Of colour and culture

[Edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald, screenshot attached below. Posted here is the original version.]

The festival of colours just went by, and it is one of the festivals in India celebrated in the most diverse ways. From Holi ka dahan to insane colour fights, Holi sees a number of meaningful forms of celebrations across cultures in India. One such interesting form of celebrations is seen within the Marathi Naik community.

The Marathi Naik Community is a tribal community residing in the Coastal belt of Karnataka. The community’s ancestors have a history of fighting alongside Chatrapathi Shivaji during their stay in Maharashtra, after which they migrated to the Southern parts of Karnataka and have made it their home. Holi and Gondhol are two of their most prominent festivals, and their Holi celebrations are a sight to behold.

Almost a fortnight before Holi, few chosen men from the community perform a ritual with a simple coconut, heralding that they shall perform the ‘Holi Kunitha’, the ritualistic Holi dance this year. For the following 15 days, they remain out of their homes and stay with the community leader, where they practice restraint in food and lifestyle. Come the day of Holi, this team of young men set out wearing colourful costumes holding a pleasant instrument, on a mission to bring happiness to the village.

Before they leave, they dance in front of their deity named Mammayi, which means ‘Great Mother’. The altar where she is placed is known as ‘Hattarakatte’, a place of religious significance to the community. She is a pagan deity worshipped by the community alongside Lord Bhairava. Holi Kunitha, or Holi dance is performed by these men at every single home of a village. They dance to simple steps singing songs in a language which is a mixture of Konkani and Marathi, with evident influences of Kannada. The instrument they carry is the Gumte, a clay pot covered with leather, producing a gentle percussion. They may prefer a bronze pot instead of clay at times. The Marathi Naik instrument is generally distinguished by the hole present at the bottom of the pot, using which the dancers produce a variety of sounds through air passage control. This music combined with the rhythmic sound of the heavy anklets that they wear on their feet, the Holi Kunitha turns out to be a feast for the eyes and the ears. Some of them also carry an instrument named Jaagate, which is a flat bronze instrument used to produce bell like sound on being tapped with a stick entrusted with a cork at one end. The songs they sing praise their deity Mammayi and ask her to bring prosperity to their village.

The costume of these dancers used to be plain white, with a red veil draped diagonally across their body, combined with a turban clad with orange flowers. However, the migrated community has drawn inspiration from the native art of Yakshagana, and today their attire consists of a colourful pleated skirt that symbolizes the essence of Holi. As the group dances around splashing their colours in coordination to the pleasant music, the festival of Holi comes alive in every household of Kundapura- Bramhavar- Udupi- Mutlupady- Hiriyadka belt of Coastal Karnataka.

The purpose behind Holi Kunitha is that the team of dancers is believed to bring luck and wellness into the household they go. It is said, that a household wishing for a particular thing on a specific year generally has its wish fulfilled when the Holi Kunitha comes back next year. Based on this belief, some people even hand their little children to the team leader to hold as they dance, in belief that any problem the child might have is resolved. The team of dancers is also asked to water plants or trees around the house in hopes that the flora will yield better produce in the coming year.

This cultural practice of visiting homes and performing Holi Kunitha can go up to three days, after which the team goes back to the altar of the Goddess Mammayi, where they perform yet another ritual symbolizing the end of Holi celebrations for the year. The community goes back to its slow modern progress but commendable cultural sustenance. Holi Kunitha ritual is a small cultural practice performed by a small community residing in a small part of India. But the cultural essence it adds to the heritage of the country is definitely significant.

Photos by Shashikanth Shetty

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