400-year-old Jharkhand drummakers struggle to keep trade alive (Feature)

Adharjhor (Jharkhand), Dec 17 (Inditop.com) In the heart of a dense forest in the Patamda block, this ramshackle village of 100 thatched huts is fighting a tough battle to keep afloat its 400-year-old traditional craft – making percussion instruments.

The village is known for its special ‘hari khol’ – the percussion instrument offered to Lord Vishnu at shrines during ‘naam-kirtan’ (sessions of devotional music). It is located 35 km from Jamshedpur, the district headquarters of East Singhbhum.

The community of Rohidas craftsmen from the traditional cobbler caste who have been making instruments for the past four centuries say their “trade is on the verge of extinction” because of non-availability of cheap hardwood, animal hide and subsidised government loans.

“We trace our lineage to the great cobbler saint Rohidas (or Ravidas), the shoemaker, who was a disciple of Rama and Lord Vishnu,” 60-year-old Badal Rohidas, one of the oldest artisans in the village, told Inditop here.

“The saint made shoes for the great ascetics and sang ‘kirtans’ in praise of Vishnu with the khol and kartal (percussion instruments) in spare time. One of his legacies was music.”

Badal has just finished making a dozen new tabla sets, which he will sell at a weekend “streetside vend” near a Hanuman temple under a banyan tree in the steel city of Jamshedpur.

Every Sunday, before the break of dawn, a group of 35 percussion makers cycle down the 35-km stretch of forests from the Maoist hotbed of Patamda to Jamshedpur, lugging their cargo of drums on their bikes.

“My grandfather ferried percussion instruments from the village to hawk in the steel city as early as the 1920s, when it was just a village. The place from where we sell our drums has remained unchanged for the past 80 years though the city has grown,” Badal Rohidas said.

The artisan, along with 75 villagers, still continues his “traditional trade”.

“We do not have any other skill. But our children refuse to make drums,” Badal said.

Young Rohidas artisans, most of whom live below the poverty line, are now working as daily wage earners, masons and labourers in factories.

“We make a variety of percussion instruments like khol, kartal, tabla, dhol, madol, nagara, juninagara, nal and trishat – used in temples, traditional village and tribal festivals and at ‘jatras’ (open-air theatres),” artisan Meghnad Rohidas told Inditop.

The villagers of Adharjhor supply instruments to temples in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal.

The instruments are made of hardwood from shish, neem, jackfruit and sal trees and dressed with goat, buffalo and ox hides and coir rope.

While a tabla set costs Rs.650, the larger instruments are priced between Rs.1,000 and Rs.6,000, Meghnad said. Each instrument takes a week to make.

The wood is “sawn and chiselled to shape”. The animal hides are fitted after the wood moulds dry. “It is a tough job as every instrument has to be fine-tuned to produce the seven base notes of Indian classical music,” Meghnad said.

The villagers manage to sell four instruments on an average every weekend, “but trade is expected to pick up this month as the season of kirtan in the run up to Maghi Purnima (full moon) Feb 20, has begun,” Meghnad said.

The percussion instruments made by the villagers of Adharjhor are offered as holy offering to Vishnu and his avatars in most temples across northern India during naam-kirtan, Badal said.

“This is the time we sell the most because almost every household in Adharjhor organises kirtans in the evening. We are devotees of Lord Krishna,” Manoj Rohidas, a young artisan, told IANS.

The community, however, is finding it difficult to cover costs.

“Hardwood is very expensive. Our forefathers felled trees in the forest to make the instruments – but with the ban on felling and restriction of wood trade in Jharkhand, quality hardwood is difficult to come by. Animal hide is also pricey. The government refuses to give us subsidized loans because they are not sure whether we can repay. They also ask for bribes,” Santosh Rohidas, who has been selling percussion instruments for 35 years, told IANS.

“We do not have any alternative source of livelihood and no land to till.”

The community, he said, has moved nearly 30 loan applications over the decade with the last one being two years ago. All of them were rejected. “We have given up,” Santosh said.

All that the community of music-makers wants now is “a permanent space to sell their instruments in Jamshedpur”. “Our instruments are in demand, but no one acknowledges our presence. If we do not get permanent space, our trade will die,” Santosh said.