A cool monsoon breeze rushes in through an open window of the well-used Maruti van I’m in. It carries with it the sweet scent of wet mud. Like freshly polished emeralds, the Sahyadri hills gleam in the distance, the summer dust now washed off the trees that sheath its slopes. Take away the signboards for fancy Goa hotels, the concrete road, and the motor vehicles that roar past occasionally and it’s a living Eden.
For over 400 years, this area along the Mumbai-Goa highway has been the home of the Thakars, an indigenous tribe of artists, storytellers, and puppeteers. The Maratha warrior Shivaji is believed to have christened the group “butterflies of the forest” because they would flit from one part of the forest to the other.
Chetan Gangavane is driving me towards his home in Pinguli village. Pinguli is where many of the “butterflies” have settled in more permanent homes, several opening small resthouses for truckers plying the route. Others work as carpenters or painters. Their art has also taken on a more permanent form. “Eventually, with the support of the Raja of Sawantwadi, our people started painting on 12×18 inch handmade paper,” Chetan tells me. However, “art doesn’t pay much and the income isn’t constant, so the old traditions are dying out,” he adds. This is precisely why I’m here. Chetan’s father, Parshuram Gangavane, who received an award from the Maharashtra state government in 2009 for the preservation of folk arts, has promised to share his tribe’s folktales with me, including stories that have never been recorded before. My timing is perfect, as the family has just initiated a homestay scheme, a project undertaken by the social tourism organisation Culture Aangan.
The car dips into a puddle as Chetan turns into a dirt road and pulls up beside a row of palm trees with paintings on their trunks. A display in a small hut near the entrance shows how the tribe lived in its nomadic days. A doorway next to the entrance to the main cottage leads to the “museum,” a modest space of two rooms that together measure less than 300 square feet. The walls are adorned with Gangavane’s inheritance of paintings; some are 200-300 years old.
Eknath, Chetan’s older brother, demonstrates the tribe’s unique musical instruments fashioned from utensils. He drags the shafts of two ladles on an upturned metal trough to strike sharp notes on the donavadya, and plays the thalivadya by running his fingers up and down a thin stick placed at the centre of a metal disc. It’s a lot harder than it looks; my feeble attempt doesn’t produce so much as a squeak. In a traditional performance, these instruments would be used with a dholki (drum), cymbals, conch, and tuntuna (a stringed instrument), while beautifully painted figures made of animal hide would be manipulated behind a screen.
“In the old days, people believed these shows were magic,” says the patriarch, Parshuram, who has joined us. “They believed that the size of the shadows was controlled by the sound of the conch.” The Gangavanes also specialise in Kalsutri Bahulya, string-puppet shows for which they craft their own daiti (marionettes) using wood for the upper torso and cloth for the lower halves.
It was because the Thakars used to stage these performances door-to-door that Shivaji employed them as guptahe (spies). “Performers were to listen to and report on what was being discussed at the homes they visited,” says Parshuram as we enter his living area, a simple room fitted with a large TV. His wife Kavita serves us tea and vegetable puffs, for which she made a special trip to town. The family seems anxious at first, but they relax when they see me enjoying the snack. Parshuram settles down on a sofa so he can stretch out his injured leg—he was in an accident 15 years ago—and recounts the stories he grew up on, filling me in on the tribe’s legends and customs.
He tells me how, even today, a Thakar marriage is deemed incomplete until a male member of the Panchayat dressed as “Radha” dances at it. Another fascinating ritual involves a sister and brother who haven’t met for years. They can’t simply greet each other. The Panchayat must first assemble at a farm and make the siblings stand with their backs to each other. Then they start moving closer and once their backs touch, they are free to reconnect.
Dinner is an ample meal comprising chicken curry, chapattis, rice, dal, and a sort of wild green called ghod. With crickets singing in the background, I learn of haunted cashewnut trees, and watsus, or benevolent spirits that guide lost people through the woods. I listen to tales of battles between Thakar artists and demons and about Hirva Dev, the forest and nature deity.
My homestay room is basic and clean. The bed and pillow are a bit stiff, but the night passes easily with the promise of what the next day will hold. Breakfast is a full meal again, with a host of sweet and savoury preparations. The family invites me to use the kitchen if I’d like to fix myself something specific as well. Eknath shows me the studio, a small room with a single window. A palette and a tray of paints sit on the windowsill. A desk in one corner is surrounded by scrolls, paintbrushes, and pigments.
“We converted our cowshed to the folk art museum Thakar Adivasi Kala Aangan in 2008,” Eknath says. Representatives from Culture Aangan envisioned this project and worked with Pinguli’s artisan families including the Gangavanes to restore and curate their artwork, and fund this museum. “It is since then that people started coming here to study Chitrakathi and puppet making,” adds Eknath. In Chitrakathi performances, two-dimensional paintings of scenes from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, or Nandi Purana are displayed, while stories are related through song. War scenes are plain and sombre, but recreational scenes have intricate borders. Chetan shows me some, saying “fashion students like to study these.” Though Eknath works at the village accountant’s office, he and the rest of the family are happy to schedule art workshops according to their visitors’ preferences.
I spend the afternoon in Sawantwadi, about half an hour away. The durbar at the Sawantwadi Palace, home of the Bhonsles, the erstwhile royals of the region, is open to visitors. Here, under a magnificent chandelier, sharing space with old hunting trophies, a silver throne and assorted regalia, are rows of desks where locals are being taught to paint Ganjifa cards. The rules of this ancient Mughal card game are now known only to a handful of people. Chetan tells us that the Bhonsle family supports folk artists wholeheartedly and locals still revere them as they did hundreds of years ago. The community’s efforts are inspiring despite lack of financial support. I hope they manage to revive the dying traditions they are all working to preserve.
Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “Folk Art Frisson”.
Pinguli village lies in Maharashtra’s Kudal town in Sindhudurg district, 120 km/3 hr north of Dabolim airport in Goa. Taxis charge upwards of₹4,000 for a one-way trip; Chetan Gangavane will pick up or drop visitors for ₹3,500. There are five direct trains between Goa and Kudal (45-min journey; ticket ₹42). Pinguli village is a 20-min rickshaw drive from the station (₹300). The Gangavane family home offers a single private room with an en-suite bathroom and very basic facilities (99876 53909; maharashtratribalmuseum.blogspot.in; ₹1,500 per night; all meals included).