As a part of the fieldwork for the course Indigenous Knowledge and Communities, we were required to visit 4 Hamlets of the Kathkari- a tribe based in Maharashtra, which once roamed the forests. Traditionally the Kathkari are wholly dependent on the forest for their livelihood. The Kathkari are classified as a denotified tribe, hence, during the era of the British rule the Kathkari were regarded as a criminal community.
Over generations this community has also been adopted by Hinduism, their traditional practices have been oppressed by the more Hindu rituals. Even their settlements, today are usually shared with Marathas, as the Kathkari were forced to leave the forests.
In our fieldwork visits, we aimed to learn of the Kathkari’s traditional knowledge- their knowledge of the forest, its produce, and also their rituals. We also wanted to learn of the performance rituals, or arts that the Kathkari may still remember. Gaining knowledge of their folklore and history, along with their customs were the prime focus of our visits.
In all we had 3 field visits. We visited Mangaon- twice, Kanhau- thrice, Beliv- twice and Mirkutwadi once. In the visits we managed to get a rough idea of the identity of the community today, their social hierarchies. We also managed to find some common threads of issues that are present in all three communities. Their interaction with the Marathas and the surrounding factions also proved to be an interesting point of investigation for us.
The first village we visited. Mangaon is habited by both Marathas as well as the Kathkari community. Mangaon is the community that was most connected to their cultural roots. They were also very open on the first visit. They would enjoy sharing fruits and berries collected from the nearby forest with us. On our second visit they also performed a sort of folk dance. The community however, is highly segregated from the Marathas. The housing for the Kathkari is on the edge of the village. The road is unpaved and the houses are in poor condition.
On our first visit the setting was highly organised. We were welcomed to meet everyone in the school. We were welcomed as guests, moreover, developers. The problems of the whole village were readily placed in front of us. The Marathas clearly demanding that a new building for the school ought to be created. We explained that we were merely students and had come to study and learn about the Kathkari, encouraging development from within rather than without.
We met the Kathkari community at the aanganwadi near the centre of the Kathkari settlement. It was here that we learnt that most of the Kathkari men were employed as labourers and worked in brick kilns near and around the village. The women would pick vegetables for local farmers.
The community of Mangaon was not so heavily dependent, but was still familiar with the forest. They explained that apart from the village temple they also prayed to a shrine in the forest. Periodically the community has a gathering of all the Kathkari performing a jatra in the forest.
However, we could not gather a great deal of their history. We learnt about some of their tattoos and rituals, however, the community have been largely “Hinduised”. We learnt most of these facts from an old lady who lived in the village. She was also the most active participant in our interactions as eager to learn about us, as we were about them.
On our first visit we made a few important observations that hinted at certain issues of the community at Mangaon. We observed how the footwear of the Kathkari was segregated from those of the Marathas at the school. We also observed similar segregation in the housing of the village. The Kathkari zone was also left underdeveloped.
Another striking observation was the almost complete absence of men in the Kathkari community. The only men were the old lady’s two sons. However, this must have been due to the fact that the men were at work or had moved to the brick kilns or nearby villages.
The second time we visited, the aanganwadi was filled. We conducted the social mapping exercise with two groups- the children and the elders. At this gathering however, there were also a couple of Marathas present in the aanganwadi. Amongst the children, the group I was working with, there seemed to be a certain amount of friendliness between the Maratha children and those of the Kathkari. This also gave us an idea of how the Kathkari and Maratha children interact with one another.
Through the map we got a rough idea of the geography and demography of the community. We also learnt of the important places to the community. Places such as the aanganwadi, temple and forest all were revealed on the map.
Post the map we also asked members of the community to rank their favourite places based on a questionnaire. As it turned out the aanganwadi played a very central role in the lives of the people.
Before we left, a couple of people from the community wanted to perform a folk song and dance session. The songs sounded very similar to Marathi and the beats were simply those played on a dhol and tin oil cans. The dance was performed while they sang. The songs they performed were those performed to celebrate Holi. Still, we aren’t too sure about the meaning of the lyrics or the authenticity of the performance.
The community we spent the most time with. Kanhau we visited 3 times. The first visited was largely observational. The community took time to opening up. There have however been only a handful of spokespersons from the community. The Kathkari of Kanhau are quite politicised. The community is located close to the property of an industrialist. The owner of which has built his mansion on their land. Most of the inhabitants of the community work for this industrialist.
From Kanhau however, we gathered almost nothing of their history and rituals. We also couldn’t find much about their art. We did however learn about their medicine. A local youth that we interacted with most at Kanhau had learnt of the traditional forest medicine from his grandmother. He still grows some of the herbs in small pots and vegetable patches. This youth appeared to be very friendly and popular amongst the youngsters of Kanhau. He also seemed to be one of a certain degree of repute amongst the people. However, he was not too open on telling us about the culture and at times also did not have answers to certain questions such as the rituals and performances. When we asked if we could watch a dance or performance piece, he gathered the children and showcased choreographies to contemporary Bollywood hits.
Kanhau is located slightly further away from the other settlements. The community is much more isolated as compared to those of Beliv and Mangaon. The people of Kanhau have become quite modern and their dependency on the forest is negligible. They are situated near a lake. However, they aren’t allowed to access the lake as it is owned by the nearby industrialist. They are also influenced by a local politician that often lends the Kathkari equipment for occasionally hunting in the forest as long as half the gains are offered to him.
Another person of interest was a non-Kathkari who lived near Kanhau, with the community. He runs a small school where he teaches the children basic skills and subjects. He is by profession a hardware engineer. His place is crowded with posters of various subjects and computers and components of hardware.
On the second visit where we conducted the social mapping and questionnaire we found that this person was a seen as a man of influence by people in the community. Even on the first visit, where none refused to talk much, he acted as spokesperson for the entire community. However on the second visit he was entirely absent. We later found out that he was out of town.
The community at Kanhau has paved lanes and electricity. There is a satellite dish above nearly every home. The industrialist has also created a ‘Balwadi’, which is a play school for the children and an Aanganwadi for community gatherings. Along with help from the local politician he also created a ‘Mahila Mandal’ which is a woman’s support group.
At Kanhau however, there are a number of people who are unemployed or do not have a steady occupation, most of these being the women. Hence, the ‘Mahila Mandal’ works towards saving funds which are used for communal expenses and support.
On our second visit, after the social mapping, a few of us interacted with the women of the community. We asked them about the wedding ritual and how it differs from those of the Marathas. We received responses that stated that the wedding rituals are the same as the Maratha ritual. They could not however, tell us if this had always been the norm or it was a change that took place in more recent times.
The Kathkari must, however, marry within the community. They do not marry within the same family. There is a ‘Pandit’, who travels from village to village performing various rituals. He acts as a match maker for the community, informing about the eligible brides and grooms in the various households of the community. The marriage then takes place in the presence of the pundit, who we learnt, is not a Kathkari.
Other figures we observed at Kanhau were members of the local band. The band consisted of a group of young boys that would perform at nearby villages to earn a living. The songs they performed were new age pop music from films of Bollywood and Marathi film industries. The appearance of the members of the band was highly striking. The boys were clothed in fashionable punk wear. They were heavy jewellery and in some cases boasted several tattoos. They were always separate from the rest of the community and did not take part in any of the discussions. Hence, we had a very limited amount of interaction with them.
Beliv is a community situated near Mangaon. The community is placed on top of a hill that needs to be trekked to access the Hamlet. At the foothill is the Maratha settlement and the school which some of the children attend.
Beliv was a very closely knitted community. We all gathered around the house of a local Kathkari labourer. At Beliv we gained a lot about the plans of the youth; the traditional knowledge of medicinal herbs found in the forest and the customs of the Kathkari.
We learnt that the Kathkari tribe is forbidden to interact with certain tribes of Maharashtra, we also learnt of how the medicinal herbs are not given names. They are identified by the characteristics of the plant. Also, the one who is administering the medicine cannot share which medicine he is treating the patient with.
The knowledge of medicine however, is not passed down anymore. Only one old man in the village of Beliv seemed to clearly remember about the medicinal plants. So far he had not shared his knowledge with any others. There is also a shortage of the medicinal herbs due to the dry weather and scanty growth of the forest.
In our interactions with two local teenagers, we learnt that they study outside Beliv. One aims to go to junior college in Pali, a nearby town. He then plans on doing his further education at the Agricultural college of Pune. The second studies in a boarding school in another town. She too aims to leave the community.
We noticed a similar trend in the children of Kanhau and Mangaon as well. They all aimed to leave their Hamlets and settle in cities such as Mumbai or Pune. The community was comfortable with this as even they felt that being where they were, there is not much scope for the growth of the children.
The practices at Beliv were faint, yet the group of people we met were far more connected to their tradition than those of Kanhau or Mangaon. There was some amount of politicisation, but this is inevitable in regions of rural Maharashtra where the right wing political parties are hugely popular.
Mirkutwadi was a more urban settlement, located on the Mumbai- Goa Highway. The settlement was highly politicized. There were banners of political parties and heavy Marathi propaganda all about. We sat down with the community for a couple of hours in their Aanganwadi.
The people of Mirkutwadi were mainly interested in how we could provide economic aid for them. They did not see themselves as Kathkari, but moreover as Marathas. A number of them in the discussion began with trying to intimidate us. The main focus for this group was getting some sort of aid from Imagica, the local amusement park.
At the discussion, nearly all of the spokespersons had some sort of political background. There were numerous silent members who eventually walked out of the interaction. There were also some people observing us from outside the aanganwadi.
If we wanted to work with Mirkutwadi, we would require much more than 3 visits. We would also need to spend a lot of time first establishing trust between the community and us. Thus, Mirkutwadi, being commercially driven and highly detached from their traditions seemed to be an inappropriate option for our project. Hence, we decided to drop this Hamlet from our further visits and project.