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What do we expect from an author who is a story teller, an international development strategist and a gender policy specialist? A lot to be sure. A Master’s degree holder in Public Administration from Harvard University, an equal   grade in International Relations from the University of Warwick, a policymaker Health, Nutrition and Gender portfolios with the Government of India and currently Senior Advisor, Global Collaborative Research, Gunjan Veda dons a different role here.

Being an avid cultural enthusiast and traveler, she loves intermingling with people, learning about fast disappearing cultural forms and sharing nuggets about people and polity, art and artists through powerful stories.

This book is all about those untold stories told in a postcard form. ‘The Museum of Broken Tea Cups – Postcards from India’s Margins’ is a powerful tale of the Dalits and their vanishing cultural practices.

India’s performing arts have, by tradition, the dominion of Dalit communities. It is these marginalized men and women who continue to nurture and foster the art forms. If India takes pride in a rich cultural heritage and showcases to the external world as festivals, it is these customs and practices that have become handy over the years. But the fact remains that they practice it notwithstanding the unqualified discrimination and prejudice.

Gunjan’s book is, as any story telling does, is a firsthand account of this denial and dispossession. The scope of the book is far from limited. It reminds the connoisseurs of art and culture that the time has come to recognize the selfsame communities who have shaped these cultural practices.

What this book essentially does is this: using the broken tea cup – the upper caste households leave outside their doors for the use of Dalit workers – as a symbology, it makes an effort to spot out the immense cultural contribution made by Dalit communities. Gunjan weaves her narrative through individual stories – artists who languish in the forgotten ‘gallis and mohallas’ of our villages and towns.All are poignant tales of dispossession and their unrelenting struggles of life.

Travelling on behalf of the Dalit Foundation, the writer had spent a year in villages that are home to Dalit communities across India: meeting tattoo artists, naqqara players, lavani dancers and Kolhapuri chappal makers, and recording their stories and histories along the journey. The book is the result of that mission.

Whether it is in the picturesque campus of the Bhartiya Bhatke Vimukta Vikas Va Sanshodhan Sanstha (Indian Institute of Research and Development of Nomadic and De-notified Tribals) of Maharashtra or in Mapada, a village of 120 Dalit households in Balangir district of western Odisha,  Gunjan confronts scores of people who have gripping stories  to tell. Propitiously, these are not just stories of vulnerability and withdrawal but stories of new journeys and new hopes.

Sample this: “The cobblers who manufactured shoes for everyone were beaten to death if they dared to wear them. The potters who made our household utensils were not allowed to touch them after they entered high caste households. The sculptors who chiseled idols out of stone were denied entry into the very temples that housed those idols. Untouchability was no issue in sexual exploitation. Men and women alike were flogged to death if they attempted to change their profession, or if they drank water from a well, being used by another caste.”

The book essentially seeks to celebrate the everyday heroes, who have, despite all odds, managed to change not just their own lives, but the lives of thousands around them. They are students and teachers, artists and activists, storytellers and devadasis, daughters and mothers, sons and brothers—ostensibly ordinary people—whose faces get lost in everyday life, but whose stories have the potential to inspire admiration, action and change.

Gunjan writes about the Dewars, a group of travelling mendicants and musicians from Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh; she meets the Madiga community and its dappu players of Telangana while she chronicles about the traditions of Nautanki of Uttar Pradesh, Yashagana of Karnataka, Tamasha of Maharashtra and Bhavai in Gujarat – all Dalit- centric cultural traditions.

What about the numerous dance form found across regions? Where did classical forms like Bharatanatyam and Odissi originate? While Bharatanatyam traced to the Sadir dance of the Thevadiyal of Tamil Nadu, Odissi to the sensuous Maharis of Odisha and Mohiniattam to the Tevidicchi of Kerala.They were all devadasis. And art? Godna artists put to shame many modern tattoo artists. Not to forget the Chitrakathi and Kalamkari painters of Kerala. The list goes on;but  the fact remains that these ‘talking points’ for cultural connoisseurs have seldom acknowledged Dalit roots.

Gunjan’s argument in the book is   precisely this: all discourse about Dalits is centered more on the ‘theme of discrimination and less around their contributions.’

In the epilogue she writes: ‘I had always believed untouchability to be repugnant. How could one human being do this to another? How could the act of humiliating another person bring joy, power or contention? And she has answers herself: Laws had been put in place. Affirmative action has been taken and while a lot more was needed to undo the damage caused by the systemic violence and discrimination unleashed over centuries, we were on the right path. It is only when I started working on this museum that I realized how ubiquitous this malaise is.It is everywhere, in our cities, in our localities, in our hones, only now it is more subtle. Over the years, we have nationalized it, found the most reasonable explanation for our  own practices of discrimination, cloaked them with rich arguments about health, hygiene, dignity of labour.Yet it is still everywhere around us and within us.’

In about three hundred pages, the postcards read like earnest travelogues filled with tales of exotic tribes. There is warmth and responsiveness in each of the stories. Sage Publications and Dalit Foundation have done a yeoman’s service by publishing this remarkable book containing stories of courage, hope and dreams from the Dalit Communities.

Is ‘The Museum of Broken Tea Cups’, then, a book that ‘celebrates defiance?’ Undoubtedly.

The Museum of Broken Tea Cups

Gunjan Veda

SAGE Publications/Yoda Press
New Delhi
Rs 525
2020 

Bhaskar Parichha is a senior journalist and author based in Bhubaneswar


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