Lugu Murmu, a young Birhor man, tells his guest, Markus Schleiter, “from the beginning we Birhor dance every week at our dancing place.” The visiting anthropologist recently described his experience observing a night of dancing in a village in Orissa, a state in India’s northeast region. Schleiter’s brief essay was posted last week in PDF format on the website of the International Institute for Asian Studies.
Schleiter describes the small Birhor village as a collection of run down little huts covered with rusting, corrugated, sheet steel roofs. During his visit, the 70 inhabitants were all sitting outside their dwellings, which were built by the national government 13 years before. Earlier in the day, many of them had walked ten km to the market town of Jashipur, located on a main national highway, to sell their craft products. The Birhor village is in the midst of verdant rice fields.
Lugu at the time was 25, married, and the father of two children. He pursued the traditional Birhor occupation of going to a forest and making ropes from tree bark to sell in nearby markets. His wife had walked to the market in Jashipur that day and sold the ropes, enough to buy vegetables and rice for the coming week.
Lugu repeats his invitation to his visitor. “We Birhor work hard and go to the forest. That’s why we drink and dance every week from Tuesday onwards. Today we will dance all night! Come on, let’s go and have rice-beer.”
As the evening gets darker, people begin to congregate at the dance square. Visitors from neighboring communities have arrived, as well as the Birhor from a village 30 km away who have also been invited. Five young women stand up and sing a song together; some young men repeat the verses. The girls introduce a new verse, which again the boys repeat. Lugu tells the author that they are singing a traditional Birhor song.
A man picks up a hand drum and starts introducing a beat. The dancers hold their hands behind their backs and begin to move in a row together. Lugu and Schleiter take places in the rows—men and women normally alternate in the lines of dancers. The author admits he was unable to imitate the rhythms and steps, but the Birhor seem pleased that he is trying. They start another song, which Lugu again assures the author is Birhor.
The next morning, Schleiter decides to write down the words of the songs. He tries to find find out the Birhor lyrics he has heard the night before. Someone tells him to talk to either Lugu or another man, Ranjen. He finds the latter, who indicates he might be able to recall the words if he only had some rice beer to drink. The anthropologist gives him 10 rupees to pay for a couple bottles. Just before Ranjen returns, they hear the sound of motorcycle engines.
Three men drive into the community on two machines. One is an anthropologist from the state university, who has come to lecture the people about learning to write. He stands in front of the people with a colorful booklet in his hand and talks to a mostly uninterested audience of a few people. An hour later, after the visitors have motored away, Ranjen retreats and comes back with the rice beer, so they can continue their conversation about Birhor songs. Lugu is there too. Schleiter asks them to tell him the lyrics of the songs they had sung the previous night.
They deny that they know any Birhor songs. The previous night they were singing songs of the Santal, a neighboring tribal society in Orissa. The author was astonished, but both Birhor men insisted, again, that they had been performing song fragments from the Santal, people known for their singing and dancing traditions. They explained that since the Birhor move about from one place to another, they normally learn songs of the peoples they live near.
A year and a half later, Schleiter finally heard the Birhor perform songs that they admitted were truly their own. Since 1888, ethnographers have been mentioning that the Birhor have their own dances, but the author does not indicate that his friends were concealing anything from him on purpose. Instead, he argues, his example demonstrates that their culture has been changing. They retain some traditional songs and dances, but they also adopt cultural elements from the surrounding peoples. These patterns demonstrate that they are flexible, he suggests.
Adopting songs from other groups shows that they can accept new ideas and fit them into their changing future. He adds that categorizing the Birhor as a “tribal” society is an affirmative designation, one from which they can benefit. His essay includes three photos of Birhor dancing.