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Tuesday, August 31, 2010


An important part of social life of the Santal is music, dance and singing in turn. Dances are linked with the fertility of the harvest, and men and women perform them separately before and after the rainy season, and between sowing and harvesting.

The musical instruments that we are addressing here are called dhodro banam, literally meaning, “hollow instrument”. It belongs to the sarinda family, a type of lute with a partially open body that is covered with skin on the lower part. This instrument is played with a bow in the manner of a violin, but in a vertical position, and is found in Iran, Pakistan, Nepal, India and Central Asia.

Such instruments have been removed from their original environment and have fallen into disuse due to the strong social and cultural pressure of the dominant Hindu population and due to the zeal of Christian missionaries. They have been burnt, buried, let to rot or sold off to the trade, so it is difficult to retrieve precise information about them.

From a musical viewpoint, the dhodro banam is a simple instrument. It generally has only one string, and its archaic appearance points to the dhodro banam being a regressive form of the sarinda.

Figurative representations crowning stringed instruments are found frequently in India, mainly in the east, and in the Himalayas. Mostly animals are depicted.
The Santal prefer human figures. Animals generally appear only in juxtaposition with human figures, e.g., while being ridden. The crossbars and finials of the peg boxes of the lutes often bear relief or fully articulated carvings of groups of women dancing in a chain, sometimes depicted in multiple registers. These women, dressed in skirts or sari-like costumes, are portrayed performing a dance dedicated to the fertility of the earth. Sometimes the accompanying dhol (drum), nagara (kettle-drum) (fig. 9), shanai (oboe) or dhodro banam player is depicted.

In addition to these rows of dancers, two figures, usually female (fig. 12), often decorate the top of the dhodro banam. These figures can be presented realistically or in a simplified manner, and are sometimes even reduced to two small projections. On lutes of Christianised Adivasi, these figures are re-interpreted and depict Adam and Eve, represented as a naked man and woman. One dhodro banam depicts a woman carrying a naked man. In the tradition of the Muria of the Bastar tribe, this represents a bride and bridegroom (Fig 14).

Scenes from everyday life, such as a father, mother and child, horse and elephant riders, and farmers driving carts are popular. The elements bearing these scenes are also ornamented with lines, circular rosettes, sun symbols and scrolls. With varying skill, later owners often added further ornamentation such as fish, birds, mammals or human beings. The sun symbol is frequently depicted and derives from associations with the sun god Sing Bongo.

The instrument would traditionally be given an anthropomorphic form. Santal indeed believe they are physically related to the dhodro banam and consider the instrument to be a human being, divided as such into distinct body parts: The key block is the head, the handle is the neck, the open body part is the chest, the closed part is the belly sometimes flanked by arms.

From the belly would emanate a sound, which is reminiscent of the human voice of the human characters carved on the instrument and facing the audience such as female dancers, a primordial couple, a family, horse riders who would tell legends of the Santal lore.With the assistance of these instruments, they also believe that they can communicate with supernatural powers.

The dhodro banam has a layered meaning for its players and their audiences. It is more than a simple tool for producing music and there is a deeper meaning behind the instrument's prestigious appearance than a wish for mere attractiveness.

Verrier Elvin, the famous anthropologist, reports that Santal believe that all beauty created by man is destined to disappear with him, and thus Santal usually bury or burn their exquisitely decorated instruments.

This, however, has not always been the general rule. If one studies older examples of dhodro banam in detail, it can be observed that they have been played by several generations. The patina from use is often quite fresh, although the rest of the instrument may be completely encrusted.

Similarly, the awkward decorations that have been added and the different depths of patination point to the fact that an ancient instrument has been recently used. Apparently these instruments were greatly valued, which accounts for their preservation over generations.

It is thought that it was played by either wise men begging from village to village or professional minstrels invited to the village to accompany dances that would take place on festive occasions such as before and after the rainy season and between sowing and harvesting. Women and men usually perform them in front of the house of the village headman separately.

A Santal legend goes that seven brothers killed their sister and all ate her but one who buried his share. There grew a tree that would sing melodious songs. A passing-by wise man heard them, cut a branch out of the tree and carved the first dhodro banam out of it.

Today, each musician is supposed to emulate the wise man and carve his dhodro banam in the same dark wood, largely following his own personal creative inspiration.


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