This Holi, He Plans to Beg – Story of a Nat

By Prakash Gupta, Youth for India Fellow 2014-2015

Nat

A Nat family sitting on the pasture land

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While walking through the village road to do my project work, I saw 8-10 people sitting in the farm land nearby. These people seemed to be more impoverished than any local resident of the area. However, this was not the first time that I have seen such a scene around my village. On most occasions, I was in the bus and never had the opportunity to talk to these people and know more about them. To satisfy curiosity and know more about them, I asked villagers about these people. These people belong to a caste called ‘Nat’. The word ‘Nat’ is derived from the Hindi word ‘Natak’ which literally means ‘drama’ or ‘play’. While there are number of popular folklores that mentions about ‘Nats’, it was strange that none of the local people talk to these people.

People gave a number of reasons like – ‘they have a different language’, ‘they are not indigenous people’, ‘they have really short tempers and tend to fight on trivial issues’, etc. The villagers were concerned about my questioning and warned me about them, before I went to talk to a family (in the picture). People said ‘be careful they have a dog with them, it would be better if you talk to them at least by keeping yourself 5 meters away’. Now being a local person myself, I adhered to the warning and talked to them from a good distance.

Who are they?

Nats are professional dancers, acrobats and dramatists who are nomadic (or semi-nomadic) in nature. These people travel from one place to another and have no permanent home. However, the family I met said that they are permanent residents of Chitorgarh and travel here for food for themselves and their animals.

What do they do?

Well, they beg. They go from door to door and ask for meals or money. Each family has a certain number of houses in the local area from where they have a tradition to take away some food or money. They have a fixed time to visit the places (after harvesting). Occasionally, they perform dances or acrobatic stunts in the area. According to folklore, decades (or centuries) before, people came to a consensus that the people who belong to the Nat caste will have the job to ‘beg’.

Villagers do give them food or money but in general, they don’t talk to them. They let them stay for a few days in their fields but they don’t let them come inside their houses to drink or eat. They carry food, utensils, sleeping mats, donkeys, goats and dogs while travelling from one place to another.

Damroo – A member of the family I talked to

So, I initiated a conversation with the family while heeding the warning given by the local people. I stood over the boundary wall and spoke to a young lad, standing near the wall. His name is Damroo. With curiosity, I asked him whether he goes to school or not. He said he is studying in class VI. I asked him, ‘what are you doing here? Don’t you need to prepare for the final exams?’ He replied that, he is enrolled in the school but was unable to go to the school regularly because of his work. , Damroo is unable to go to school, because his family migrates from one place to another for survival. He further added, “even if I go to school, the teacher doesn’t let me in. It is rarely that I get the opportunity to go to school.”

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Damroo and his sisters

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As we were talking, I could sense from his stares the he was hoping that I would give him something (money or food) at the end of our conversation. He asked me about the date of the Holi festival. I answered him promptly and asked what is so special on that day? He said, “I and my family need to go to the highway of Gogunda (nearest highway) to stop the cars that pass by and ask for ‘Holi’ (that’s asking for money).” What do they do with the money? Well, according to him, they cook sweet dish that day to celebrate Holi.

What is the reality of the ‘Nat’ caste?

The population of the Nats is less than 0.4% of the total SC population in Rajasthan. They were known to have their origins from the ‘Mewar’ region itself. Some of the Nats are also cattle traders. Majority of them, like Damroo’s family are landless and unskilled professional beggars. Many of them are also engaged in unskilled jobs as laborers.

After I finished my conversation with Damroo, he was still looking at my eyes with optimism that I would give him some money or food. I wasn’t sure if I should give him some money. Therefore, I started walking away saying ‘thank you’ for taking his time for the conversation. But he stopped me and asked for money. I generously gave him a note and his happiness and exhilaration at receiving that tiny amount was huge and was worth taking a snap. Unfortunately, I was unable to do that.

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Dungar Dev Puja

By Soaham Datta, Youth for India fellow (20014-2015)

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I recently had the opportunity to attend a most unique festival called Dungar Dev Puja. Every five years, an entire village or a family lineage comes together to pray to the God of their hill. Their belief is that the Hill God protects their crops and their families from droughts and diseases and ensures  overall good health. The uniqueness of the festival, however, lies in its customs.

Dang district is located in the southern fringes of the state of Gujarat. It has 98% tribal population and 70% forest cover. It forms one end of the Western Ghats and thus, is also host to the only hill station of Gujarat, Saputara. Due to the lack of irrigation systems, most of the farmers of the district can only grow crops in the monsoon season. The poor farmers are subject to distress migration during the other months, when they have to travel to Shirdi and other nearby towns and cities in search of livelihood. My project, developing rural tourism, aims to generate income for the local farmers by employing them in this commercial tourism venture.

As Bhaskar Bhai and I wound our way through the cold December night to reach the Nawagaon hilltop, we were welcomed by slow meandering notes of an instrument and eerie singing voices. As the spectacle unfolded, I noticed writhing bodies dancing around  a fire, high shrieking laughter, sombre women holding plates of offerings and lamps and people playing strange instruments and singing. Bhaskar Bhai explained the entire setting before me, “This is a special night for these people. It is the night that the spirits of the hill enter their bodies.” Against the backdrop of a dark Saputara, ancient rituals ensued. Bhaskar Bhai went on, “When these spirits take hold of a body, the man becomes infallible. We have seen men break stones with their own foreheads, walk on burning coals and lie on prickly thorn branches.” I simply stood startled for the first few moments, not knowing what to expect. A young screeching man came close, as I watched hesitantly. Without warning he shifted some burning logs, revealing smouldering ashes and splinters of burning wood. I remembered roasting tomatoes in my camping trips, on such glowing ashes. And he went on to trample these glowing ashes in brazen fury with his bare feet, howling into the night, before pausing and rejoining the singing dancing procession. Barely had I gathered myself that a bare-chested young fellow flung himself into a cluster of thorny branches, only to emerge visibly unhurt. All of them, one way or the other, corroborated the presence of the Dungar Dev spirit. While the young men continued to revel in their possessed state, it was the music that really drew my attention.

Two instruments were used, the Pavri and the Thadi. A Pavri is made out of the shell of a bottle gourd and horn of an Ox, decorated with peacock flowers and played by blowing into the mouthpiece. The sound of the Thadi is created by slowly running your fingers over the hollow stem of a ‘Sir’ plant that is placed on a metal plate with a small sheath of a beehive connecting them. While the Pavri is responsible for a throaty concoction of variable pitches, it was the sound of the Thadi that set the eerie undertone for the night. The surreal resonance of the two unusually talented singers from Maharashtra and their Thadi playing will remain with me for some time to come.

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