It all started for me as a kid accompanying my father - my interest in communities. My father had a deep interest in the region where he was born. He constantly worked with empowering the communities he grew up with. He was a Director of Lighthouse & Lightships, but was committed to working with the fishing communities at Mannur, using his engineering skills to build better catamarans and other infrastructure. He vehemently opposed the use of agri-chemicals and conducted workshops on how they endangered health and ecosystems for the farming communities in Prakasam District in Andhra Pradesh. As a kid I used to ride the high tides of the coastal waves with no fear, as I felt that the catamaran built by him would never fail. He was my hero and he had successfully sown the seeds of my deep-rooted interest in communities at a tender age.
I grew up with the banalities of mainstream education and its competition but this interest he instilled in me, though latent for many years, kept me in deep search for alternatives. My interest deepened when during my stay in the U.S. I found the space to experience and experiment with various communities. I worked with friends there to create farming cooperatives. With the arrival of Rea, my daughter, I participated in breast feeding campaigns, started an alternative food movement to create awareness and oppose infants being fed with bottled pureed food. Later, I spent a couple of years teaching at an alternative school and participated in many more such activities that helped me strengthen my understanding and interest.
A Festival of more than Music
After coming back to India, I took some time settling down and the keenness to engage with communities dimmed for a while; until the Kabir fest - a festival of Music to celebrate the poetry and philosophy of Kabir was held in Bangalore. I met Mir Mukhtiyar Ali, a Sufi singer at this festival and the mystical experience I experienced during his performance remains etched in my being - I had to meet him and understand his background. I discovered that he belonged to the 25th generation of Sufi singers from the Mirasi community. On deeper questioning, I was told, that the oral tradition of Sufi music in this community was on the verge of extinction. I traveled to his hometown Pugal, Rajasthan, to understand how the survival of such a rich age-old tradition had become endangered and if I could play a role in keeping it alive…
I embarked on a journey - and little did I know that it was a journey of a life-time, when I started for Pugal, a border town, 60 km from Pakistan. It took us three full days to arrive at Bikaner, the district headquarters from where we took a cab for the final stretch of our journey. It was a moonlit night and the vast expanse of nothingness as we traveled lent me a strange feeling of perplexity - who would listen to a great singer like Mukthiyar Ali in these desert sands? Finally, we reached Pugal close to midnight on that very cold winter night in December. I was welcomed by his family into his modest home. I struggled to sleep that night, and many other nights too, as I became aware of the state of many artistes in India.
The Meaning of Community
The next morning I met his 85 year old father who was a store house of knowledge. He told me stories of all the trials and tribulations of his community. I understood that the Mirasis survived through sheer grit and determination of its members who valued their identity. Defined by the spirit and intent, rather than just music, they could challenge homogenization and standardization which threatened to take over. Their collective knowledge and their ability to translate this knowledge into resources and practice helped them overcome livelihood challenges in the past.
A Folk or Artisan community is not just an ideal or philosophy. In a sense it is ordained by Nature, providing within itself an ecological place for every human being. Interestingly, there existed a system of barter in the rural society. Vasiyat Khan (Mukhthiyarji’s father) talked of how in the rural community, different groups specialized in specific occupations and had an elaborate mechanism for exchange and interrelatedness of services within the community. In this system, the artisans were paid annually in grain at harvest time, provided with clothing and residential facilities in exchange for their service during all ceremonies. With the fall of such traditional systems the artisan communities are left struggling for survival today.
The mass migration in pursuit of economic security has turned rural hamlets like Pugal, into ghost towns. Tiny farm plots lie fallow, their modest homes shuttered. The owners have gone to cities – probably as unskilled labour. A great number of village artisans, craftsmen, weavers, artists and skilled operatives are thrown out of their age-old occupations and are virtually forced to join as marginalized agricultural laborers, thus further increasing the already heavy pressure on the meager amount of cultivable land. But, eventually, unable to sustain the burden of the present agricultural policies and the chemical intensive farming practices, they find their way to the dirty city pavements. Apart from a few like Mukhtiyarji who are willing to face hardships to continue as artists, the rest unfortunately take up jobs that they do not like to do. Their children are attracted to the promise of modernity in life in the city and struggle for admission into mainstream educational institutions.
We live in times when, knowledge acquired by rational faculties and logical deduction has taken over experiential knowledge, which is based on authority, intuition and insight. In oral traditions like that of the Mirasis learning by the next generation takes place through direct oral communication where the young have a strong sense of affiliation to their families as well as their community. Great systems of articulate folklore emerge in communities only if such affiliation, personal authority and also convention are an accepted way of life - and today, along with the denial of convention and experiential learning in modern learning systems, we are facing the denial of communities.
Traditional communities are not just about shared spaces, but about shared participation: they are about shared faith and common culture; about generating and regenerating people physically, morally and spiritually. Culture in this sense is sustained through the community. The culture of the modern society, with its emphasis on the market as the organizing principle of life, is the exception to the link between culture and communities. Market culture undermines traditional communities where ever it penetrates – just as it has now undermined the Mirasi community at Pugal.
When communities are lost and uprooted, for an artist it is not just a loss of economic opportunity but the loss of all bearing, the crumbling of values, culture, familiarity, mutual-respect, affection, support and meaningfulness, leading to a sort of existential angst. Thus the artist’s or artisans attachments, their web of relations which give meaning, all come to be disrupted.
Anthony Giddens describes the characteristic disruption of space and time engendered by globalization, itself the consequence of industrial capitalism, which destroys the sense of belonging, and ultimately the individual identity. The continuities of space and time are closely related: the loss of sense of place gradually threatens identity, whether personal or cultural. The sense of place is not just where he lived but also where his forefathers did and his children will continue to be. Continuities of time are disrupted as the traditions that embody them are undervalued or discarded, as ways of thinking and behaving change. With globalization, such change no longer happens at a pace that culture can absorb them but happens rapidly, wiping away the past.
This change leads to increasing urbanization and fragmentation of social bonds within communities, leaving us feeling less and less as if we belong anywhere. This kind of living becomes machine like arousing psychological anxieties and conflicts. ‘Belonging’ comes from the same Old English word ‘langian’ which forms the root of ‘longing’. In our struggle to find belonging, it seems like we seek gratification in joining the band of habitual consumers of everything – food, money, things, even relationships.
There may be myriad reasons, socio-economic, political and others, which thwart the continuity and sustenance of communities. Despite the challenges, it is an extremely rewarding experience to work with such communities - while engaging in processes that help them rejuvenate, regenerate and reconnect with their identity – we may ourselves touch deep experiences that make life worth living. For me, after connecting with the Mirasis, I realize that my journey has just begun with Pugal.