The tribal people of India are the oldest inhabitants of the country. India houses 573 types of indigenous tribes, that is about 104 million people. This is the largest population of the tribal people in the world! But how much do we actually know about their culture and heritage? One filmmaker is out on her own mission to change this!
Jennifer Alphonse has won 3 State Awards, 17 International Film Awards and her work has also been to Cannes! Now, the filmmaker wants to highlight the near-to-extinct Gond tribe from the Adilabad region in Telangana and their extraordinary dance form – Gusadi. Talking about her inspiration to make a film on the Gonds, Jennifer says, “Three years ago I visited Adilabad a small district in Telangana India to meet the Gond tribe and that’s when I saw their traditional dance form, Gusadi. I was absolutely mind blown, they had so much energy, and there was so much sacredness attached to the whole performance. Also the myth surrounding the spiritual nature of this dance! All this got me thinking, why doesn’t the world know about this tribe nor about their dance form?
From that day onwards I wanted to make a Documentary which can showcase to the world their rich heritage, culture and this magical ritualistic dance form, Gusadi.” Through this documentary, Jennifer wants to make sure that this ancient tribe is not wiped out. From shooting in deep dark jungles around wild animals to talking to asking the crowd to put their faith in her – Jennifer is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that Gusadi does not fade away.
The tribal communities of Telangana have robust and fascinating folk dances and these dances are the most vital segment of their cultural heritage. These simple tribal folk have been tenaciously preserving and performing their fascinating and enchanting ethnic dances in spite of onslaughts of modern civilisation.
Among the tribal populations of India, the Gonds stand out by their numbers, the vast expanse of their habitat, and their historical importance. The Gonds are one of the most famous and important tribes in India, known for their adulation of astronomy, they are a mystical lot, too! They are mainly a nomadic tribe and call themselves as Koytoria. The term ‘Gond’ is derived from the Telugu word ‘Konda’ which means hill. Gond Tribes are primarily located in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, eastern Maharashtra, northern Telangana and western Orissa. With a population of over 4 million, Gonds also form the largest tribal group in central India. Gond kingdoms were collapsed due to the invasion of Mughal and Maratha armies but some of the Gond chiefs retained their status of feudal chief till the attainment of independence of the country from British.
Like almost all other activities in the life of the Adivasi Gonds, the sacred dances of Dandari and Gusadi are associated with farming. In fact, the Dandari starts at the beginning of the agriculture season when the seeds germinate. The Dandari dance, which stretches for 105 days until harvest time, incorporates songs which beseech gods for the protection of the crops. The dance is performed every night in the tribal hamlets for an hour or two after the Gonds return from fields. After performing this ritual all the villagers return to the village and assemble at the center of the village and place all their musical instruments on a cot in front of the deity called Akhadi Pen which presides over musical instruments is worshipped.
“Deepavali is the largest festival for the Raj Gonds of Adilabad district. As the harvest is over and the season is cool and congenial, the Gonds, dressed in colourful costumes and adorned with ornaments, visit neighbouring villages in troupes, singing, and dancing. Every troupe consists of twenty to forty members. ‘Gusadi’ is a part of ‘Dandari’, begins on the full moon day and goes on until the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of Deepavali,” informs Jennifer.
While they are dressed and are performing, the Gusadi dancers are believed to be possessed by spirits (God rests in them). So people from the tribe flock to them to get blessed and worship them. Apparently, these dancers behave differently also when dressing like this — they’ll eat 4-5 times as much as they usually do, speak in an incomprehensible language too. So people from the tribe invite them to their houses/villages and ask them to come perform and bless their families. They organize feasts for them as well.
Despite the condition in which these tribes are today where even basic needs are a struggle, Jennifer Alphonse was amazed to see that they are so strongly rooted and continue to practice their ancestral rituals. “They are trying hard to keep it alive and pass it on to their future generations which not many communities do. It also made me realize that I am from a country which is so deeply rooted with such rich culture and heritage, which I in my own way not just value it but strive to take it forward to the coming generations,” says Jennifer.
Narrating an anecdote from her days spent amidst the Gonds researching for the documentary, Jennifer says, “The Gonds worship Jangubai – their deity. They have a sacred cave temple dedicated to the deity in the forest land. However, no one is seen around this cave temple post-sunset! The legend says that whoever goes there at night does not return! The elders claim to have seen a tiger spirit that guards the temple at night and disappears at night. What is even more strange is that no torch or electrical light source can give light in the cave, only a fire torch works. Other sources get extinguished on their own! ”
Jennifer believes that her film will help get the Gonds a lot of exposure – which means they can perform this dance in many places, and that will earn them a good amount of money. “Also, tourism will develop, employment opportunities will open up which will make their life better because right now, they are struggling to find even basic facilities like clean drinking water, medical facilities, good roads, children education etc. Most importantly, it will motivate the present generation of the tribe to keep this dance form alive and save it from getting lost forever because they won’t be any need for them to move to cities for a better living,” adds Jennifer. The documentary will help bring awareness to this region and its inhabitants who now need us to step in and help them save their livelihood, art and forests.
The only roadblock Jennifer Alphonse faces in telling the story of the Gonds and their Gusadi to the world is finances. After facing a massive shortage of funds for this topic despite her stellar credits she turned to crowdfunding. This project needs 7 lakhs to be completed, for which they are on Wishberry. Click on this link to access a video that talks about the project and also view some pictures that could serve as inspiration. Know about the project here.
Text by Aarti Kapur Singh