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Who are they?
The Nat are a community of professional dancers, singers and acrobats who originated from Rajasthan. They used to live on the patronage of Rajput rulers and therefore prefer to call themselves Raj Nat. They are also referred to as Bhanmati, which means ‘something amazing’.
The Nat live in Gujarat, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Bihar and West Bengal, as well as the union territory of Chandigarh. The Nat are listed as a Scheduled Caste in all states except in Gujarat, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The Indian Constitution provides such castes many benefits intended to improve their circumstances.
Also spelled “Nut”, the name Nat is derived from the Sanskrit word nata (dancer), a term associated with their acrobatic skills. Their origin is obscure. It is said they are descended from two Chamar (tanner) brothers, Asa and Basa. The anthropologist, Rose (1919), records the legend that the Nat were originally Brahmins whose duty was to supply fuel for funeral pyres. On one occasion they delivered a supply of fuel to a patron just in case someone died as they did not want to be inconvenienced as they had to attend a wedding. The patrons regarded this as a bad omen and dispensed with the Nats services. The Nat approached a fakir (Muslim recluse) for help. He had a monkey (Hanuman) who taught them how to entertain.
Another eminent authority William Crooke (1896) says, “the real fact seems to be that the name Nat is an occupational term which includes a number of different clans who have been grouped together merely on account of their common occupation of dancing, prostitution, and performance of various primitive industries.” Their own oral traditions, however, trace their ancestry to a Rajput lineage, the warrior caste that is second to the Brahmin.
The Nat speak their own language called Bagri or Nati that belongs to the Indo-Aryan family of languages. They are also conversant with Hindi, as well as other languages and dialects of the regions they reside in. Traditionally, the higher Hindu castes do not accept food and water from the hands of the Nat, and at the same time the Nat do not accept the same from certain castes lower than them such as the Dhobi (washer man), Bhangi (sweeper or scavenger), Mochi (cobbler) or the Dhanuk (cotton carder).
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Nat used to depend on royal patronage for their living, amusing the rulers and their guests with their acrobatic performances. They also derived an income from street drama, music and rope-dancing that they performed in villages and towns, which some Nat continue to do, such as those of Gujarat. Others subsist on agricultural labour in other people’s fields in rural areas and manual labour. Some till land on share-cropping basis while others are engaged in animal husbandry, petty services, metal work, selling herbal medicines, rickshaw-pulling (especially in West Bengal), repairing things like torches, watches and radios or working in music bands that play at marriages and other functions. .
In the slums of Delhi two subgroups of the Nat known as the Nat Bhat (bard) and the Nat Kabutri are found. The former are locally identified as Kathputali Nachanewale, or ‘those who make the puppets dance’. Most have been narrating folk tales through puppet shows since the time of the Mogul Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). Many Nat Kabutri are gypsy dancers. Young girls and women perform the rope-dance on tight ropes tied to a centrally fixed bamboo while their men beat drums to attract an audience.
All Nat eat all meat except beef. Wheat, bajra (a coarse, cheap cereal), rice and pulses form part of their staple diet. They eat very little fruit. Alcohol is an integral part of their social life. After the settling a dispute, at social functions, ceremonial occasions and festivities, alcohol is served by the host. They smoke bidi (rolled tendu leaves) and cigarettes. Older women also smoke bidi. Both men and women chew betel with betel nuts and tobacco.
The Nat use both modern and traditional medicine and are open to family planning. The low literacy level is less than 10% – except in Punjab, Haryana and West Bengal where education is more accessible but still well below the national average. Boys do not study beyond middle school and very few girls attend school, usually up to second or third standard only.
This group of people does not marry outside their community and they maintain clan exogamy, i.e. they are required to marry outside their clan. But any alliance with the Rajput is allowed as it enhances their status in society. Marriage is settled through negotiation among parents or elders. Monogamy (with patrilocal residence) is the norm. Polygamy is allowed but rarely practiced.
Bride price is prevalent among the poorer Nat and is paid in cash. Sindur (vermilion), churi (glass bangles) and toe-rings are the main symbols of marriage. Both child and adult marriages are common among the Nat. In case of the former, gauna or the departure of the bride to her husband’s home is performed on attaining puberty. Couples may divorce on grounds of adultery, adjustment problems or cruelty. If a woman seeks divorce and remarries, the husband she remarries has to recompense a bride price to the first husband. Children are the liability of the father in such cases. Widow, widower and divorcee remarriages are allowed. The remarriage with the younger brother of the deceased husband is permitted but not required.
The Nat usually live in hamlets on the outskirts of villages and towns. Both joint and nuclear families exist among the Nat. Only the sons may inherit the family property and the eldest son succeeds as head of the family after his father’s death, but he must consult his mother before taking important decisions. The custom of ‘avoiding’ is maintained between daughter-in-law and father-in-law and the younger brother’s wife and her elder brother-in-law.
They work in order to contributing to the family income. They enjoy almost equal status in the family as well as in Nat society and play a dynamic role in religious and social spheres. Nat women love to wear colorful ghagras (skirts), kurtis (blouses) and dupattas (scarves). Tattooing floral and geometrical designs is common among them. A section of Nat women (usually unmarried girls) practice prostitution as a traditional occupation.
The Nat have a rich tradition of folk tales and songs, some of which they share with other communities. The males sing and dance, perhaps more than the women do, accompanied by musical instruments like dhol (a kind of drum), harmonium and bansuri (bamboo flute). The Nat have caste councils or Panchayats to solve disputes related to matrimonial alliances, minor quarrels, sexual corruption and property. Punishments in the form of cash fines and social boycott are imposed on offenders. The Nat in Delhi have a registered society known as the Prachin Kathputli Samaj (Ancient Puppet Society) whose main function is the welfare and improvement of the community, and training the children in their traditional occupation.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Nat are Hindu by religion, although in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, some are Muslim. The Hindu Nat worships all the Hindu gods and goddesses. They worship Rama and Shiva. The Nat in Bihar worship Dack as their main deity, while their regional deity is Goraibaba. Most of those living in West Bengal follow Vaishnaism (venerate Vishnu as their main god). Krishna (eighth incarnation of Vishnu), his beloved Radha and Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) also receive preeminence. The Nat in Delhi and Haryana worship Kalkaji (a form of Kali, Shiva’s wife).
Some members of the Nat community become hermits and chant the name of Rama. Some of them become exorcists, healers and fortune tellers. The Nat celebrate major Hindu festivals as Janamashtami (birthday of Krishna on which day a fast is observed), Diwali (festival of lights commemorating the triumphant return of Rama from exile after killing the demon king Ravana), Holi (festival of colors), Shivaratri (Night of Shiva, a festival celebrating the destruction and regeneration of the universe). Vrindavan, a sacred place near the city of Mathura where Krishna and Radha’s romance began is one of their centres of pilgrimage as are Haridwar and Varanasi. Ancestor worship is also prevalent.
What Are Their Needs?
The Nat low caste status has deprived them of many benefits, while the nature of their profession and at times, semi-nomadic life has compounded the problems of ignorance, superstition and poverty.