Change, they say. Change is inevitable,” laments Anjalayya, a fourth generation Burrakatha artiste from a village in Andhra Pradesh. Burrakatha is a theatrical production, involving music and poetry, through which a story — mythological, historical or socio-political in nature — is told in overnight sessions by nomadic storytellers. It is a dying art, sliding into obscurity with the rise of television and radio and other forms of live entertainment like musical bands that perform bhajans with contemporary instruments and employ marketing teams to sell themselves.
Anjalayya’s lament is echoed across the country by men and women who practise professions which were once indispensable to daily life but that have now lost their relevance, and have become an anachronism in this fast-changing, modernising world.
In her book, The Lost Generation, Nidhi Duggar Kundalia chronicles practitioners of such professions who, despite the ravages of modernisation, are clinging on to these ancestral trades, sometimes, like Anjalayya, the lack of education and opportunity decideding their fate. And at other times due to a solid faith in and love for what they do, like the old Syed, an ittar-wallah in Hyderabad. “If not money, my ittar earns me respect. I know my sons will have to start selling only synthetic perfumes soon, but till the time I’m around, I’ll keep making and selling pure ittar,” he says.
Over the course of her travels through India, Nidhi, a young journalist based in Kolkata, has compiled these endearing tales of people on the verge of extinction, chronicling their lives in an easy and descriptive style. The essays are accompanied by notes, a glossary of terms, and a bibliography for further reading. Her writing is peppered by insights that could have only been achieved by plunging oneself headlong into the lives of these people, their friends and their customers. A fakir, who sells trinkets in a stall neighbouring the spot where his friend Amrit Singh, a street dentist, practises, tells Nidhi in one conversation that bad teeth can cost you your job. “That is what happened to Radhe (a customer) as well. He had a well-paying job as a peon in a private school until his teeth started rotting — and that screeched ‘poverty’ louder than his broken shoes.”
Nidhi’s encounters and the conversations that flow from them compel you to pause and think, and in reproducing the dialogues faithfully, she has successfully exposed the contradictions and caste and class-linked practices that exist in our society even today.
Sometimes the exchanges are almost comical, as the time when one rudali, a professional mourner, describes why business is slow. “We used to cry for a lot more days until a few years ago. Relatives who received the news via post arrived late and we were summoned to cry for them. But these days… messages are delivered instantly,” says the Rudali, Feroja. “People die a lot less often, too, these days,” she tells the author.
A common element in many of the lives recorded in The Lost Generation is the inability to access government aid for backward castes due to no permanent residences on account of the migratory nature of the professions that these people practise.
Nidhi’s encounters and the conversations that flow from them, compel you to pause and think, and in reproducing the dialogues faithfully, she has successfully exposed the contradictions, and caste- and class-linked practices that exist in our society even today.
The eleven “professionals” know change is inevitable; most of them are the last ones in their families to be engaged in the trade. “But I expected change for the better,” Burrakatha artiste Anjalayya tells the author. His grandsons are garbage collectors. When development schemes swept through his village in the 1990s, Anjalayya and his family only stood by and watched a power project rise and fail, and the development schemes collapse. Even though Anjalayya went to school for some time, he submitted to the “fact” that he would follow the hereditary profession of his ancestors, and he went on to perform Burrakathas. Now, he is a tool in the hands of politicians who promote their propaganda through the stories Anjalayya and his team narrate, but their condition is no better.
The only practitioner who talks of adapting to the change is the letter writer in Bombay, who may use his savings to become an LIC agent, but the others have no such aspirations or even the inclination. Except, when it comes to their children, sons particularly. “Atleast my grandchildren will have a better life,” says the water carrier, or Bhistiwallah, in Kolkata, who wants his son to find a job as a driver.
The book brings the reader close to a disappearing India, and leaves her with conflicting emotions — many of these professions have outlived their expiry date and now must go, yet it’s never easy to cast off a tether to the past that these professions have come to signify. Many young readers may not have solicited an ittar wallahs services, but they have heard colourful stories of those days from their grandparents, which will soon enough become sepia-tinted memories when the last generation passes on.