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Documenting Bahujan Musical Instruments

Documenting Bahujan Musical Instruments

chandraiah gopani new 2021

Dr. Chandraiah Gopani

chandraiah gopani new 2021The book under review entitled ‘Mula Dhwani’ (Aboriginal Sound) is edited by Jayadhir Thirumal Rao and Guduru Manoja. This book was released in 2019, both in Telugu and English with the same title. In the absence of studies on Bahujan Musical Traditions, the book is a unique work in documenting more than 50 musical instruments of Bahujan communities (SC, ST, OBC and Religious Minorities). The book is a result of long-term fieldwork of both authors. Majority of the instruments which are documented in the book are at the stage of extinction with only single performers. Hence, before writing the book, the authors organized a big Mula-dhwani music concert with more than 200 artistes. The music concert was recorded and later brought it into the book form for a wider audience (pp.ix).

The book is an attempt to introduce more than 50 music instruments of Adivasis in particular and Bahujan communities in general. The authors did not intend to go into deep study of each instrument, their purpose was to show the readers how Bahujan communities produced a variety of musical instruments, preserved and performed them for generation to generation.

mula dhwani book cover

There are two categories of musical instruments that the book documents 1. Leather based instruments 2. Stringed instruments. All the instruments are performed by people who made it. These instruments are used in their social, religious and everyday life on different occasions. The Adivasi communities had/have rich music knowledge, their instruments are an essential part of their cultural life. In the Telugu region Gonds, Goravayyalu, Banjara, Nayakapodu, Koya, Guttikoya, Kondaredlu etc. carry their rich music life. As the book shows, each tribe has its own specific music instruments which they use in their ritual/cultural life. The authors of the book argue that

“Indian music usually implies either classical Hindustani or Carnatic styles. We never attempt to reflect upon the roots and origins of these musical styles. The era before the advent of the instruments pertaining to these two realms is the quintessential musical golden age. We consider it as a bygone chapter. We do neglect or wish to ignore the long-standing thirst of past mankind who generations upon generations digested and assimilated string after string musical harmonies and sounds”. (pp.v-vi)

A Museum for Bahujan musical instruments and art

Museums, libraries, archives, art galleries are considered to be the source of history, heritage and knowledge sites that have to be protected and carefully studied. However, in India majority or almost all the museums, libraries, archives and art galleries are places for Brahmanical and elite cultural heritages and histories which are institutionalized through these spheres. The state ideological apparatus continues to reproduce the Brahmanical notions of art, artifacts, heritage for public consumption. The histories, texts, art, musical instruments of the Bahujan communities are deliberately excluded and degraded for centuries.

With many hardships these indigenous instruments are passed from one generation to another. Jayadhir Thirumal Rao and Guduru Manoja argue that many instruments that are used by Adivasi and Bahujan communities are directly linked with their production and labour life. Therefore, pure and impure division of music does not exist among the musical world of Bahujan communities. The Bahujan musical traditions survived even in the absence of the patronage of the state and other institutions for centuries. It clearly tells us that these traditions are inherent to the cultural life of these communities. So, these traditions or not recorded in museums, archives, and art galleries. Hence, the book Mula Dhwani suggests the need for museums and art galleries for Bahujan community’s heritage.

The Bahujan community’s contribution towards Indian civilization has to be written and preserved. The indigenous musical traditions are the expression of the lifeworld of the Bahujan communities. While there is no written tradition of these music styles and the process of making these instruments, each generation have improvised in its own way. The book also documents music of the Siddis, who are believed to have been brought by kings to recruit in armies and security forces in different places. They spread into Hyderabad, Karnataka, Gujarat and Maharashtra etc. They converted to Islam and used different musical instruments like Arabic, Duff, Marfa etc. Pamba is a pair instrument performed by Pambala caste which is the priestly caste of the Malas in the Telugu region. Its two sides are covered with leather skin. It is played with hands on the left side and sticks on the right side. Two Pambas are called Pambajodu (pair), and instruments like Jamidika and Shruthi are accompany the Pamba. While one plays Pamba another person will play Talalu. With these instruments they perform many rituals by narrating stories of village goddesses.

Dance and music are intrinsic to Bahujan community’s life

Dance and Music are intrinsic to the Bahujan community’s life. Unlike Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, Bahujan communities have not imposed any rules for their dance forms, the artistes enjoy full freedom in performing the dances. On majority of the occasions, both males and females take part in dances — Dhimsa, Chindata and Bathukamma are a case in point. The dance forms of the Bahujan communities are yet to be studied. The music instruments like Dappu create many rhythms to which people respond and bend their bodies as the beat goes.

Adivasis have special skills and knowledge in making unique music instruments. The Oujam instrument is an essential art of Kondaredlu tribe. The priest of Kondaredlu would make this instrument with devotion: the stem of panasa (jack fruit) or Bandari or Karum of around three feet length is needed in the making of Oujam. It is parched on two sides. It is broad on two sides but the middle portion would be narrower in order to hold. Seven slices of wood of two and half inch length are tied with fiber in the middle. The instrument contains twelve holes. For enhanced sound, other features are incorporated where it is to be drummed. (pp.86)

Runja is an important instrument of Runjavaru. Runjavaru are a semi-nomadic part of the Vishvakarmas (Gold smith, Carpenter, Iron smith, Brass smith, Stone cutters) in the Telugu region. Runja is an Avanadha Vadyam (membranophone). The Vishvakarma communities also started a literary organization called ‘Runja”. The instruments become a cultural symbol for these communities. In the initial days, the instrument was prepared with either palm or coconut stem in Kerala. With modern developments, now Runja is usually prepared with metal, iron or brass. The Runja instruments were mentioned in Palanati Veeracharitra, Molla Ramayanam etc., way back one thousand years ago. The instrument also resembles the tribal instruments of Mexico and African countries. While emphasizing the uniqueness of Runja, authors argued that

“Thirty-two (32) instruments could be played on Runja with twenty (20) above ragas with seven (07) notes. Waist length Runja is played with both the hands or with two sticks. They create wondrous sounds on it. While playing Runja seventy-two joints vertebra, sixty-six nerves and nine openings navadraralu. 15 kilogrames muscle vibrate. All these commotions would be connected with the instrument”. (pp. 59-60)

Another important music instrument is Dappu. Dappu is known as the oldest instrument in the Telugu region, like the Parai in Tamil Nadu. There are many types of Dappus depending on their sizes, making and playing patterns. Tribes and untouchables play Dappu. Among untouchables, Madigas are associated with Dappu. It is not an exaggeration to say that in every village of Telugu states Dappu is played on many occasions–from birth to death, marriage, festivals and political movements etc. (pp 33). As it is said, percussion instruments are of many types. Some are parched one side, e.g. Dappu and others on both sides e.g. Pamba. Dappu was known as Duff in Arabic countries in olden days. In Indian states it is known Halige in Karnataka, Thapeta, Thammeta in Telugu region, Dafli in Hindi. (pp. 34) While commenting on some extinct instruments, the authors observe that

“Vichitra Veena, and Metla Kineera are indigenous instruments. Rudra Veena was ceased to play as barely there is anyone to play it. Only one person is alive who could play Burra Veena and tribal twelve lute stop Kineera. Similarly, there is one or two who could play Kaddi Vadyam. All of them are old. New generation could not catch up with the music for so many reasons, economic condition being one of them”. (pp.2)  

The above extract is clearly indicating that the vanishing musical instruments and traditions of the Bahujan communities have to be recorded and passed on to the next generation as their ancestral contributions to the music world. So, documenting these instruments is not merely an act of preserving instruments, it is an act of recording life and knowledge that is passed through the musical world.

Leather played a great role in producing the music instruments

The role of leather is historical in making music instruments. Majority of the Bahujan musical instruments are made out of leather. Leather being considered impure in Brahmanical thinking, Bahujan communities made the same impure element a base for Indian civilizational development. Leather not only played a great role in music but also in overall development of agriculture, security systems and in everyday life of humans. The musical instruments like Dappu, Nagara, Oggu, Dholu, Runja, Mrudangam, Thabala, Thitthi Vadyam etc. are made out of leather. Even the Mrudangam which is a part of the classical music concert is prepared by leather that too by Dalits.

But Dalits’ contribution in classical music is denied recognition (for more details see Sebastian and Sons, 2020). Making music instruments out of dead animal skin requires deeper knowledge of sound and instrument making processes. The book Mula Dhawani documents and argues that the Bahujan communities play a vital role in creation of both music and musical instruments since they are involved in production, artisanal life, being involved in physical labour and are closer to nature. They used all the available resources in nature to creatively produce human necessities, including musical instruments. So, their instruments are not intended to be used in leisure; majority of these instruments are used in their productive, cultural and ritual life, subsequently in the expression of their life world.  

It is clear from the authors’ experience in the book that there are many challenges in documenting these instruments. We can only identify these instruments when we go to the field and directly interact with makers and performers of the instruments, because, these instruments and performers are not visible in so called mainstream music domain. Therefore, they have to be understood within the cultural world of these communities. The forms and rhythms of these music are specific to the context unique to the community’s cultural world. Due to many historical factors these music traditions are vanishing. When these instruments vanish, the skills and knowledge of these instruments are also disappearing without record.

It is also true that due to rapid globalization processes these musical traditions could not sustain themselves and attract new generations of people within these communities. These musical traditions and its makers and performers are yet to enter into institutional and university spaces for deeper engagement. Therefore, scholars hardly get textual source for their studies. Though Bahujan women also take part in the musical life of these communities, majority of the instruments are prepared by males and performed by them. For each occasion they play separate beats. For marriage the beat is entirely different from the village deity festival and death rituals etc. Hence, it has to be studied: what kind of meanings are attached to each rhythm? What is the future of the traditional instruments in the era of rapid globalization and technological and virtual world changes? All these questions are important to address when we talk about future of these instruments. However, Mula Dhwani kind of scholarly works help in documenting and analyzing the Bahujan community’s contribution to the music world and become a source of inspiration for new generation of artistes, music composers, singers, cultural activists and scholars etc.



Dr. Chandraiah Gopani is an Assistant Professor in G.B Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad Central University. He has been teaching and doing research on Caste, Dalit Studies, Anti-Caste Intellectual Traditions, Subaltern Politics, Political Economy and Bahujan Musical Traditions, Students Movements and literary Traditions etc. He regularly writes in English and Telugu.