Gauri or Gavri dance as it is popularly known is a forty-day festival observed by the tribal communities of Mewar where men dress up as various characters including women to appease the Gods.
I entered the non-descript room which was located in a corner of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh (MSMS) II Museum in the City Palace. I saw about fifty men and women sitting in the room. I also saw two foreign looking men (who I later discovered were the American photographer Waswo X. Waswo and Giles Tilloston, consultant director, research exhibitions, MSMSII Museum) and a Sonika Soni, a art historian sitting in the front of the room. The topic of discussion was Waswo X. Waswo’s recently released book ‘Gauri Dancers’ by Mapin Publishing while a slide show which displayed some pages of book played in the back ground. Waswo has been living in Udaipur in Rajasthan for the past twelve years where he collaborates with the local artists to create sepia-coloured pictures along with the photo-hand colourist Rajesh Soni.
Waswo talked about how he was introduced to the style of Gauri when he was clicking a picture of a Gauri dancer in 2010 as a part of a regular series. However, it was only in 2011 when he encountered a man selling Gauri masks that he decided to create a book by using the dancers as models and creating appropriate back drops for them. In fact, this book is the only English-language book on the tradition which features the portraits of performers.
I looked at the crowd. Some were busy chatting on their phones while the others were listening to the conversation. I was wondering about what was so interesting about a bunch of sepia-toned, hand-coloured photographs when Waswo started talking about the Gauri or Gavri, the forty-day festival which is celebrated by tribal communities of Mewar, in southern Rajasthan. The celebrations commence on the next day of Rakshabandhan, a period which is interestingly known as the most inauspicious period according to the Hindu calendar because it is believed that the Gods go to sleep after Raksha Bandhan and no auspicious activities including marriages are held during this period. During the forty days, the men from the Bheel, Gameti and Meena communities observe strict fasting and do not eat in the night. They abstain from non-vegetarian food, alcohol and walk barefoot and sleep on the floor. The predominant belief behind this entire ritual is that if they worship Lord Shiva and his wife Goddess Parvati by observing these austerities, then the gods will bless them with ample rain during the rowing season and an abundant crop.
The interesting aspect according to the historian Sonika Soni was that no women take part in these celebrations. Women are an important part of the audience and the welcome group as the performers travel from village to village during these forty days. The performers generally choose the villages where their daughters have been wed and the villagers from these villages host these performers. In these performances, many performers play multiple characters and keep improvising and changing their costume depending on the act. The stories are based on Shiva, his wives Mohini and Parvati and Bhasmasur, the demon. They wear makeshift and locally improvised costumes. Only one character called Rai Bhudiya wears a mask who acts as Shiva and Bhasmasur. The wives of Shiva are Mohini and Parvati. Sonika Soni recounted how men and women from the village seek blessings from the performers as they believe that the performers imbibe the gods during this period.
Waswo narrated an anecdote where he had invited the performers to his make-shift studio in outskirts of Udaipur and told them that he wanted to photograph them in their costume. The performers were so enamoured by the idea that they kept coming back for photographs even when they did a minor change to their costume for the upcoming act. He also talked about a photograph which had several children posing together as ‘monkeys’. He said that the children of the tribal community just stay keep watching the performance and do the odd jobs for the performers. According to him, nothing has ever been documented in this age-old tradition and everything including the acts, stories is word of mouth which has been passed on from generation to generation.
Sonika Soni said that in the recent years, the NGOs from various parts of Rajasthan have started taking an interest in this festival and may be the government will also start doing something for these artists who are endeavouring to preserve an age-old custom. However Waswo had a different take on this and said that as of now the tribal community and the festival has been thriving with the support of the local villages. He said that the intervention from the local authorities should not take away the spirit of the festival and transform it into just a day-long affair for the amusement of the tourists, something like what happened to the Kathakali, the famous dance from Kerala.
For me the photographs from the book were just the icing on the cake. The real deal was the Gauri dance and the dancers who have been keeping this folk tradition alive without any incentive except their faith in their Gods. In a non-descript room of the museum in the City Palace I had a rendezvous with the living and breathing history of Rajasthan, something that has not been relegated to commercial performances, at least not yet.
Shailaza Singh’s article on Gauri Dancers was published in Rashtradoot’s Arbit on November 2, 2019.