Of Cymbals, Swords and Lipstick

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Every morning, at around 9 a.m., the courtyard of the ‘Zenana Deodi’ (Queen’s chambers) at the Mehrangarh Fort is filled with the sound of tinkling bells. This sound, that echoes throughout the courtyard, the corridors that lead from it and the intricately carved windows that surround it— comes from a group of Teratali dancers. From the Kamad community, they perform this dance in honour of the folk deity and hero Ramdev.

Teratali (meaning ‘tera’ or twelve, ‘tali’ or rhythms) is a devotional rite that involves a dance to the tambura, a long necked plucked lute. The songs comprise a poetic narrative and are a celebration of the saint’s life.

This group of dancers are from the Kamad tribe, a tribe of traditional snake charmers. Besides them, the dance is also performed by the tribes of Mirasi, Bhand, Dholi, Bhat and Nat. It is also an important ritual in the Baba Ramdev temple at Runecha.

The courtyard is the last stop in an audio tour of the fort. From here there is normally an exit via the Mehrangarh Museum’s gift store. The group is seated on a raised stone platform at the courtyard. There are four women and two men. The men, dressed in white with light pink turbans, play the dholak and tambura. The women wear maroon saris with heavy plastic bangles that cover their arms from their shoulders to their elbows. They play the manjira— an instrument made up of small cymbals tied together, which make the tinkling sound. They dance, while remaining seated, all the while manoeuvring the manjire—which are tied to their legs and concealed beneath the petticoats within their saris—to produce a rhythm. Also each woman holds a pair of manjire, with one cymbal held in her left hand and another tied to a string, held in her right.

As the performance progresses they swing the string held by the right hand to clang the cymbal attached to it to the one in their left. They do this in perfect synchrony. They also balance a stack of steel and brass pots on their heads while they dance. There are a few 100 rupee notes lying before the dancers. These are weighed down by a large sword. A crowd, a mix of Indian and foreign tourists, gathers. Some take pictures or shoot videos. After 10 minutes, the performance ends and the crowd disperses.

Kailashi Bai has a dusky complexion. Her eyes are the colour of hazelnut and her cheekbones are covered with freckles. Like the other dancers, she wears wine-red lipstick, and kajal. She isn’t sure of her age, but says she “must be around 30”. Her husband, Kaludas, who heads the troupe, plays the tambura. “I’ve been doing this dance since I was very young,” she says. She has three children— two sons, aged five and 16 and a 13 year old daughter. Has she taught her daughter the dance? “They don’t do it. They’ve learnt it as part of our tradition but right now they’re studying,” says Kailashi Bai.  What about after they finish their studies?  “It would be better if they get a job, but if not, then they can join us.” What about her daughter? Should she do it once she’s older? “It would be better if she got a job as well. We get a performance only every two or three months. Apart from this our occupation is farming.” They perform at government cultural programs, fairs and religious festivals. The troupe hails from Gogunda Tehsil in Udaipur district.

Kamala Bai, a fellow performer, overhears us and joins the conversation. “How old are you?” she asks. On learning that I am 24: “Are you married?” She seems disappointed at the fact that I am not. “What do you do?” I tell her. “You should be married by now. See I was already married at your age. Now I have a son as big as him.” She points to a male member of their troupe. He seems to be in his mid-twenties. Kamla Bai says she is “around 45”.

Soon another wave of tourists appear and they get ready for their next performance. In the evening this courtyard, which once served as private chambers for women from the royal family of Jodhpur, will be transformed into a beverage area for attendees of Jodhpur Riff. But for now it is their stage. They lift the swords resting at their feet and hold them in between their teeth, by the blades. The section of the blade inserted into the mouth is covered by a piece of cloth. Each such piece of cloth is stained red— it’s the colour of their lipstick.


(Image: Terataali dancers. By Shantenu Tilwankar for Oijo/Jodhpur Riff)