Saturday, April 16, 2011

From the editors' desk: A People That Time Forgot

At the intersection of action research and religion, western and eastern values, I got this note from my action research colleague Meghna, based in Bangladesh - it raises all sorts of tough questions, doesn't it...(an animator is an action researcher)...enjoy!  Hilary Bradbury-Huang, ARJ Editor
From the files - A People That Time Forgot: the Sanyasis of Taraganjby Meghna Guhathakurta

On 21st June 2006, I accompanied RIB researcher Mr. Dipen Sarker and Programme Officer Rana Sultana on a visit to the village of Sanyasis in Taraganj thana of Nilfamari district. This project sought to awaken the spirit of self-enquiry and development among a group of people called the Sanyasis who were devotees of the Lord Siva (Saivaites) and who sustained themselves through begging for alms (dakshina) not unlike the legendary Siva himself!
They were waiting for us with garlands and tilaks in hand. They welcomed us in traditional style with a decorated borondala containing rice, pradip, ( lamp) bananas and dhup (incense). They sang a song using the local folk rhythm of bhawaia and through jokar ( ululating). We were then led from one neighbourhood of the village to another withjokars and the sound of dhol (drums) accompanying us and wherever we went the borondala followed us and was laid to rest at our feet where we were ultimately seated in front of a large gathering of women, men and children. We were also told that many have not eaten until they had welcomed us. This was their tradition. When they gave us the garland of flowers they called it their daan (gift).
Once seated we were further "received" by three young children each with a dish of rice/daal and incense singing a song that was full of pathos.. The meaning was:
"Oh Mother do not cry for your lost child.

Look and see your child is being garlanded by so many people."
It was one of the strangest yet painful songs that I had ever heard being sung to welcome strangers in their midst!
We had barely started discussion under the "pandel" formed by sewing together different banners of workshops, when we were swamped by rain. We hurried and crowded together into a room, which was called "pathagar" which incidentally was built by BRAC for a library albeit in a community who did not know how to read and write! So it was used like a club where meetings were sometimes held. The discussion was continued there as much as possible amidst much din but them it gradually led to more singing all around.
Here are some of the fascinating things, which the community revealed about themselves.
Like the Lord Siva whom they adopted as their central deity, they were Sanyasis i.e. people who had renounced the world. As such they did not believe in any form of worldly possessions and hence did not believe in work or exchange to sustain themselves, hence their need to sustain themselves with dakshina. However in the absence of a supporting belief system in contemporary society, their act was looked upon more as begging. This was also critically looked at from women and men within the community as well. Their reason was that it was a painful way of sustenance which not only entailed physical exhaustion but also much humiliation ('soul murder'). Society gave them no value whatsoever. They were in a critical position of reevaluating their lives and yet had yet to incorporate a work culture in their day to day existence. This was a major challenge for the PAR practitioner.
Although the community sang as a whole in Sangkirtan, they did not sing for money or alms. They only used it for themselves and for their religion. Yet the tune and rhythm of their sangkirtans did not resemble the tune and rhythm we usually hear in kirtaans of the vaishnav cult. The words too differed. They spoke more of their pain and struggle than of other worldiness. Dipen mentioned that the first time he had entered the village he had met a man playing a flute beautifully. In his subsequent visit he had come across the same man who had given up his flute playing. He answered that he had no joy left in him.
Women married at a very early stage because like the Beday community they can go in search of alms only when accompanied by their husbands. Young girls were left behind. So in order to serve the community they were married off early. The village swarmed with children. Incidentally only three young girls were educated (upto class seven) in the whole community. One of these girls, Shobha Gir ( Gir is the common title), had become an internal animator. She said that her parents have agreed to educate her and her sister and she a Christian Missionary helped her with expensive books. BRAC had started a pre-primary school in one neighbourhood, and Dipen was in the process of starting a Kajoli Model ECLC in another neighbourhood. The Sanyasis had stated that they do not want their children to beg for their living like themselves. Youths of the village has already formed a Samiti and have started saving. They have asked Dipen to help them open a bank account in a nearby branch. This is the first bank account to be opened in the community!
Health is a serious problem as they mostly travel long distances by foot and proper nutrition is not guaranteed. To avoid expensive health treatment they fall easy prey to quacks. To meet expenses during crisis times, they have sold almost all the trees in their neighbourhood and homesteads. Many live in their own homestead land, and some live in land belonging to others.
There are four animators working in the village ( 3 men and one woman) and they have been able to get themselves accepted by the villagers after one month of initial suspicion that they were either missionaries or abductors! They have kept minute records of each meeting which I have asked them to copy and send so that we can extract more guidelines from them as how to proceed.
The challenge in this field is very distinctive from other Participatory Action Research ( PAR) related fields. Elsewhere the people already had professions albeit ones that were undervalued by society or had become redundant. Here it is the very concept of work or exchange (market), which needed to be addressed. Many women said that they made things like hand fans or sewed for themselves, but they had never thought of selling them for profit or as a form of earning. This will be a difficult terrain to cross, but an interesting one. PAR is helping them to address these issues, but I see that a certain amount of skill training and welfare (health especially) components may be needed as well as in the Harijans of Kushtia or Bedays of Lohajong.

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