Well performance with Bhavai troupe (still from video by Barrett Griffin)
There’s no such thing as being a “fly on the wall” visiting a community that rarely meets outsiders. This is especially apparent when your professor is a prince. In anthropology, it is important to consider this when situating oneself within a field site so that the novelty and subsequent centering of the anthropologist does not take away from the observation or interview processes. Here in Dhrangadhra, we have found the avoidance of being centered to be nearly impossible. Wherever we go, we are treated like celebrities. People don’t just stare at us; they follow us, tap us and grab us, and constantly implore us for “selfies.” While this can be annoying, especially when we have work to do or we can’t understand what they are saying about us or why they giggle, their behavior makes sense. In the ‘melting pot’ of the United States, even the most sparsely populated areas have exposure to a number of different cultures. In towns like Kankavati and Jesada, meeting people from other countries is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Our scarves may not be tied correctly, our hairstyles and textures might seem strange, and our conscious and unconscious behaviors may be vastly different from their own. Furthermore, our professor, Dr. Jhala (Bapa) is a prince, which makes our presence all the more noteworthy. It is very difficult to convince people not to hold you in such high regard in a society in which social status is so fixed and paramount, especially with the language barrier. Most of the time, we don’t have a choice but to go with the flow, accepting this privilege in order to go where we need to go, see what we need to see, and talk to who we need to talk to. The best we can do is simple gestures of kindness such as smiling, waving to people, and taking pictures of or with them. One of the photographers brought a polaroid camera, which really helps in terms of being able to give something tangible back. Sometimes with kids, I’ll cross my eyes, stick my tongue out, or generally act goofy just to break the barrier of intimidation and bring out a smile or laugh. Most kids seem to respond very well to that.
Kankavati woman insisting on a photo with Sam following the Rajput sword dancing performances
When we attended the revival event at the Well of Sorrow, we had a slightly different experience. Though we were greeted like celebrities, by the time the ceremony began the attention was no longer centered on us. The rituals and presence of the royal family became paramount, and we were able, for the first time, to observe these people without being a focal point. This event was in remembrance of the Jhala clan’s Eight Ranis (queens) who in 1486 jumped into the Well of Sorrow with their maidservants and subsequently drowned during Sultan Mohamed Begawa’s siege of Kuwa. This historical event is known as Kuva-no-Ker, the destruction of Kuwa, and people still use the term to refer to any great calamity.
Several large tents were set up around the well, and many people came from surrounding villages to witness the ceremony. We were given chairs to sit near the royal family to watch the ritual. Then we were invited, along with members of the royal family and female Rajputs (warrior caste) to pour water into the well as a symbolic gesture of remembrance. The Jhala clan is part of the Rajput caste. We then moved to a tent where we witnessed Rajput girls from one village, dressed in turbans and jeans, then young men from another village, perform sword dances. These were possibly one of the most exhilarating performances I have ever witnessed. They were swinging swords feet away from us, close to each other, sometimes climbing on each other’s backs or even blindfolded. We were not allowed to take footage out of respect, but it was an unforgettable experience. Afterwards we enjoyed dinner in the garden with the royal family.
Rajput women and girls (sword dancers wearing turbans)
A couple of days later, we filmed a dance around the well with some of the Bhavai (male) performers, who were dressed like the Ranis. We had been rehearsing this performance for two weeks in addition to getting henna tattoos, buying costumes, and making masks. We each represented an animal deity representative of each Rani and her descendents. I was a tiger. The other animals included a parrot, horse, cobra, magical bird, crocodile, and a lion. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anyone to perform the role of the rooster. We developed movement to represent these creatures and performed our individual one-minute dances, with our homemade masks, around and near the well. Many people from the village came to watch. After that, we changed into our “queen costumes” which included elaborate saris and large skirts. We kind of just followed what the Bhavai performers were doing, dancing around the well, and standing with them as they reenacted the Ranis deciding to jump in the well. Although the rehearsal process had been time-consuming and frustrating for some of us, it was a rewarding experience and an honor to take part in an event that held so much significance for these people. Though it can be very difficult to navigate the issue of privilege, it felt good to be included in this event in a way that showed the people that we recognize and honor their heritage.
Me in my tiger mask (photo by Camilla Martinelli)