It is dusk and as I sit sipping a cup of tea, a lone voice is singing a jhumur song far away in the fields below the tea bushes…I cannot understand the words as he is quite some distance away but the tune is haunting.
I came to Keyhung, a tea estate near Tinsukia, in 2004. Before this I was in Delhi working almost 24/7. As soon as I entered the world of tea, I fell in love with it. My husband was, and still is, a factory assistant and in the long hours of his absence I occupied myself with knowing more about the life around me. The pluckers, mostly women, always seemed content and happy, always smiling, and I longed to know more about their lives. It was the bungalow helpers who introduced me to their food, customs and rituals.
The ‘tea tribes’ of Assam, so clubbed together as one, have their roots in Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh. As any other tribal people, they love to celebrate life. If you pass through a labour ‘line’, you cannot miss the laughter and music. They are carefree and burst out in song spontaneously, without any reason. Songs and dances are a part of their lives and they do not wait for a special occasion. Their main form of dance is the Jhumur. This is not one dance—it has many different forms that are performed in different occasions. It is sometimes performed for the Gods, sometimes to show love, sometimes for a good harvest and sometimes for pure joy.
According to the occasion and the difference in form, songs and instruments, ‘Jhumur’ (as we know it) can be divided primarily into Jhumur, Bhimseria, Damkaash, Lathi khel, Lasuwa and Arati nas.
Jhumur is mainly danced on the occasion of Karam Puja and Tushu Puja. If you ask any tea worker about the single most important event or ‘parab’ in his or her annual calendar, you can be sure the reply is going to be ‘Karam Puja’. Karam Puja is a week-long celebration to worship Karam Raja. For a week, starting from Monday, every evening there is jagaran or nightly song-and-dance rituals. On Friday, the head of the family accompanied by seven virgin girls go to a spot in a nearby forest and after clearing the ground lay down offerings of sindoor, mustard oil lamps, milk, cool water, money, durba, flowers, etc. in front of a ‘Karam’ tree. They then invite Karam Raja and ask him to come to their homes the next day. That night too, jagaran is done with jhumur dance till about 1am in the morning. The next day, i.e. Saturday, the entire family as well as the seven virgin girls fast from morning and the house and yard is cleaned and decorated to welcome the god.
At exactly the same time as the previous day they go to the forest accompanied by a special person who will cut the ‘Karam’ tree. The tree is washed with milk and water as one would welcome a guest in an Indian home. Then four virgin girls hold one branch and three hold another branch. These branches are called Ram and Sita. There is a third branch named Laksman which is left behind. The woodcutter will cut both these branches (Ram and Sita) with one chop and then these are taken home with great merriment.
Once at home, the main female of the household will welcome the group and the branches are washed with turmeric paste and water. The virgin girls dance three rounds all the while holding on to the branches. The woodcutter then digs a hole and plants the branches in the ground thus starting the puja. A Kohni or narrator, who is usually an elderly man, then narrates the story of Karam and the rituals. This takes two hours and after this everyone comes in with special offerings (puri, fruits, etc.) for the God and places it before the branches. After the puja concludes, the Jhumur begins. It continues throughout the night. In the early morning, around 4am, when the Karam tree is taken for immersion in the river, the dance changes its form and becomes ‘Bhimseria’. Bhimseria is danced to the beat of a different drum and the songs are also different.
Jhumur is performed to the accompaniment of a wooden drum called ‘Dhol’. During Karam Puja, the first song is always: “Akhora bandana kori, Saraswati bandana kori, mago boli; Akhora bandana kori, bejonari madane jumoro lagal bhari”. Another popular song is: “Karam Raja kar beta, chinite na paribo seta; Karam chilo ajhay da nagar, aaj Karam hangde ghare.”
Jhumur is also danced during Tushu puja, which occurs around the time of Durga Puja. Lakhima idol is worshipped after rites for a week and dancing takes place for 2-3 hours.
From about 15 days before Holi, Lathi khel rehearsals take place. This is very similar to the garba or dandiya dance of Gujarat. The synchronization is perfect and will make you feel like joining in. Unlike Jhumur proper, where the participants hold each others’ waists and dance, in Lathi khel each one has two sticks (lathi) that they use to hit each others’ sticks with in rhythm. The Lathi khel group goes to whichever house invites them and in return for the entertainment they are given a small token by the household.
Lathi khel also takes place in Gaaram puja. During the months of Phagun and Chaitra, around the same time as Holi, Gaaram puja takes place. This is a community worship of the local spirit and each locality has its own Gaaram site. The tea workers believe that the Gaaram protects their cows, goats, poultry and their children. If this puja not done, something bad is sure to happen. There are sacrifices of chicken, pigeons, goats and offerings of fruit, flowers, etc. About 4-5 people dance a Gaaram dance to the accompaniment of drums and become possessed. They then answer questions from the people. Once the puja is over, Lathi khel takes place and everyone is free join in.
The Jhumur that is danced during weddings and births and for pure joy is called Damkaash. The basic dance is the same as Jhumur but the songs are different. Here to, the dancers keep the rhythm with the help of a dhol.
During durga puja, Kali puja and Basanti puja, the evening starts off with an Arati nas where rhythm is kept with the help of a Dhak or a large drum. People dance swinging incense pots (Dhuna Dani) with both hands. Songs are sung in praise of the goddess. Once Arati nas is over and the main puja is done, Lasuwa is danced. This too is Jhumur but is danced to the accompaniment of a Maadal or an earthern elongated drum. During the immersion procession of the idols, dancing goes on but no songs are sung.
These are some of the many forms of dances that can be seen in the villages of the tea workers. These are performed in perfect rhythm without any stage, make-up room, lights or sound systems. The dancers themselves sing in perfect harmony. The songs tell listeners about nature and of love, betrayal, joy and sorrow.
The people are very simple and their dances and songs are just as simple. They come from the heart and tell you their story. Today, as I listen to that lone voice echoing over the tea bushes, my tea becomes cold as I sit mesmerized.