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Adivasi Dance And The Culture Of Collectivism

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Dance is an important representation of culture and art in all societies. When it comes to Adivasi/indigenous communities, dance not only plays a central role in their identity formation but also in communicating their worldview. There is a popular proverb among Oraon Adivasis, which goes, “Ekna dim tokna, Baa’na dim parna,” meaning, “Walking is dancing and talking is singing.

Among the Adivasi communities of India, dance is an inalienable part of their rituals, customs, and culture. It is not just cultural expressions of the community, but a reflection of their philosophy and more importantly, it is a repository of their collective knowledge and wisdom. 

Baha Dance performed by Santhal Adivasis| Image: Biju Toppo

There are thousands of dance traditions, but Adivasi dance forms stand apart because of their strong connection with the culture of collectivism. The symbolic message of “working together, living together and dancing together” is communicated to all community members through their beautiful songs and dances. 

The single most defining feature of Adivasi dance is its deep-rooted connection with nature. No matter what the season, life cycle, socio-cultural cultural context or human emotions that prevail, interacting with nature is the cross-cutting theme in all Adivasi dances. Although there are hundreds of Adivasi dance forms and are linked to special festivals, occasions, and life-cycle events, some have become more popular than others. Some of the most popular ones include Karam dance among Oraons, Baha Dance among Santhals, Ghoomar among Bhils, and Timli dance among the Adivasis of Gujarat.

Karam dance performance  | Image- Biju Toppo

Singers invoke nature in its various forms and call them friends, relatives, mentors, and well-wishers. Trees, leaves, birds, animals, mountains, rivers, forests, the whole natural world is invited into an Adivasi dance with love and affection. Often the leader of the group will hold a branch of a tree and the team will decorate themselves with flowers making a deep connection with nature. Adivasi philosophy views nature and human beings as hybrids, where they both are inseparable partners, and this is clearly displayed in their dance acts. 

Another distinctive feature of Adivasi dance is that it is a non-spectator performance where all members irrespective of their age, gender or religion come together as a group with highly synchronised beautiful body movement to the rhythm of Mandar or Nagada.

Unlike other traditional dances in the Indian subcontinent, Adivasi dances are never an individualistic indulgence but are performed in large groups with complex coordination of body movements by all members. It is important to note that all members of the dancing group are connected to each other through body touch, either by holding hands or gently touching the waist. The sense of rhythm and movement is communicated to each other through these connections of touch. Body touch among Adivasi dancers also builds feelings of trust and togetherness among its group members. 

Oraon Adivasis preparing for their traditional dance | Image- Biju Toppo

Adivasi dances are never taught in any formal setting like students of classical Indian dances are. Children learn it by joining dances with their elder siblings, friends, parents or elders. It is a very special feeling of belonging when younger ones are included in larger dance groups where they can share their emotions and match their body movements with others. In an Adivasi community, dancing together becomes a process in schooling on culture and rituals of the group.  

Community members enjoying dance on occasion of a marriage | Image- Biju Toppo

Just like other indigenous cultures, dance performances of Adivasis hold important symbolic value and socio-cultural messages. Almost all the Adivasi dances create circular or semi-circular formations of dancers, which symbolically communicate unity, peace, strong sense of community belonging. It also infuses the ideology of collectivism, which has become an integral part of Adivasi identity and culture. Strong belief and alliance with Adivasi beliefs, customs, rituals, and traditions are affirmed through their collective performance. The ideology of community over the individual, selflessness over selfishness, cooperation over greed is transferred from one generation to another through the beautiful cultural education of dance in Adivasi communities. 

About the author: Dr. Abhay Xaxa has a Ph.D. in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University and recipient of the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Programme. He works with National Campaign for Adivasi Rights and writes on issues of Indigenous Peoples in India. 

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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