‘We sang our way all over the desert. We sang about the river, the trees and sand dunes. We hunted in the deserts, ate what we hunted and went from village to village. Wherever we went, we left a trail of music in our wake’…
If progress were a linear story moving swiftly from a traditional past to a modern future, technology would be the ghost that haunts Nidhi Dugar Kundalia’s insightful new book, The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions. At the very end of that story, our bodies will be anonymous and unmarked by tradition, healed by those trained in science and medicine, perfumed by scents whose flowers we don’t recognize. We will have a friendly app to mourn for us on Facebook. The Rudaali[i] will cease to exist except in song, for we would have no need for her anymore. The godna artist[ii], the ittar–waala[iii], the street dentist will be relegated to sepia stories representing a past we have run away from.
This book, however, concerns itself eleven people practicing professions that seemingly have no place in the present. The author takes us all over the country to have conversations with them in their homes, giving us a peek into their lives. Consider the bhisti wallahs[iv] of Calcutta: They seem to be curious leftover from the time the city had no plumbing, no water-supply, when water was running on two literal feet – it’s almost as if science, architecture and town planning conspired neatly to push him out of the city. So one has to wonder why there are any leftover at all. Why are there still street dentists, boat makers, water carriers if technology has intervened and industrialization has arrived?
Once we move past the novelty of these professions, of the nooks they occupy in battles and epics, of their romance and nostalgia, we have to ask, so what! Are these professions indeed anachronistic, stuck in a timewarp surrounded by Rudaalis waiting to weep? Or, as patriarchy, caste and feudalism change their natures, do they continue to make space for these professions? The use of present continuous tense in the title of the book (“dying”) is telling. When I first saw it, I nodded along: their death is indeed imminent. I asked myself, so what if these professions are dying? Perhaps if the very basis of these professions is ingrained into the caste system, isn’t it okay to let them die?
The author’s profile of a genealogist in Haridwar, Mahendra Panda is precariously poised. Panda is an upper caste man in Haridwar, whose family has been recording deaths for generations. He remains extremely vary of digitizing any of his records, fearing his livelihood will be threatened. At the same time, about using websites he says, “There are benefits of using a website (too). Nobody asks you your caste.”
Thankfully, the author doesn’t concern herself with a hypothetical future in which the modern wins over the traditional. For her, it is their present cultural relevance; their present state of existence. She says, in a piece in Scroll.in, “While recording the interviews, I found myself being critical of the patriarchal, casteist, classist and sexist world-view seemingly espoused by these professions and the organised religion they practise. But at the same time, I found myself grieving for the loss of these ancient vocations, the cultural diversities and mysterious characters they have produced over the years.” It is pertinent indeed to consider how we can celebrate these art forms and professions.
But how do we value an art form without acknowledging the practitioners of the art? Burrakatha[v] storytelling, calligraphy practiced by Urdu scribes, letter writers’ writing are some that the author considers, amongst many others I can think of. The author makes a fantastic effort to record their dreams and aspirations, their fears and follies. She looks for their present and their future, while mining our past for their stories. She finds the pride they take in the jobs they’ve been tasked with; the joy they find in their art.
At the same time, poverty is inextricable from so many of these stories, dulling the romance of the profiles in the book. If we can discard the homogeneity of their experiences, we see troubled things.
The burrakatha artist speaks of life as a denotified tribe, begging and taking up seasonal agricultural labour in cotton farms in Andhra Pradesh. The Rudaali is either tied to feudal landlords, or confined to the desert, wandering and mourning for dry rotis and raw onions, dreaming of the day her children might taste milk. Were these professions ever any more prosperous? I can’t say. The Rudaalis speak of their earlier lives as singers and nomads, begging with their husbands. The Burrakatha artist speaks of indignities he faced as a lower caste child in school. It leaves me wondering, should the onus of carrying them forward be solely on the artists, their families and communities? Their own concerns for their children are different. The Panda’s sons are doing bank jobs in Bangalore, the Burrakatha artist wants his children to go to college.
I don’t think anybody will reach the end of the book feeling comfortable. That’s what’s admirable about the book – it doesn’t offer you any answers, but it raises some very crucial questions about where we are now. It leaves me wanting to know more about the state of traditional professions today. Perhaps our thirst for the modern is muting them, consigning them to museums and storybooks, unshackling the practitioners from their art.
[i] Professional mourners in Rajasthan. Rudaalis are women who are often tied to feudal landlords to publicly mourn in place of their wives.
[ii] Godna is a traditional tattoo and body art form of the Baiga tribe in Central India.
[iv] Water carriers.
[v] A form of storytelling through folk music and street theatre in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
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About the author: A young journalist based out of Calcutta, Nidhi Dugar Kundalia is an MA from City University, London. She has written extensively on society, subcultures and cultural oddities in newspapers and magazines like the Hindu, the Times of India and Kindle and Open maga