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Dying Artists of India: Karma tribal dance performers struggle to survive  

Monday June 09, 2014

Karma Tribal dance, Dying Artists of India, Struggle for Survival  

"The struggle for survival of India's indigenous Ghasia community and its traditional karma dance form continues even today. The spontaneous stepping with the flow of the streams, the lyrics explaining the beauty of blossoming Palash (Bengal Kino) in the mountain and the female voice singing ‘Mayi re aaiha sajaley rasiya’ fails to reach the deaf ears of people in power and echoes only in the mountainous region."

Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi  

Looking back into the history one can remember that, in November 1986, the Karma dancers performed before the President of India at ‘Apna Mahotsav’ held in New Delhi. Even they were honoured and invited as guests in a dinner hosted by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, the present UPA Chairperson at Teen Murti House on November 24, 1986. In 2001-2002, 16 performers participated in Island Festival held at Andaman Nicobar Islands. The ‘Karma dance’ is still popular in the entire world but the performers are languishing in penury and their identities are at stake. These performers are facing virtual extinction due to poverty and administrative apathy.

Karma tribal dance performers belong to Ghasia tribe who have no land, no home and, even, no safe source of drinking water. But, still, they have the skill and the inherited rich legacy of ‘Karma dance’.


The insensate and corrupt administration failed to lend its helping hand by linking up these ‘special artistes’ to welfare programmes and schemes for which, Ghasia tribe had to confront economic hardship. In the name of granting ‘cultural programmes’ to the tribe, the dominant in the society in collusion with officials in the district administration wanted to extract undue benefits of satiating their carnal desire with their eyes on the women of the tribe. Such a trick pricked the conscience and the tribe was not prepared to compromise with the dignity of its women in lieu of few programmes. Ghasia tribe was forced to live in the rocky and undulated Raup village in Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh and the famous Karma dance the skilled tribal performers were forced to toil hard, pull rickshaw and dance in the marriages to earn a meagre livelihood because of the apathy and administrative callousness.

Pushed to economic deprivation, the Ghasia tribe living in Raup village were somehow eking out their living. But within 3 months, between July and September 2003, there was a heart wrenching incident where 18 children between the age of 3 and 7 years died of hunger and malnutrition. Post hunger deaths was more pathetic because of the local district officials’ callousness, apathy and an intentional ignorance about the whole episode of hunger death even though the newspapers and other media prominently covered the news depicting the tribe’s abysmal condition. Seeing the news reports, People’s Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR) intervened and a team visited the village, talked to the villagers and prepared a fact finding report.

The report is quite startling to jolt everyone with slightest of sensibility. Children of the artistes endowed with the rich legacy of rare and exceptional folk culture ‘karma dance’ were dying of hunger and their families were fighting to get rid of the global evil of starvation. When they needed a true helping hand, the reactionary forces coupled with the feudal thinking, arm-flexing politicians ganged up with the police to harass them by branding them as ‘Naxalite informers’. Police had unleashed a reign of terror, what other evil minded people couldn’t do despite a number of attempts, by sexually assaulting the Ghasia women. Peeved by police repression when the Ghasia tribe protested, the police retaliated in a much insane manner by entering their homes in dark night and tried to silence children, elderly people and pregnant women by kicking them with their heavy boots. Many of the men have been incapacitated with their arms and limbs broken and are forced to beg on the streets to make a livelihood. Intermittently, many of the youths from the Ghasia ghetto were falsely implicated and pushed behind the bars. In order to arrange the amount required to get them released in bail, the tribal families have to make loans by mortgaging their ration cards to the money lenders, who showed their dominance by wielding stronger clout and charging heavy interest from the families of Ghasia youth. It pushed them further to deprivation and destitute.

Then, PVCHR organised the basti dwellers and initiated a process so that justice should be delivered to these deprived tribal families. PVCHR, in collaboration with Care House Foundation and Indian origin Swedish Parul Sharma, had planted 100 saplings of drumsticks in Raup village to overcome the issue of malnutrition and tide over infant and maternal mortalities. PVCHR had even petitioned NHRC on the problems being confronted the Ghasia tribe. In its follow up, villagers staged protest ‘dharna’ at the district headquarter.

NHRC issued notice to the Uttar Pradesh Government for initiating action on the long-standing demands of the Ghasia tribe and asked the State Government to keep them posted with the development within a week.

The district administration was then thrown from its slumber and was back in action. It pressurised the basti dwellers to downplay the deaths of the children not due to hunger but out of some disease. Even they were threatened of eviction if they didn’t submit and change their version of children’s death.

Facing official apathy and highhandedness, a cycle rally was organised, on December 7, from Kavardih (Nogarh), Chandauli to mark the death of the children’s starvation deaths as martyrdom. The rally that culminated at Raup Ghasia basti on December 10, the Human Rights Day, could draw the attention of the district administration by submitting a charter of demands in form of a memorandum signed by 300 people.

The demands made are:

1) Families living in Ghasia basti be issued Below the Poverty Line (BPL) ration cards

2) Ensure employment to the basti dwellers

3) Stop evicting the Ghasia basti dwellers

4) Children till 14 years should be given and nutritious food

5) Anganwadi should be immediately opened in the basti

6) Agricultural land should be distributed to the landless villagers.

Under some pressure, the administration distributed some food grains and relief material but failed in providing a sustainable livelihood. Seeing the apathy, PVCHR, as part of its intervention, sent the charter of demand to NHRC. PVCHR has been arduously trying to bring to the fore the deplorable conditions of the artistes, save them and conserve their rare and exceptional culture.

But the present hapless and miserable plight abounding the Ghasia tribe the song has changed into ‘Raja soye lal palang, babubhaiya khatia, garib soye khodo puhal’. Police and district administration, who had been assiduously trying to evict the innocent tribal community from their place and, also, to snatch the source of livelihood from them, is responsible for the plight of the Ghasia tribe. If any of the youth gets a job anywhere, the police create hindrances till the youth is shunted out of the job. District administration had deliberately branded the folk artistes as ‘thieves’. Social ostracism and abject poverty had pushed them to penury and deprivation. Safety is a concern for both Ghasia women and men as fear of women’s modesty being outraged and men’s pushed behind the bars on fabricated charges always looms large. Seeing the police or government vehicles, children hide themselves out of fear. On the one side the Government through its website popularises Karma folk dance performers in the world by claiming it to be ‘India’s rich legacy’. But on the other side the performers are branded as Maoists and criminals. Such duality by the administration not only questions the commitment of the government about development of this tribal community but drags their future into the tunnel of darkness.

As a result, the struggle for survival of the indigenous Ghasia tribe and its traditional karma dance form continues even today. The spontaneous stepping with the flow of the streams, the lyrics explaining the beauty of blossoming Palash (Bengal Kino) in the mountain and the female voice singing ‘Mayi re aaiha sajaley rasiya’ fails to reach the deaf ears of people in power and echoes only the mountainous region.


[Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi is the Secretary General of Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) based People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR). He can be contacted at]


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