain, and solitary men sweeping back and forth with large winnowing baskets over the thrashed paddy. The harvest is truly transformed into ritual wealth, the goddess Lakshmi herself, only through the blessings of these suā dancers. When I first began asking about the tradition in the Phuljhar village in which I lived, asking where I might find dancers, I was frequently answered with some variant of, “But they have to come to give their blessing,” or “Of course they’ll come.” This auspicious public context of the dance is what both Chhattisgarhi villagers and city dwellers refer to when talking about the genre. It is often called a “Chhattisgarhi” custom, a tradition whose performance involves a wide spectrum of rural Chhattisgarhi society: the landowning patrons, land-working dancers, and villagewide audiences. On several occasions, male villagers of both high and lower castes used the inclusive and plural “we” when responding to my questions about the tradition, with statements such as, “Yes, we dance the suā nāc,” although literally, they performed neither the dance nor the accompanying song tradition. These male respondents identified with the suā nāc, when speaking to someone from outside the folklore community, on a level on which they never did with other female performance genres.

The dancers themselves more often claim the tradition to be specifically ādivāsī (tribal), since most of the dancers come from ādivāsī castes. When they talk about the dance, they speak less of the auspicious blessings it confers than of the vows that they have fulfilled by joining a dance troupe or the money that the dance is raising for their own ādivāsī gaurā festival. As ādivāsī castes have moved into towns and cities to work as daily-wage laborers, bīṛī-rolling workers, brick makers, and so forth, the dance has become somewhat distanced from the direct association with the harvested paddy. Here, sua troupes dance in front of shops in commercial neighborhoods, expecting shopkeepers to make some small cash donation to be used toward gaurā celebrations.

However, the genre is more flexible than its public performance, classification, and oral commentary suggest. The song tradition accompanying the dance is also sung outside the dance context, yet it is still called suā nāc. Although this performance context was never directly mentioned by inhabitants of the region in discussions of the suā nāc or other folklore genres, its familiar melodic introduction, “tārī hārī nā nā mor nārī hār nā nā re suānā’ (semantically empty syllables used to introduce the melodic structure of the song), is frequently heard from women transplanting rice in the fields, walking to the local market, or gathered in a friend s courtyard on a free afternoon. In this context, the social category to whom performance of the song tradition is available, as well as its primary audience, is limited to women but extends to include non-ādivāsī, though still low-caste and nonliterate, women.

The emphasis and dominant imagery of the suā nāc shifts dramatically as it is performed in these two variant settings. As a dance tradition, the suā nāc establishes a communicative channel between high-status patrons and relatively low-status dancers. Emphasis is placed on the channel itself, the dance, and the nonverbal, iconographic message of the tradition, one reinforcing a public image of women as fertile, auspicious, and life-giving. In contrast, in the suā nāc as a song tradition sung by women to other women of their own social and economic status, between whom a communicative channel is assumed to be already present, the focus shifts to the verbal message of the text. This verbal message gives voice to the private suffering to which a woman is born, a startling contrast from the positive nonverbal images of the dance. However, just as these two facets are part of the larger, complex mosaic of being female in Chhattisgarh, so, too, their channels of communication in the suā nāc—the dance and the song tradition—are categorized together, both contributing to the definition and interpretive frames of the genre sua ndc. Images of the dance are never distant from the minds of the performers of the song tradition, and the dancers sing many of these same verbal texts while performing the suā nāc.1

The Dance

The general opinion of educated residents of the villages and towns in which I observed the suā nāc is that the tradition originated among Chhat-tisgarh’s ādivāsī tribes, particularly the Gonds, who lived in the hills bounding the region before immigrating to the plains. In the 1930s and 1940s, Verrier Elwin and Shamrao Hivale documented the tradition among the Gonds of the Maikal Hills west of Chhattisgarh (Elwin and Hivale 1944:29–58). They report that the suā nāc was danced during the harvest months of November and December but may not necessarily have been associated with the harvest itself. Gond women danced the suā nāc for audiences of their own villages, as well as in a semicompetitive spirit in neighboring villages. When members of these tribal populations immigrated to the central plains of Chhattisgarh and became integrated into the Hindu caste system, they brought with them their oral traditions. Many of these were adapted to new contexts of performance, and the suā nāc was one. It became specifically associated with the harvest and moved into a hierarchical setting in which tribal-caste women dance in the courtyards or on the lanes in front of the homes of higher-caste large landowners.

Today, suā nāc dancers in Chhattisgarh are still drawn exclusively from these ādivāsī castes, and the tradition remains particularly closely associated with the Gonds. The dancers say that the primary reason for the suā nāc is to raise money for the nine-day ādivāsī festival called gaurā, which celebrates the wedding of the god Shiva and his consort Parvati in the Hindu lunar month of kārtik (October-November). The money collected by the dancers is used to make elaborate clay images of various deities for the festival, alongside of which is also placed the suā nāc parrot around which the women have danced.2 The lead dancer of one suā nāc troupe I observed in Phuljhar was a Bhinjwar-caste woman who had made a year-long vow to serve the goddess after the birth of a son. Her vow culminated in the gaurā festival, during which the goddess possesses many of the participants. She and the other members of her suā troupe played a key role in the festival, carrying the images of the deities in procession to the site of the festival celebration and again to the river to be immersed at the end of the festivities; they were also among the first of the festival participants to become possessed. Several higher-caste women told me that this factor of gaurā goddess possession and the close association ofgaurā and suā nāc were why high-caste women did not dance the suā nāc.

A suā nāc troupe usually consists of eight to twelve women, ranging between the ages of fourteen and forty, from a single neighborhood and of a single jāti. The women begin and end their dance performances in their own village, moving out in between to neighboring villages in which they have some kind of kinship, caste, or economic relationships. In their own villages, they may dance and sing in open lanes with no particular patron, as well as in the homes of landowners. In neighboring villages, however, they usually limit their performance to the homes of large landowners, where they dance in front of the entrances to their houses or in the courtyards of the homes. In the primarily Oriya-speaking Phuljhar village in which I lived during the fall of 1980, the dance troupe that came through the village consisted of twelve Chhattisgarhi Bhinjwar-caste women from a village four or five miles away. The Oriya village headman of the performance village was also the largest landowner in the village of the dancers, and he spent equal time in both villages; the dancers were laborers on his land. This link between the two villages, between headman and dancers, was concretely expressed when they both began and ended their dance sequence at his house, the first time in the courtyard and the second time on the street passing in front of his verandah. Between these two segments, the dancers performed in five other courtyards of Oriya, Kolta-caste landowners.3

The suā nāc is a circle dance that centers around one or more simple clay images of a parrot made by the dancers themselves. The parrot sits in a basket into which householder patrons place their grain and cash contributions; a less common practice today, although said to have been more standard “in the old days,” is for the dancers to place the parrot image on the head of an unmarried girl and dance around her. The dance movement is a simple, deep swaying up and down from the waist and a slow side step with the feet. The dancers extend their arms to their sides at a forty-five-degree angle and bring them together in front of them, clapping their hands as they bend forward. The swaying movement is called jhūpnā in the local Chhattisgarhi dialect, the same word used to describe a similar, but less controlled, movement by persons possessed by the goddess in the gaurā festival. The terminological identification of the possession and dance movements again suggests the close relationship between the gaurā festival tradition and the suā nāc.

Each dance troupe is divided into two groups that sing antiphonally. Most verses are sung four times, introduced by the lead dancer’s group, repeated by the second group, and then repeated again by both groups. Although the performance in each household is a complete unit, there is also certain continuity between performances in a given village. I shall, therefore, refer to performances in each household as “segments” and the entire village performance as a “sequence.” Most individual verses are fixed (memorized), but the choice of verses within particular segments and sequences is creative, flexible, and adaptive to specific performance contexts.

The village suā nāc audience is multilayered. The immediate patrons of the dance are female members of the landowning household in whose home the performance is taking place, with the eldest active female householder giving grain contributions to the dancers. Often an elderly patriarch of the household is also present in the courtyard, but the dancers do not dance “for” him. When the performance takes place on the street instead of in the courtyard, other male members of the household are often sitting on the verandah and become part of the primary audience. If the village has some kind of tea stall or farmers’ cooperative, the troupe may dance in front of it, and the male proprietor and customers then become the primary audience for that segment. The suā nāc’s secondary audience, present within audio if not visual range, consists of male and female passersby, neighbors to the primary-patron landowners, and lower-caste village women who join the ubiquitous crowds of children that follow the dancers from house to house.

As they enter each household, the dancers traditionally frame the performance segment with an introductory verse announcing their arrival, often a variation on the following: “How should we enter it, the entrance of your house, / The entrance of your house, of your house?” Only the performance segment in the Phuljhar village headmans courtyard, mentioned above, began without the familiar framing verse; here the dancers began singing only when they were already in the courtyard, with the line, “Suānā, oh parrot, where did you take incarnation?” The answer to the question was found in the dance itself and in the visible clay image of the parrot rather than in the song text. With this question, the women “seated,” or established, the parrot in the village in a manner similar to that in which the temporary clay image of a deity is “seated,” or installed for worship, during a festival. The parrot had taken incarnation in that very village and was the focal point of the dance.

Suā nāc troupes dance for five to ten minutes in each house before the female householder brings out a winnowing basket filled with grain and pours it into the basket around which the troupe has been dancing. She may also contribute a one- or two-rupee note. If an older male member of the household is present, the dancers expect and even petition a monetary contribution from him as well, one troupe going so far as to wake him from a nap to do so. The grain donations, however, are always made by a woman; male patrons give only money, a differentiation between male and female gift giving typical throughout India. Cash gifting by individuals in this kind of ritual context is a relatively new phenomenon in India and, while practically valued by the dancers, is not enough; minimally, a measure of grain must be given. The prosperity of the household, here in the form of grain, is closely associated with the fertility of the fields, the goddess of wealth (Lakshmi), and female fertility.

By deciding when she will bring out her donation to the troupe, the female householder / patron effectively determines the length of the performance segment in her own courtyard. After appropriate donations have been made, the dancers sing a benedictory verse sequence in which they confer blessings upon the household: traditional blessings for wealth, long life, and progeny. An example, with all the verse repetitions, follows (the word suānā in this and other examples is a term of address to the parrot):4

Group 1:

Mother, as you receive and give,

Suānā, so will you receive blessings.

Suānā, so will you receive blessings.

Group 2:

Mother, as you receive and give,

Suānā, so will you receive blessings.

Suānā, so will you receive blessings.

Group 1:

Mother, as you receive and give,

Suānā, so will you receive blessings.

Suānā, so will you receive blessings.

Group 2:

Mother, as you receive and give,

Suānā, so will you receive blessings.

Suānā, so will you receive blessings.

Group 1:

May your house be filled with grain and wealth.

Suānā, mother may you live one lākh of years.

Suānā, mother may you live one lākh of years.

Group 2:

May your house be filled with grain and wealth.

Suānā, mother may you live one lākh of years.

Suānā, mother may you live one lākh of years.

Group 1:

May your house be filled with grain and wealth.

Suānā, mother may you live one lākh of years.

Suānā, mother may you live one lākh of years.

Group 2:

May your house be filled with grain and wealth.

Suānā, mother may you live one lākh of years.

Suānā, mother may you live one lākh of years.

Group 1:

May your young son get married.

Suānā, may a grandson play in your lap.

Suānā, may a grandson play in your lap.

Group 2:

May your young son get married.

Suānā, may a grandson play in your lap.

Suānā, may a grandson play in your lap.

Group 1:

May your young son get married.

Suānā, may a grandson play in your lap.

Suānā, may a grandson play in your lap.

Group 2:

May your young son get married.

Suānā, may a grandson play in your lap.

Suānā, may a grandson play in your lap.

The blessing completes the performance segment and the exchange between dancers and patron in each household.5

These exchanges do not, however, always take place this smoothly. In one courtyard, after the performers had been dancing considerably longer than usual and the householder had still not made her contribution, they expressed their frustration in song (verses that the secondary audience of women and children found highly amusing and during whose performance they laughed and giggled):

Why did we come to the big house, the big house?

Suānā, the big house which has broken hearts.

Yogi and renunciants come everyday, everyday;

Suānā, we come only once a year.

The singers implied that a Chhattisgarhi householder is expected to make a donation to the suā dancers, who come only once a year, in the same way that she is expected to give alms to the wandering religious ascetics who come around much more often, and that she will receive similar merit for doing so. By emphasizing the wealth of the house and the ritual duty to give to those who come asking for alms, the verse sequence successfully humiliated the householder into giving a large donation.

In another courtyard, a heated discussion developed as to whether the female householder had given according to her means. The dancers, together with some village women from the secondary audience, insisted that this household should have given two, not one, rupees along with their grain, as the headmans wife had just done. This was a particularly pointed accusation, since the two families were leaders of opposing parties in a village dispute unrelated to these performances. To the amusement of the women in the secondary audience, the troupe began to dance again, singing the following verse: “Out of anger she’s gone inside. / Suānā, she’s bringing out a basket of grain.” But this time, the strategy of the dancers to put pressure on their patron did not succeed. The lead dancer led the troupe out of the house in disgust, insisting that they were not, after all, beggars.

These vignettes hint at an inherent tension between the suā dancers and the households in which they dance. The dancers and patrons represent different levels on the social and economic hierarchy of Chhattisgarhi rural society. The dancers are land laborers, Chhattisgarhi-speaking women from ādivāsī castes. Their patrons are usually high-caste landowners and farmers who may be from either Chhattisgarhi or Oriya castes. The dancers also often represent geographic communities other than those of their patrons, dancing in neighborhoods or villages not their own. Finally, although the dancers are all female, the patrons and audience members are both male and female. An open avenue of direct communication, particularly folklore communication, does not normally exist between the hierarchical groups represented by the dancers and their patrons. Thus, the genre of the suā nāc temporarily establishes such a communicative channel through song, dance, and gifting.

The verbal song tradition accompanying the dance does not directly reflect the above-mentioned caste and economic hierarchy, possibly because of the tribal context of the origination of the suā nāc, characterized by relative equality rather than the hierarchy of the Hindu caste system. However, the verbal tradition of the suā nāc often expresses a tension between social groups of another kind: a woman’s maternal home and her home of marriage (maikā and sasurāl), a new bride and her in-laws. This tension is experienced by women of all castes and economic levels in Chhattisgarh, having developed under a system of arranged marriage that ideally follows principles of hypergamy and village exogamy. The young bride thus finds herself a stranger with little status in what many folk songs call a “strange land” (pardeś).

The dancers may sing short selections from longer, extended suā narratives (sung in their entirety only outside the dance context); or their verses may be lyrical, developing a particular image or emotion from one of these narratives. One narrative, with several variants, is particularly popular in contemporary suā nāc performance, both within the dance and as a suā nāc narrative performed independently of the dance. It relates the plight of a new bride in her sasurāl. The three versions I recorded and other previously published variants begin with a variation on the following verses (Shukla 1969:163–168; Elwin 1946:186; Dube 1963:70–71):

Kahar, kahar sings my black cuckoo.6

Suānā, the peacock calls out at midnight.

The headman of my village is not sleeping,

Suānā, whose sister has gone to a foreign land.

The foreign land is the sister’s sasurāl, called a land of famine; her brother continues to live in her maikā, a land of plenty. These images reflect a married woman’s fond, idealized recollections of her maikā, where she was relatively free and pampered and which she perceives as a land of (emotional) wealth and prosperity. Although a bride is believed to bring fertility and wealth to her home of marriage, she does not directly benefit from these until the birth of a son. Her position as a new daughter-in-law (bahū) is at the bottom of the familial hierarchy; thus she likens her sasurāl to a land of famine. In the narrative, the sister sends a message to her brother to come and take her home to her maikā (which he would normally do several times a year in her early marriage and for certain festivals thereafter). Their mother tries to dissuade the brother from going on his mission, fearful of what the (now literally conceived) land of famine will hold for him. But he is insistent and asks her to prepare necessary supplies for the journey. When he reaches his sister’s sasurāl, the brother asks where she lives, locates her, and carries her off on his horse, back to her maikā.

The following is the portion of the narrative as it was sung in the first three performance segments (for three different households) of one village sequence, beginning in the courtyard of the village headman. Intervening introductory and benedictory verses for each segment, as well as verse repetitions, have been omitted.

House 1:

Suānā, where, oh parrot, are the members of your caste?

Where did you take incarnation?

Kahar kahar sings my black cuckoo.

Suānā, the peacock calls out at midnight.

The headman of my village is not sleeping,

Suānā, whose sister has gone to a foreign country.

. … . … . … . … . … …

. … . … . … . … . … …7

How should I go, sister, to bring you back?

Suānā, the Jamuni River will block me halfway.

Give the boatman ten or twenty rupees.

Suānā, he’ll take you to the other side, brother.

House 2:

Give the boatman ten or twenty rupees.

Suānā, he’ll take you to the other side, brother.

I told my mother to give me snacks and sweets.

Suānā, I’m going to see my sister.

The place you’re going, my son, to see your sister,

Suānā, a great famine struck there.

For you, my mother, it is a great famine.

Suānā, for me, it is a time of plenty.

To the hungry, mother, give snacks.

Suānā, to the thirsty, give water.

Mother, give me the horse Lilihansa to ride.

Suānā, give me a sword to hold.

Mother, for my feet give me shoes that sound rūcā-mūcā.

Suānā, give me an umbrella for the sun.

Quickly, quickly, call the horsekeeper.

Suānā, he quickly readied the horse.

House 3:

From lane to lane, my brother,

Narad Muni is wandering, suānā.

My brother, someone is playing in the lane,

A child of the street, suānā.

Tell, tell me, my child,

Point out the house of the fair-skinned one, suānā.

There it is, my brother,

The big door over there, suānā.

Don’t go here, my brother,

Don’t go there, suānā.

Kick it with your heel, my brother,

Push it with your arms, suānā.

It doesn’t open, my brother,

The very big door, suānā.

The dancers sang only up to the narrative event in which the brother reaches his sister’s village and locates her house, one of the emotional climaxes of the narrative. The householder brought out her contribution before the singers could conclude the narrative, with the brother entering the house and taking away his sister. But both the singers and audience know that once he reaches the village, the sister is assured of safe passage back to her maternal home. This narrative juncture coincides with a temporary resolution in the opposition between dancers and patron, achieved when the householder brings out her grain donation. Still, the narrative resolution is not easy; the door to the sister’s house does not open readily—it will have to be broken down for the brother to gain access. The longer variant of the narrative sung outside the dance context, discussed in the next section of this chapter, also ends with a sense of uneasy resolution. The last image is one of the sister’s sister-in-law washing dishes, she, too, a “sister” married into a “land of famine.”

In the same performance sequence, the next three segments consisted of lyrical verses elaborating images based on another popular suā narrative, one that tells of a bride whose husband has gone away to a foreign land, either as a warrior or trader. In this narrative, the husband instructs his wife to water and worship daily the courtyard tulsī plant, a basil plant representing the goddess. He tells her that as long as the tulsī remains green, she will know he is safe; if it dies and withers, she will know he has died. Shakuntala Varma has published the following variant of the narrative, which takes the form of a conversation between the newlywed couple:

Having celebrated our first marriage, I’ve seated you on the threshold, suānā.

Now I must leave and go to battle.

You are my wealth, my own, suānā.

Tell me, what should I do?

Eat with your mother-in-law; sleep with your sister-in-law, suānā.

And please your heart with your younger brother-in-law.

My mother-in-law is old; she’ll die, suānā.

I’ll send my sister-in-law to her sasurāl.

My younger brother-in-law is like a son, suānā.

Upon whom should I fix my heart?

Plant a tulsī in the courtyard, suānaā.

Fix your heart upon it.

Everyday, everyday that passes, plaster its platform, suānā.

Everyday, light an oil lamp.

When the tulsī plant withers, suānā,

Understand that I have died in battle.

(1971:144–145; my translation of her Chhattisgarhi transcription.)

The lyrical segments sung in the Phuljhar dance sequence expand the image of the bride performing various religious rituals, filling the lonely hours until the return of her husband:

House 4:

A plate of gold filled with Ganga water.

Having worshiped [the goddess] Durga, the queen is returning.

Tārī hārī nā nā mor naārī hārī nā nā re.

A plate of gold.

With whom will you eat; with whom will you sleep?

A plate of gold.

A plate of gold filled with Ganga water.

Having worshiped Durga, the queen is returning.

Clean the courtyard, prepare the tulsīplatform.

A plate of gold.

A plate of gold filled with Ganga water.

Having worshiped Durga, the queen is returning.

House 5:

Tārī hārī nā nā mor nārī hārī nā nā re.

Make a garland.

Make a garland for Shiva and the mother [Parvati].

I’m going to the Shiva temple to worship.

With whom will you eat; with whom will you sleep?

Make a garland.

Make a garland for Shiva and the mother.

I’m going to the Shiva temple to worship.

With whom will you eat; with whom will you sleep?

Make a garland.

House 6:

Clean the courtyard, prepare the tulsī platform.

Oh Shyam, the one with many white bells.8

Without Ram, my eyes are longing;

Show yourself, oh lord, my brother.

Shyam, the one with many white bells.

Clean the courtyard, prepare the fw/sf platform.

Shyam, the one with many white bells.

Everyday, oh daughter, pour water on the tulsī.

Shyam, the one with many white bells.

Without Ram, my eyes are longing.

Show yourself, oh lord, my brother.

Shyam, the one with many white bells.

Awaken the tulsī on the [word indiscernable] platform.

Shyam, the one with many white bells.

Without Ram, my eyes are longing.

Show yourself, oh lord, my brother.

Shyam, the one with many white bells.

Everyday, oh daughter, light incense.

Shyam, the one with many white bells.

Interspersed with the description of the ritual is the repeated but unanswered question, “With whom will you eat; with whom will you sleep?” The husband in Varma’s variant suggests that she eat with her mother-in-law, sleep with her unmarried sister-in-law, and “please her heart” with her younger brother-in-law. In north and central Indian extended families, a joking relationship between a bride/sister-in-law and her younger brother-in-law is permissible (in contrast to the relationship of strict avoidance and respect with an older brother-in-law), one that suggests a potential sexual relationship. The bride of our song, however, is not satisfied with any of these suggestions: her mother-in-law will soon die, her sister-in-law will get married and move out of the house, and her younger brother-in-law is not a potential lover but like a son. The bride wants more from the conjugal relationship and suggests that no lasting companionship is possible outside of that relationship; without her husband, the bride is alone and defenseless. Tension between the bride and her in-laws is similar to that expressed in the narrative of the sister living in a land of famine, but the implied resolution differs. Rather than depending on her brother to extricate her from the “land of famine” for a temporary reprieve in her maikā, in this narrative the bride waits patiently for her husband’s return, hoping he will serve as an intermediary, perhaps transforming that “land of famine” into one of wealth.9

The final segment of the above-mentioned performance sequence is unique in my suā recordings as the only one in which the parrot is portrayed as an active participant in the sung narrative rather than as simply the addressee of the song. The parrot in Indian oral and literate traditions has numerous connotations. Visually, its vibrant green plumage suggests the lush green of fertile rice fields; its association with fertility in certain ādivāsī traditions is suggested by the use of parrot images in their “marriage sheds” (Crooke [1896] 1978:252). Parrots are frequently kept as pets in rural households, either caged or with their wings clipped to keep them from flying beyond the walls of the courtyard. Poetic and verbal folk traditions disregard this limitation, however, and envisage the parrot as free to fly long distances but domesticated enough to come back to its owner. Thus, with its ability to speak, the parrot becomes a perfect messenger and confidant.10 In the suā nāc tradition, the parrot is the confidant of both the bride in her sasurāl and the dancers themselves. Every verse of the suā nāc is addressed to the parrot in the repeated suānā or suā mor. The parrot opens a line of communication between two distanced parties: as a messenger between the sister in the land of famine and her brother in the land of plenty; as a go-between for the bride and her husband, who has traveled to a foreign land; and, more figuratively, as the channel between landowners and land laborers.

In the last segment of the Phuljhar village performance sequence being discussed, the relationship between parrot and fertility is explicit. In these verses, the parrot brings a long-time barren woman a cluster of mangoes, with all the associations between the lush, sensual, ripened fruit and fertility.

Go, go, my parrot, to the forest of delight, to the forest of sandalwood.

Suānā, break off a bunch of mangoes.

How should I walk and how should I fly?

Suānā, how should I break them off?

Walk on your feet; fly back with your wings.

Suānā, break them off with your beak.

When I return, when I return with the mangoes,

Suānā, to whom shall I give them?

To the twelve-year barren woman, Candanmati,

Suānā, my parrot, you should give them to her.

Elwin and Hivale recorded two similar verse sequences in the more tribal area of the Maikal Hills on the boundaries of Chhattisgarh. In one of these, the parrot is asked by a woman to give the mangoes to a king. The primary image remains one of fertility but reflects a setting in which the sexual hierarchy is not as strong as it is in the plains of Chhattisgarh and in which the burden of infertility is not placed exclusively on the female: the mangoes are given to the king, which in folklore is often a reference to husband.

Go, go, my parrot, to the forest of delight, to the forest of sandal.

Suānā, break off a bunch of mangoes.

How should I walk and how should I fly?

Suānā, how should I break them off?

Walk on your feet; fly back with your wings.

Suānā, break them off with your beak.

When I return, when I return with the mangoes,

Suānā, to whom shall I give them?

To the twelve-year barren woman, Candanmati,

Suānā, my parrot, you should give them to her.

(Elwin and Hivale 1944:40)

These verse sequences hint at why the suā nāc was adaptable to performance during the harvest season and suggest a possible relationship between the dancers and the parrot. The parrot and the newly harvested grain are both symbols of fertility and auspicious blessing; they bring wealth. The harvested paddy itself is often referred to as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. The suā nāc dancers, too, confer auspiciousness and blessings of wealth upon the households into which they enter; their dance transforms the harvest. The association of the parrot, fertility, grain, wealth, and dancers is reinforced in those performances in which the image of the parrot is placed on the head of a virgin girl around whom the other women dance. She is the virgin bride, Lakshmi herself, bringing wealth and fertility to her sasurāl In the public context of the dance, it is these nonverbal, positive images of women that dominate.

Although the nonverbal images of the dance and the verbal message of the song highlight different dimensions of the female experience in Chhattisgarh, structurally the dance context and accompanying verbal tradition reinforce each other. In each case a hierarchical opposition between social groups has been defined: the maikā and sasurāl and the dancers and their patrons. The tensions are temporarily resolved with the return of the sister to her maternal home with her brother and the completion of the exchange between the dancers and householders. The hierarchical relationships are symbiotic. In north and central India, hypergamy is the common pattern of marriage; however, the families involved are mutually dependent. The bride brings ritual wealth and fertility to her sasurāl, and the sasurāl provides her with a groom. Although she may dread the leave-taking from her maikā and fear the fate of a bride whose husband goes to a foreign land, to remain unmarried in her maternal home is a fate often seen by a young girl to be worse than death. Similarly, the landowning patrons and suā dancers are both economically and ritually dependent on each other. In the suā nāc, the dancers rely on their patrons’ contributions to support their gaurā festival. At the same time, the householders depend on the dancers to transform the harvest into ritual wealth through their auspicious blessings.

These parallel dimensions between text and performance context are schematically summarized in Table 2. The wealth bringers establish an avenue of communication between the disparate poles of the opposition, between the land of plenty and the land of famine; they are, in fact, the channel through which the communication takes place. This schema is visualized from the perspective of the bride and the ādivāsī-caste dancers, those dwelling in what they call the “land of plenty.” Although, in reality, the bride and the dancers come from hierarchically and economically lower positions than those living in the land of famine, in the suā nāc, their symbolic wealth, in the form of fertility and auspiciousness, is paramount. In the dance, performers, rather than patrons, primarily control and manipulate the channel and its message. The establishment of this channel and the iconographic message of the dance supersedes the verbal one. The latter is often obscured or interrupted because of the peripheral noise level of the audience of children and women following the dancers, by the movement of the dancers themselves, and by the disruption between segments as the dancers move from house to house. The dance is not possible without the song, however, and its familiar words are never totally lost upon the participants.

Table 2. Parallels between song text and dance context

image

The Song Tradition as Narrative

In contrast to the dance that involves numerous castes as patrons, audience, and performers, the suā nāc performed outside the dance is sung within a single social group. Women sing with women of their own caste level and village/neighborhood; the opposition inherent between performer and audience/patron in the dance is collapsed. In this context, the genre is available to a wider social and linguistic group than it is within the dance, including non-ādivāsī, though still lower-caste, and Oriya- as well as Chhattisgarhi-speaking women. The channel is simplified from song and dance to simply song, although some women cannot refrain from minimal swaying dance movements in this context as well. As few as two or three women may sing together, rather than the larger troupe required by the dance. One result of the shift in audience, participants, and channel is the importance assumed by the message of the sung text. Because the channel for communication is already assumed to be present and open, the focus of the performance shifts from channel to the verbal message. Further, the nonverbal, physically concrete images of dance, parrot, and grain of the dance context are absent, and narratives are uninterrupted by introductory and benedictory verse sequences and the physical movement of the dancers themselves.

These suā narratives are often expanded variants of those performed in the dance context; in many, the suffering of what one singer called the female jāti (caste) is also made more explicit. The following is the full narrative of the brother rescuing his sister from the “land of famine,” segments of which were sung in the Phuljhar dance sequence above. This variant was sung by the Christian woman, Campa Bai, who accompanied me to the ḍālkhāī festival (Chapter 3), while she and several other women were cleaning rice at a Christian girls’ boarding school. She had heard my tapes of the Phuljhar-village performance and asked if I wanted to hear the full story, “such a sad story.” Campa Bai was a woman in her late fifties, well known for her performance abilities in several song and storytelling genres, but to whom the suā nāc as a dance performance genre is not available. Her voice was low and the tone of the sung narrative almost that of a dirge, slow and somber. Gone were the multiple, echoing voices of the larger dance troupe, the repetition of verses, the dancers’ clapping, the excited chatter of children, the general auspicious setting of the harvest. The story line was clear, direct, and uninterrupted.

Kahā, kahā sings my black cuckoo,

Suānā, whose sister has gone to a foreign land.

He doesn’t feel sleepy; he doesn’t feel even a little sleepy,

Suānā, whose sister has gone to a foreign land.

Mother, give me a snack made with butter.

Suānā, I’m going to see my sister.

The place you’re going to see your sister,

Suānā, a great famine has struck there, my son.

For you, my mother, it is a great famine;

Suānā, for me, it is a time of plenty.

Mother, give me a snack made with butter.

Suānā, give me an umbrella for the sun.

Mother, for my feet give me shoes that sound rūcā-mūcā.

Suānā, give me a sword to hold.

Mother, give me the horse Nilhansa to ride.

Suānā, I’m going to see my sister.

His mother, hearing this much,

Suānā, quickly readied the horse.

The horse from the stable was readied.

Suānā, the sister’s house drew near.

In the lane he met children, playing in the lane.

Suānā, he asked, Where, children, is my sister’s house?

Has your chest broken, have your eyes burst?

Suānā, the house of your sister is over there.

Washing, washing earthen pots, his sister saw him.

Suānā, my brother has come to take me.

Wash your hands and feet, brother, sit on the stool.

Suānā, tell me, how is my mother?

Your mother is fine. Your father is fine.

Suānā, the people of your village are fine.

I’ll tell my mother-in-law, my old mother-in-law,

Suānā, my brother has come to take me.

Mother-in-law, what vegetable should I cook, what rice?

Suānā, my brother has come to take me.

Cook the cheap, coarse rice,

Suānā, and kohlrabi leaves as a vegetable.

My brother eats butter; he washes his hands in milk.

Suānā, how can I serve cabbage as the vegetable?

For you, my young girl, it is cheap rice and cabbage.

Suānā, for me it is rice made with butter.

I’ll tell my mother-in-law, my old mother-in-law,

Suānā, my brother has come to take me.

I don’t know anything about these matters.

Suānā, your father-in-law will know.

I’ll tell my father-in-law, my old father-in-law,

Suānā, my brother has come to take me.

I don’t know anything about these matters.

Suānā, ask your younger brother-in-law.

I’ll tell my brother-in-law, my younger brother-in-law,

Suānā, my brother has come to take me.

I don’t know anything about these matters.

Suānā, oh sister-in-law, your sister-in-law will know.

I’ll tell my sister-in-law, my younger sister-in-law,

Suānā, my brother has come to take me.

I don’t know anything about these matters.

Suānā, the one who supports you will know.

I’ll tell my husband, my husband, oh husband,

Suānā, my brother has come to take me.

Husk twelve years of my grain.

Suānā, then you can go to your mother’s house.

Wash twelve years of my clothes.

Suānā, then you can go to your mother’s house.

Wash twelve years of my dishes.

Suānā, then you can go to your mother’s house.

Throw out twelve years of cow dung.

Suānā, then you can go to your mother’s house.

My brother heard all these things.

Suānā, his heart was saddened.

Come, young girl, climb on my horse Nilhansa.

Suānā, and the far country will become near.

My horse heard all these things.

Suānā, the far country will become near.

From the fields, my light brown buffalo saw,

Suānā, the sister who had fed him chaff.

From the village square, my father saw,

Suānā, his daughter who had spilt tears.

Washing, washing earthen pots, my brother’s wife saw,

Suānā, her daughter who had spilt tears.

From inside the house, my mother saw,

Suānā, her daughter who spilt tears.

It is finished; it is finished; my suā is finished.

Suānā, I’ll go now to the tank surrounded by tamarind trees.

This narrative variant extends beyond the brothers arrival in his sisters sasurāl, the episode that ends the variant sung in the dance. After he reaches his sisters home, we are given a series of images that more fully illustrates the suffering of a bride in her home of marriage. First, her hierarchically lower family is abused. When the brother reaches the village and asks a child playing in the streets where the house of his sister s in-laws is, he is answered with an abuse typical of those employed in the local dialects: “Has your chest broken, have your eyes burst? / Suānā, the house of your sister is over there.”11

When the brother enters the house in which his sister is living, he is not accorded the hospitality even a stranger would receive. She is forced to feed him coarse rice and cheap vegetables, not fit for company fare. What follows is a litany of kin under whose authority she lives in her sasurāl. She asks each of them—mother-in-law, father-in-law, younger brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and finally her husband—for permission to return to her maikā with her brother. Her daily duties in the household are enumerated as her husband tells her what chores she must complete before leaving. The brother is saddened by the conditions under which his sister must live and carries her off on his horse, back to the “land of plenty.”

This particular performance ends with the repetition of the image of a young bride washing earthen pots, the brother’s wife doing the same chore the sister herself was doing when her brother first saw her in her sasurāl: “Washing, washing earthen pots, my brother’s wife saw, / Suānā, her younger sister-in-law, the tatder.” With the repeated image of a daughter-in-law washing vessels, a seed is planted for a cyclic repetition of the entire narrative. A new opposition is established between yet another daughter-in-law and her home of marriage. This bride is also a sister, longing for her maikā, in which lives a brother who may come to rescue her from this “land of famine.” As a narrative tradition outside of the dance, the suā nāc often focuses on the opposition rather than on the temporary resolution implicit in the dance itself. It describes the experience of a woman, usually a new bride, caught in that opposition, and focuses on her private experience of suffering rather than on her public image of a wealth bringer.12 After Campa Bai had completed the narrative above, her only comment was, “There’s so much sadness in the life of a woman.”

A Chhattisgarhi male is never put in the situation in which he will experience this opposition between a maikā and sasurāl; his life is spatially continuous. In fact, these two words have litde meaning for Chhattisgarhi husbands and brothers except in relation to their wives’ or sisters’ villages of residence. Traditionally, men rarely visit their in-laws’ home; and when they do refer to that village, they refer to it as their wife’s maikā. One suā menāc verse makes explicit reference to this discrimination: “To my brother they give a colorful palace. / Suānā, to me they give a foreign country” [my translation from Dube 1963:64]. Other published suā nāc verse sequences further elaborate the unique sufferings of a woman’s life:

I bow to the moon and the sun, O parrot

One shouldn’t be born a woman

Life of a woman is like a cow, parrot

Wherever she is wedded she has to go.

Howsoever cleat? I keep my husband s home and break my fingers,

Even then I am scolded by his sister.

See how unfortunate am I,

The day my husband brought me home he has to go away to earn his bread.

(Parmar 1972:167)

Moon and Sun, I fall at your feet

Give me not the birth of a girl again

From birth we wretched women are orphans

Mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law

Are always abusing us

By their continual nagging we are burnt

So I ran away to the forest. ..

(Elwin and Hivale 1944:39–40)

The analogy between a woman and a cow in the first variant of this verse sequence vividly reflects the ambiguous and shifting image of the woman/ bride in the suā nāc tradition. A cow, like a new bride, is an auspicious symbol, a wealth bringer; her footprints are considered to be those of the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi.13 However, a cow is also a commodity that is bought and sold. In this verse, the singer characterizes her wedding and the system of dowry or bride-price (depending on her caste) as a commercial transaction in which she, like a cow, is an object to be traded and sold regardless of her own will.

The Suā Nāc in Shifting Contexts

Indigenous classification of and commentary about the genre of suā nāc are based primarily upon its public, dance performance context, representations that both reveal and mask the meanings and flexibility of the genre. As a publicly performed genre, the suā nāc establishes a communicative channel between social groups. This channel and the iconographic messages it delivers are dominant over the verbal song text; it builds upon the public image of the Chhattisgarhi female as the fertile, auspicious, wealth-bringing bride. The image is coherent with the harvest context in which the dance is performed; the bride and the newly harvested grain are both equated with the goddess of wealth.

Only ethnographic observation reveals that the song tradition is also performed outside the dance, where it is still called suā nāc, sharing with the dance the same verbal texts, song tune (rāg), and physical and/or verbal imagery of the parrot. Performed as a song tradition outside the dance, the suā nāc serves as an expressive vehicle for women in which they verbalize a contrasting dimension of what it means to be a female in Chhattisgarhi society. The image is the privately experienced one of the new bride, or daughter-in-law, who suffers and is oppressed in her sasurāl, an experience women rarely articulate in a public, nonsegregated everyday discourse or performance.

The dance and nondance suā nāc traditions cannot, however, be totally separated from each other. They are, after all, still classified by the indigenous folklore community as the same genre. The thematic tensions of the song often parallel the social tensions of the dance context; and parts of the same or similar narratives both accompany the dance and are performed as independent narratives. Thus, the imagery of the suffering sister in a land of famine is never totally lost amid the nonverbal images of fertility and wealth of the dance context. Similarly, although the dance itself, the physical image of the parrot, and the exchange of grain and auspicious blessings are absent in suā nāc performances outside the dance, they continue to influence and inform that narrative song tradition because of the folklore community’s familiarity with the dance. The multivalent verbal and nonverbal images of the suā nāc endow the genre with the flexibility that permits its performance both as a public harvest dance and as the more private, sung womens narrative tradition.

Increased literacy, changing social conditions, and mass media technology (particularly radio) have all made an impact on the suā nāc, the level of community with which it is identified, and the significance it has assumed for the participating dancers. In the fall of 1985, living in the town of Dhamtari across the street from a small Gond neighborhood, I kept asking my Gond neighbors when they would be going out to dance the suā nāc, fearful that I might miss the outings. Several men who overheard /heard my persistent questioning finally told me that, if I was so interested, why didn’t I just turn on the radio on Wednesday afternoons, when All India Radio (Akashvani) played folk songs every week, including the suā nāc. They suggested that this would be much easier for me to tape than following the dancers from door to door and that the radio singers were “the best.” On some levels, this “new” context approximated both the traditional public dance and the private narrative performance modes but was on other levels decontextualized from both. Like the dance, the radio audience is the folklore regional community, available to men and women of all castes. Without the dance, however, like the narrative mode, the focus is on the song words, poignant words traditionally voiced outside the dance context in private courtyards between female friends but now being broadcast from radios and public speakers for all to hear.

Finally, late one afternoon in that auspicious month of kārtik, my Gond friends called me to join them as they set out to dance the suā nāc on Dhamtari s main business street. The street was already decorated with banana leaves and lights, anticipating the dark night of dīvālī, when Lakshmi is invited into homes and businesses with lit oil lamps (these days, also candles and strings of electric “Christmas lights”) lining windows, doorways, verandahs, and balconies. In urban settings, the suā nāc has become more and more associated with this festival and is less closely tied to the harvest per se. Urban ādivāsī troupes dance at the entrances of shops and receive from the shop-owners only small (twenty-five to fifty paisa) monetary donations, used toward gaurā celebrations, rather than the ritual gifting of grain. In this setting, no permanent or traditional relationships exist between patrons and members of the dance troupe; the dancers themselves do not usually patronize these upscale shops, and the shopkeepers view their donations to the dancers as only one more of their many dīvālī obligations. The channel of communication between dancers and patrons is so attenuated as to be almost absent, several shopkeepers throwing out the coins as soon as they see the troupe or permitting them to dance only one or two minutes before coming out to give their donation, not waiting to receive the traditional blessings of the dancers.

The suā nāc troupe I accompanied that dark kārtik night consisted of eight dancers from the neighborhood, smaller than usual I was told, “But these days women don’t want to go outside [the neighborhood].” A seventeen-year-old girl stood longingly at her doorway, watching the troupe’s preparations to leave. When I asked her why she wasn’t coming, she said, “I’m matrik [high school]-pass now; my brothers won’t let me leave the house”; and one of the dancers responded, “This is what’s happening these days.” The troupe began by dancing in an open public space in their own small neighborhood, for no particular patron and with no gifting involved; spirits were high and there was laughing and chattering between the dancers. This mood continued as we walked the half-mile or so to the beginning of the shopping area. Here, they danced in front of six different stores before the lead dancer, after two different shopkeepers humiliated the troupe by refusing even to come out to the entrance of the store, said, “Let’s go [back]! People think we’ll dance, but why should we?”

Several days later, in the early morning of the last day of the gaurā celebrations in the same Gond neighborhood, fifteen to twenty women, including the young woman excluded from the troupe earlier, seemingly spontaneously circled around the images of Gaura-Gauri (Shiva and Parvati), which were waiting to be carried in procession to the nearest tank to be immersed, and began dancing/singing the suā nāc. The performance dramatically reinforced the relationship between gaurā possession and suā nāc dance movements, both called jhūpnā.14 Several men in the crowd, including the neighborhood headman, laughingly joined in, singing a few repeated phrases here and there, when they were strongly reprimanded by one of the older women, “This isn’t for men to sing!”

Even as Chhattisgarhi regional identification with the suā nāc is expanded and reinforced through Akashvani airing of its songs on its “Chhattisgarhi folk song” programming (available to all regardless of caste, gender, literacy level, or urban/rural location), the experience described above suggests that its performance as a ritual dance may become more restricted. These particular Gond women found dancing on city streets, without appropriate ritual relationships and frameworks, to be humiliating; and a growing number of their community will be excluded from such public performance as they become more highly educated, a literacy that, at least initially, restricts their movement outside their neighborhoods. The suā nāc performance within their own Gond neighborhood at a festival celebrated only by ādivāsī castes reinforces the unique identity of this ādivāsī community even as the wider regional community continues to claim it as its own.


1 Ironically, although the indigenous categorization of and commentary about the suā nāc centers primarily on the dance, with litde being said about the sung words, printed collections of Chhattisgarhi folklore give us the decontextualized words alone, with no or very little contextual framing. Reading these gives us few indications of how the suā nāc as dance might be experienced.

2 The Bhinjwar-caste gaurā celebrations I observed in Phuljhar included images of Shiva and Parvati (as bridegroom and bride), the goddess Durga riding her tiger, the Mahabharata hero Bhim carrying his club (whose inclusion in the procession of images no participant could explain to me), the village guardian deity Thakur Dev, and a group of wild animals arranged on a small stool. In the Raipur plains, I observed gaurā in an urban Gond neighborhood, in which there were only three images: Shiva and Parvati and the Ramayana monkey devotee Hanuman, with his tail afire (a burning kerosene-soaked rag). When I told these Gond celebrants about the array of figures I had seen in Phuljhar, they informed me that in those areas where Raj Gonds (landowning Gonds) had traditionally sponsored the festival, such as Phuljhar, the festival was more “grandly” (dhūm-dhām se) celebrated.

3 No Chhattisgarhi ādivāsī castes lived in this particular village, thus it did not have its own suā nāc troupe.

4 Hereafter, all the repetitions of each verse will not be given in the text of the chapter; but the reader should remember that this highly repetitive style is characteristic of the dance-song performance and contributes to the performative focus being placed on the channel of the song words rather than on their semantic meaning.

5 Suā nāc dancers are not the only performers to bring such blessings to Chhattisgarhi households. Male cowherds of the Raut caste give similar blessings when they dance in front of village homes during their mātar festival: “As you receive and give, so will you receive blessings. / May your house be filled with grain and wealth; may you live one hundred thousand years.”

6 In Chhattisgarh, the Indian cuckoo (koyal) has poetic associations with separated lovers, its cry associated with the mournful cry of a beloved separated from her lover.

7 The words of this verse were indiscernible on the tape because of a loud commotion between some children in the audience. Based on other variants of the narrative, however, one would expect this verse to tell of the message the sister has sent to her brother.

8 Shyam is a reference to the dark god Krishna in his form of cowherd lover, here presumably an appellation for this husband. Ram, too, is a reference to both god and husband.

9 See Raheja and Gold 1994, chapter 4, “On the Uses of Subversion: Redefining Conjugality,” for a discussion of women’s folk songs in Uttar Pradesh that challenge the “ideal” subordination of the conjugal relationship to that of the patrilineal extended family and express womens longing for conjugal intimacy.

10 One of the most well-known parrots in Hindi literature is the parrot who serves as confidant, messenger, and matchmaker in the sixteenth-century tale of Padmavati, written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi.

11 The term of address for a wife’s brother, sālā, by which this brother would be addressed by most residents of his sister’s sasurāl, is also a common term of abuse for males in both the Chhattisgarhi and Oriya languages. The term itself is not employed in this abuse, but its connotations are present and enable the young children he meets to answer his question about the location of his sisters house in this nonrespectful tone.

12 An explicit reference to the bride as wealth bringer, the goddess of wealth herself, is found in the words of a grooms kinsman at the end of a wedding ceremony in central Madhya Pradesh: “You have given us a boundless gift, the maiden of your soul, a beautiful daughter-in-law who is called Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth)” (Jacobson 1976:319).

13 During the month of mārgaśirṣ (November-December, the month following that during which the suā nāc is performed and gaurā celebrated), the goddess Lakshmi is worshiped every Thursday in the Oriya villages of Phuljhar. At the entrances to their homes, young girls draw elaborate geometric designs (rangolī) with rice flour, whose beauty attracts the goddess to the thresholds. Then, she finds her way to the inner courtyard by following the cow footprints that have been drawn from the outer raṅgoiī to one drawn in the home s interior. The cow is Lakshmi.

14 I had never seen or heard of a suā nāc performed at gaurā celebrations and wondered if this was an innovative context for the dance. I later asked some of the dancers whether this was something that occurred regularly in their neighborhood gaurā. One of the dancers answered, “No, no; we did it for mazā [fun] only.”

Additional Information

ISBN
9781501722868
Related ISBN
9780801432064
MARC Record
OCLC
1057696840
Pages
77-103
Launched on MUSE
2018-04-06
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-ND
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