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An interview with Nidhi Dugar Kundalia on “The Lost Generation, Chronicling India’s Dying Professions”

A version of this appeared in TheQuint dated May7th,2016
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Nidhi Dugar Kundalia’s book ‘The Lost Generation, Chronicling India’s Dying Professions’ showcases eleven professions that are no longer relevant in the fast-changing Indian landscape. These range from ittar walahs, rudaali singers, boatmakers to calligraphers, roadside dentists and letter writers. Nidhi tells us the whys and whats of her amazing book.

Inspiration for the book

All the time I spent with my grandparents and the stories they told me of their golden times have haunted me for years now. A few years back, I decided to travel in pursuance of those stories and discovered that many professions that existed during the days of the yore still exist, although on the brink of their extinction. There were numerous such professions, each with a social relevance that was more than just a colourful tapestry in the fabric of our society. As these things fade away, it becomes necessary to document what is destined to become history. That is when I started traveling to rural areas, documenting the lives of these professionals.

Other dying professions that did not find a mention in the book

Wigmakers, beedi rollers, human alarms, rat catchers, midwives, grave diggers, many street performers across the country, oral genealogists and a lot more. There were many in the North East as well. I documented the ones who family histories I could trace and which helped me dissect the Indian cultural fabric.

The hardest story to write

Perhaps the Rudaali story, the professional mourners that is. For the story, we travelled to a village in Rajasthan which is beyond the reach of the government and police. This hamlet is among the seven or eight regions still under the fierce control of the kith and kin of the Rajputs and the presence of the state, if at all, is personified in the form of the upper caste patriarchal head of the village, known as the Thakur. He spoke to me with one hand on a pistol that was strung to his waist. The local who accompanied me told me that the last time a girl in this village was married was about 80 years ago. Female infanticide is rampant and still practiced under wraps. We didn’t see a single girl in the village of hundreds. The few women, covered head to toe in an odhni, who were out on the street doing their daily chores scurried into their homes when they saw our car approaching. Because I wasn’t allowed to interview the rudaali who was the Thakur’s mistress, it got difficult writing her story. Also, I belong to that region of the country, so it was a personal journey of some beautiful as well as terrifying histories of the many traditions I have grown up practicing.

A profession you wished had survived the onslaught of time

It would perhaps be the storytellers of Andhra and Telangana. I may be nostalgic about most of these professions but evolution cannot be stopped in its tracks. We may reminisce them and it is important to document them, but let’s not be regressive here. Most of these professions were meant to go, perhaps with the exception of the storytellers, the Burrakatha artists. They have memorised a number of epics such as Mahabharat, Ramayan, Bobbulikatha, Yellamma over centuries, composed songs and witty, lyrical scripts, adapted them to deliver social messages and government campaigns like those of polio, AIDS, family planning etc. They still use ancient musical instruments like tambura, dimki and andelu, all this while they survive on a diet of rice and rats. Discriminations on the basis of caste has kept them at the fringes of the society. They dream of singing songs and collaborating with Tollywood industry, but most of their children are now rag pickers or garbage cleaners, jobs they have resorted to now that Burrakatha renditions have hardly any takers. 

Insights developed during writing this book

 I have tried hard, very hard, to ensure the reader feels the same struggle I felt while writing this book- alternating between remorse for lost times and then relief that some of these professions deserve to fade away with time. I put down everything that mystified me as well as humbled me out on Indian streets and that created, however small, some insight into the lives of many citizens, including the urban rural and the class divide that still exists in the country. Over the last few decades, the growth rates have been impressive and created the largest middle class. India seems to have traveled a long way since Independence but more things appear to change, the more they are in actuality, the same. The Dalits are seen as the most victimized social class in India but in reality, the Adivasis have it far worse.  It was hard to believe this India still exists. Look at the patriarchal figures in the Rudaali story. Jharkhand and many parts of Khunti are also similarly infiltrated by goons who pretend to be Naxals. I have but documented just glimpses of their lives in this book. But for my work to have any real meaning, to develop something worthwhile, will take a lot more time with a  deeper study of their subcultures.

What next?

This year seems packed already but next year, I intend to pick up where I left…more subculture studies. There is so much to talk about India and its lives…

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About Preeti Singh

I am a bookaholic. I love stories, storytelling. I enjoy helping people structure their storytelling, and I love to share the stories I discover.

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