Tuesday 31 January 2023

"What have you brought me?" - an encounter with the Bhand in Rajasthan

Just outside Pachewar in Rajasthan we came across an encampment. As we approached, we saw that a ceremony was taking place. I was unsure about whether we should enter, but an elderly woman signalled to a teenager and chairs were brought for us. The ceremony continued. A young, shirtless man lay in the centre of the gathering with a family member, acting as a priest, speaking over him. An elderly man sat at the side of the gathering, wrapped in a blanket, shivering. The young man, trance-like, made responses to the priest before convulsing and appearing to lose consciousness. Then, the priest covered his face with a cloth, and he quickly recovered, got up and moved away from the group.  The shivering man put down his blanket, apparently cured of whatever ailed him.

"...my eyes and ears are still good, I can see and hear everything..."


The old woman, the family matriarch, said that they were members of the Bhand tribe. She explained that their settlement was a temporary arrangement while they waited for a permanent location to be identified by the government. She added, “I don’t know how old I am, maybe 80, maybe more, but my eyes and ears are still good, and I can see and hear everything”. She claimed that her group was an extended family encompassing nine generations. Quite a claim, despite the Bhand often marrying young. My friend and interpreter, Vikas, later explained that she may have been counting different branches of the family rather than generations. He also explained the ceremony. The Bhand believe that the spirits of their ancestors, who they call pitrs, can help them in times of trouble. The ceremony was performed to assist the recovery of sick family members and the voice of a particular pitr was being channelled through that of the younger man. These spirits are mentioned in Hindu texts including the Mahabarata and the Devi Bhagavata Purana. Annual homage, or shrad, must be paid to them in order to retain their favour. 


During the days of the Maharajas, the Bhand were story tellers and entertainers. At important gatherings, they would act as acclaimers, announcing the arrival of guests, showering praise upon them and their ancestors. Some would maintain family trees for the nobility. They would also perform plays and dance. Although most of their work was for the wealthy, they would occasionally put on shows for the common people during important festivals. Today they perform their traditional work at weddings, large events and festivals.

"..the priest...told a story to his perfectly silent audience"


When the matriarch spoke, all present maintained a respectful silence, but then the man with the blanket began asking us for money. She silenced him with a look and then asked us what we wanted. I explained that I am a writer and was curious about her community. On hearing this, the priest (who was her son), stood up, donned a colourful turban and told a story to his perfectly silent audience. The gist of it was that the emperor Akbar once had his Bhand executed for some argument he had with Birbal – a poet and singer appointed as a Minister. The Bhand’s son took his revenge on Birbal by using his skills in poetry and humour.

Towards the end of the story, a smartly dressed young man arrived and interrupted the priest. He announced himself as Jelabi Lal. He spoke rapidly and made the family laugh. Then he asked us for money. At this the matriarch’s smile changed to a look of anger. She spoke sharply to him in Hindi, telling him to “chup raho” – “shut up”. He did as he was told and stood looking at his very stylish shoes. She then turned to me and said, “what have you brought me”. Thinking on my feet, I handed her the colander I’d purchased from the Gadia Lohar tribe settlement on the other side of the road. She examined it closely, turning it over and over before pronouncing it “good, very good”. It seemed like a good time to leave and we went back to the road, leaving her to admire her new possession.

You might also like The rag-pickers of Jhalawar

Sunday 15 January 2023

The rag-pickers of Jhalawar

Ayaan said he was 14 but he looked younger, perhaps 11 or 12. He was small but clearly well-fed which may have been why he was riding a decrepit looking exercise bike at the side of the road. I asked him where the bike came from. “Over there” he said, pointing to a mountain of plastic items being sorted into different bags by two young women. The women were employed by Ayaan’s father who buys waste goods from collectors, known as rag-pickers, before selling them on to more large-scale dealers for re-cycling. 

The business occupies a large site, not far from the centre of Jhalawar, formerly one of Rajasthan's princely states and now a regional centre of more than 65,000 people. The two women sorting the plastic items - Rekha and Parvati - spend their working days bent over, causing them painful back ache. Rekha was a little shy, but Parvati was amused by my presence and laughed directly into the camera after I held it up to request a picture. Ayaan's father also deals in old tyres and two men sat on the floor separating the rubber into strips which would then be used to make different items. I asked Ayaan why he wasn’t at school. “It’s morning,” he said “I go to school in the afternoon. In the mornings I help my father.” The first part of his sentence was in English, the second in Hindi. As I left, I turned back and saw him standing arms folded, looking managerial and keeping an eye on the two women who were busily sorting and bagging. Rekha looked up at him and rolled her eyes before going back to work.


As many as four million Indians, most of them women, are employed in informal waste collection

Ayaan’s father buys his stock from collectors who gather discarded items from the street, from businesses and sometimes from garbage dumps. The collectors are widely referred to as "rag pickers". The name is similar to that given to the "rag and bone" men who collected unwanted household items from the streets of my north of England hometown during my childhood. The name came from their calling out "rag and bone" as they came through the streets, often with a pony and cart, alerting people to their presence. Indian rag pickers do not have the luxury of this form of transport and generally carry their finds on their backs.

As many as four million Indians, most of them women, are employed in informal waste collection. Their contribution to public cleansing and recycling is largely overlooked and poorly rewarded. The work is hazardous and exposes the collectors to infection, injury and in extreme cases risk of death. Saumaya Roy’s 2021 book Mountain Tales is an in-depth examination of the lives (and loves) of several families who make a living from sorting waste on a municipal rubbish dump in Mumbai. It follows the individual stories of the workers and describes in detail their work and living conditions. A few kilometres outside Jhalawar there is a rag-picker settlement of 35 families. Their makeshift camp is situated outside the city boundary, away from the residential areas and without running water or electricity.


I arrived at the camp at about half past ten in the morning. The residents were curious and perhaps a little suspicious about receiving an unexpected guest, but on seeing the camera began asking to be photographed. Some produced mobile phones and requested “selfies”. The volume of photographic requests soon became overwhelming and there was some jostling.  My friend, guide and interpreter Vikas called order, saying that we would photograph them in family groups, one by one. I also took some individual portraits, including of Eeran, a girl of perhaps twelve years. She wore her blonde-brown hair swept back under a headband and looked directly into the camera. Her expression was hard to read a mixture of curiosity and a half, almost sad smile.



Grandmother and grandchildren. Pardhi settlement near Jhalawar

"Criminal" by birth

A young man stepped forward and began to explain that this was a settlement of Pardhi people, an Adivasi, or tribal group, originally from Madhya Pradesh. The name Pardhi comes from papardhi the Sanskrit word for hunting, reflecting their former occupation. They were traditionally forest dwellers, skilled in the use of bows and arrows, swords and hunting traps. This way of life was curtailed by the passing of the 1971 Wildlife Act which outlawed hunting.It was not the first time that legislation had significant negative impact on the tribe. The 1871 Criminal Tribes Act enacted by the British colonial government branded 150 Adivasi groups, including the Pardhi, as “criminal” by birth. This may have been in part, an act of revenge, due to their having participated in the 1857 revolt against colonial rule. The Act not only gave the police sweeping powers against those covered by its stipulations, but also ensured they were stigmatised in Indian society. Although this legislation was overturned after Independence in 1951, the stigma continues today.


An unintentional impact of the Wildlife Act was to further impoverish the Pardhi. Their traditional way of life forbidden, they now earn a living through agricultural work, the sale of food and handicraft items, and in some cases, begging. Many Pardhi can be found in Mumbai including the women who attempt to sell garlands to tourists outside high end hotels. Others, like the group near Jhalawar work as rag pickers. 

"Sometimes the dealers try to reduce the price to 25 or even 23 rupees per kilo".


I spent some time with several members of an extended family group. One of the younger men explained that the people here collect plastic and glass bottles which they then sell on to dealers who sort and sell the items on to larger companies. In return for one kilo of plastic they will receive 30 rupees – about 30 pence. I asked him, “how many bottles do you need to make a kilo?” “One hundred” he replied before adding “Sometimes the dealers try to reduce the price to 25 or even 23 rupees per kilo. We can’t do anything about this, there are many rag pickers, and the buyers can pay what they like”. For a single glass bottle, the going rate is three rupees. The Pardhi seem trapped in this way of life. Many have no formal education and although they claimed to be sending their children to school, few complete their studies. The health risks associated with the work are compounded by widespread alcohol abuse amongst the men. Despite the morning hour, many of them smelled of drink. Some had slurred speech or were unsteady on their feet.


The excitement about being photographed was widespread but one family stood back. Their home was of slightly higher quality and appeared more robust than those of their neighbours. There were other differences too. It was a family with only one child – a boy of eight or nine years, cleaner and better dressed than the other children – and the father did not smell of alcohol. They lived on the edge of the settlement, as if they had made a deliberate attempt to separate themselves. It was clear that the boy wanted to have his picture taken, and as we left, his father called me over and I photographed the two of them. The mother stood to one side, watching before going back inside their home.