7 December 2015

Cobwebs of the Mind

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday:

A documentary that brings the 'jharu' to the forefront, using it as an illuminator of our past and present.

On a trip to Jodhpur a month or so ago, staying in a little budget hotel in the Old City, I was struck by the filth of the streets around me. I've lived in India pretty much all my life, and don't think I have unrealistic expectations. But this felt like a different degree of dirt: rotting vegetables and plastic, puja waste and more profane trash lay everywhere in piles. Animals rooted devotedly through it, while human beings seemed to have perfected the art of avoidance. 

The latter response, though, wasn't possible for at least two chunks of the day, when a mysterious stream of water came gushing down from the direction of Mehrangarh, the royal enclave atop the hill, turning the streets into a swirling sea of garbage. Then you could do nothing but wade through with your skirt/sari/trousers held gingerly up, and your chappals soaked through. It was a little like being in a real-life version of Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar: the rich folk in the citadel diverting their river of sewage down to the lower town. 

Neecha Nagar, though, wasn't the movie on anyone's minds in Jodhpur. The film poster I did see several times was for a Rajasthani historical action drama called SP Chaudhari Tara Chand, apparently about a pre-Independence police officer. The tagline was: 'Swacch Bharat Nirmaan'. 

It felt quite serendipitous, soon after my return, to stumble upon the 2011 documentary Jharu Katha [Broom Stories]. Directed by Navroze Contractor, with a script by the scholar Rustam Bharucha, Jharu Katha draws inspiration from the lifelong work of Komal Kothari, a self-taught authority on the myriad folk cultures of Rajasthan. Kothari, who died in 2004, was exemplary in his ability to see how 'culture' is embedded deep in the roots of India's political and economic structures, and vice versa. The critical gaze he turned upon everyday life in the desert often focused on familiar objects, in which a host of social relationships lie congealed. And the broom, as the film demonstrates, is the perfect object to start with. 

Jharu Katha opens on a crisp Jodhpur morning, with two aerial views of the city showing us glimpses of the famous blue-walled houses. As we descend to the gali level, we are brought down to the ground -- literally -- by that familiar scratching-scraping sound so often heard in the Indian city: the sound of a jharu sweeping the street. 

The broom is the embodiment of some of our most deeply embedded civilisation tropes: ideas about pollution and purity that millennia of caste-consciousness have turned into a nigglingly pervasive Indian common sense, about what --and who -- is dirty, and what is clean. Without making heavy weather of it, the film constantly signals this ontological contradictoriness, most fascinatingly by taking us through a plethora of beliefs: when a jharu can be perceived as auspicious and when it becomes emblematic of inauspiciousness, filth (women of various communities describe the rules that govern the use of brooms in the home). 

Jharu Katha also does a fine job of introducing us to the communities engaged in broom-making in Rajasthan: the Banjaras, the Bagarias, the Bargundas, and the Harijans. The first three only 'make' brooms; the Harijans also 'use' them, in their professional capacity as municipal sweepers, and this seems necessarily linked to their 'lower' social status. We meet members of each of these communities -- and while jharu-making is clearly a household activity involving women and children, it is largely men who speak for the family and community. There is, for instance, Gopal Banjara, a middle-aged man with eight children and a bitter air. "Humne na toh iskool ka munh dekha hai... Hum toh matlab janme hain aur yeh Bajrangbali ka gota haath mein le liya (We have neither seen the face of a school... we were born, and took this hammer of Hanuman in our hands)," said Gopal, picking up the wooden mallet he uses to flatten brooms into shape. 

The film also details the material pressures on broom-makers today: the technological innovations that challenge profitability for these small-scale artisans, interlaced with the question of inter-community competition. Bagarias are listed as OBC. We hear from Onkar Lal Bagaria about how education isn't helping Bagaria young men get jobs, and how they are therefore 'stuck' in broom-making work. 

Understanding the different varieties of jharus is also to realise how closely the broom is tied to the natural environment. Moonj grass has to be brought from rainier areas. Household brooms can also be made from local desert plants -- kheemp, vipuno, buado, heeniyo -- but they do not seem prized. The Harijans have a traditional monopoly on the bamboo broom. The Bargundas used to make brooms out of khejur, date palm leaves, but they claim that Bagaria competition is forcing a shift to the more expensive, less popular phooljharu, for which the plant supplies come from Northeast India. "But we aren't even the only ones making phooljharus!" says Madan Lal Bargunda. "The Mohammedans, and every other caste, are making them, too." 

Most women's voices in the film tend to focus on household ritual. But a conversation with Lakshmi and Ratni, both Bagaria women, reiterates how forms of labour are linked to social position, and caste to gender. The villagers forbid them from spreading out their prickly khejur leaves to dry, forcing them to live beyond village limits. 

The film ends in Jodhpur's largest garbage dumping site, Keru, where a superintendent quietly quotes Gandhi: if we could each take charge of our own waste, there would be very little garbage problem to deal with. It is a simple maxim, but one that goes to the root of our murky relationship to dirt. Without actually trying to transform our minds, no amount of strategic appropriation of Gandhi is going to bring about a Swachh Bharat.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Mon 7 Dec, 2015.

No comments: