How Vanvasi And Adivasi Women Kathakars Trained In Ayodhya Are Fighting Conversion With Tales Of Ram, ‘Bhajans’ and ‘Bharatmata Aarati’
The Shri Hari Satsang Samiti, a cultural facet of the Ekal Abhiyan, today teaches and guides around 1,500 trained volunteers working as ‘kathakars’.
In 2008, Sangeeta Kumari, a village girl from Gumla district in Jharkhand, completed her training in Ayodhya to become a kathakar — the teller and re-teller of tales.
In Ayodhya, her studies and training were seeped in the celebration of Ram through the reciting of the katha, the singing of bhajans and dedication to the values of Sanatana Dharma.
She returned to her community in Jharkhand the same year.
In Jharkhand, she performed kathas dedicated to Ram under the Ekal Abhiyan — the illustrious organisation that has dedicated itself to the education and cultural awakening of the Vanvasi and Adivasi communities for more than three decades.
Kumari is one of the 1,500 trained volunteers working as kathakars associated with the Shri Hari Satsang Samiti — a cultural facet of the Ekal Abhiyan.
People of her village and her own community became her audience during the initial years. Building her audience was about finding solutions to intense challenges.
In one of the villages in Gumla, where the group led by her was supposed to perform, she noticed that the youth were addicted to alcohol, and other influences that were threatening their wellbeing and identity.
The locals warned Kumari that the village youth are trapped in the use of intoxicants. There were safety concerns. She tells this author over the phone: "The locals said, 'Didi, idhar toh peene khaane waale itne hain, aap kaise katha karoge? (There are numerous drunkards here, how will you go ahead with your katha?) We had more reasons to still go ahead with making a beginning in that village," she adds.
What were those reasons? "There were people from that village who had left their roots and converted to Christianity. When we began the katha, more and more of them would come over to listen, and gradually 18 families who had converted came back to their roots."
She herself is not able to count the number of Vanvasi and Adivasi brothers and sisters she has served as a kathakar to. She values her role. She adds, "Yeh mere jeevan ka aadhaar ban gaya hai (it has become the basis of my life)."
Two factors work in her favour in creating an impact on folks from her communities and keeping them rooted to their identity.
One: she is a kathakar trained in Ayodhya. There is an essence of Ayodhya, Ram's birthplace and home, in her retelling of the tales of Ram and in her telling of the katha.
Two: being from a region gives her an advantage of knowing the local sensibilities. She knows the flow in language that the people of her region connect with. She understands the emotion, the local bhaava.
Her katha plays the role of an emotional binder in identity and dharma.
She performs the Ram katha, over prose, reciting and singing. There is a mandli — a group accompanying her on the musical instruments, that include the harmonium, percussion, and the manjeera (brass cymbals).
This is roughly what her sessions look like. At around 8 pm, people in the village she is performing in — Gumla, Jharkhand —begin to walk in to the katha after a long day at work. It's mostly work at the fields and agriculture-related work that occupies them. "The katha goes on until 1 am sometimes," she adds.
Today, she serves as a 'Vyaas' — a title given in honour to the kathakars in the Ekal Abhiyan. She was 12 when she left home for training. She says, "I left my studies and went to Ayodhya. I have a masters degree in arts".
The responsibility has soared. She proudly says, "Main Gumla-anchal ka Vyaas-pramukh hoon". She is the head of kathakars known as Vyaas.
Music flows over this melodious resolve. The Vyaas kathakars travel on foot sometimes to reach the villages. They overcome challenges and safety issues. The sacred name of Hari, Ram, Shiv, Krishna flows along in the form of musical compositions, as these women halt to share.
When Manisha Bisht, a resident of Haldwani district in Uttarakhand, visits a village and makes a new connection with the Hindu families there, three instruments help her create a lasting bond. These are: a set of three bhajans, the Hanuman Chalisa, and the Bharatmata aarati.
Bisht is a volunteer working towards education and women empowerment under the Ekal Abhiyan. She visits home two-three times in three months. She is fully dedicated to the cause. She has felt empowered in the process.
She got associated with the Ekal Sansthan in 2009. She was studying in Class X in Haldwani when volunteers from the Ekal Abhiyan first came to her village.
Bisht attended a training programme under Ekal Abhiyaan for the "acharya varg". She adds, "I was later given bigger responsibilities as an acharya. For my duties under the Harikatha Satsang in Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, my responsibilities grew — from village, to 30 villages, to district, and now to region."
Like other volunteers under the Shri Hari Satsang Samiti and the Sankar Kendra facets of the Ekal Abhiyan, Bisht has received training in the singing of bhajans as well. Their visit to families in the villages is marked by a meal with the family and the touching of the feet of the family members. A relationship begins.
In Himachal Pradesh, the Vyaas kathakars recently held training and practice sessions of the satsang. The volunteers propagate sanskar shiksha, one of the many subjects in the five facets of education in Ekal Abhiyan.
Men and women from the Vanvasi communities, who have passed matric (the basic requirement for their training and journey) are trained for nine months under the Vyaas programme in Ayodhya or Brindavan. They also receive training at one of the nine centres across India for six months. Then, they serve on ground for a month for gaining experience.
They also encounter people who do not want to see the many facets of Hindu culture awaken the folks in the villages.
Jitu Pahan heads the all India chapter of Ekal Abhiyan Kathakar Yojana. He says, "hamara jo Hindu dharm sanskriti hai, vartaman samay mein aur poorv mein bhi anya dharm ke log bhramit karte hain hamare bhole bhaale adivasi vanvasi jo hain unko... (We have our religion, our culture, but in the past as well as the present, people from other religion mislead the simple Vanvasis and Adivasis)".
Why? He adds, "Bhatkaane ka laabh jo dikhta hai (there are benefits of misguiding the people)."
He adds that initially, some people would misguide the Vanvasis and Adivasis and tell them the honour of becoming "Vyaas" will not be given to them, owing to caste-related issues.
He adds, "Lekin ab sabko samaj aa gaya hai, dikh gaya hai (but now people know and see the truth).
People across castes in the Vanvasi samaj get the honour of being 'Vyaas' and serve towards 'jan jaagran' — the awakening of the masses.
Bhajan, keertan and satsang have now become elements in their daily life and their presence in the people's "dincharya" (daily routine) stands with them in the good times and the bad times.
What's the impact? "People from the Adivasi communities are now opposing conversion. They are able to dispel the call for conversion. They are able to reject the offerings and the lures with which they are approached for conversion. People who had converted want to return to their roots. They have understood their value and culture," he adds.
Harikatha as a vehicle found soil in Jharkhand in 1995 with inspiration from senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak and Ekal Abhiyan founder Shri Shyam ji Gupta. Gradually, women from Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh joined the movement. Some went on to be trained for kathavachan.
Currently, there are around 3,000 kathavachaks that strengthen the civilisational cause and are trained in Ayodhya, Vrindavan, Puri, Nagpur and Guwahati, before they step on the ground for their duties and experience.
The contribution of women such as Kumari and Bisht to the social, emotional and cultural shift is invaluable.
Covid-19 did poke the momentum of their work initially, but the volunteers used online platforms to keep the work flowing.
Backed by the propelling power of feminism inherent in Sanatana Dharma, they build and shape their own audience, meet challenges, empower others and get empowered in the process.
These bold tellers of Harikatha, the resolved singers of bhajans, Hanuman Chalisa, and Bharatmata Aarati are the real bearers of the 'dharmadhwaja' — the flag of dharma.
Just as they look inwards during Navratra in special workshops and satsang sessions, the Navratra, perhaps are the most appropriate occasion to realise and celebrate their cultural value to the Hindu identity and family.
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