On vueltas, roots, and the (field)work of love

In Latcho Drom, a music film by Tony Gatlif, there is a footage which invariably enthrals me: a Rajasthani girl performing pirouettes. Her back is bent at ninety degrees to the rest of her body, almost parallel to the ground, and she uses her arm as the centre of the propelling motion with which she is rotating, cutting through the air like a drill through cardboard. This footage gives me the chills, as it reminds me uncannily of vuelta quebrada – a ‘broken pirouette’ in flamenco.

Latcho Drom, which means ‘Bon voyage’ in the Romani language, is a documentation of music and dance, from Rajasthan in India all the way to the Spanish Andalucía, through Turkey, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. In theory it could portray the actual journey of the Rajasthani ‘gypsy’ tradition – but since all of this is contested, there is no claim that this is how the journey actually happened. And yet there is a number of similarities, including that both the Rajasthani banjare and the Andalusian gitanos are shown doing black smithery, which is claimed to have given the rhythm to seguiriyas: two hammers of unequal size falling on the anvil at unequal intervals. I leave the musical theory to the musical theorists and comparative dance ethnography to comparative dance ethnographers; I just like to think of my beloved art form to have originated in India, as has my language and, perhaps, the traditions of my literature.

We spent the New Year’s Eve in Rajasthan, and although this trip was short, sketchy and superficial, I wanted to see it as a little pilgrimage to the ‘roots’. As usual in India, I was an anthropologist gone native, so native in fact that I lost the keenness of observation, the foreignness of it all. Rather, I was an upper-class Delhiite tourist, looking at the ‘beautiful’ Udaipur from a car window. This glass wall between me and what I looked at made me miserable. I was entertained by Udaipur, I was consuming the commercialised ‘heritage’, and I could not penetrate anything, and could not make a connection with what I came there for. There was no depth to dig the roots from.

I asked myself and then my husband, what is the equivalent of going back to the roots in terms of social science research? He said, standing on the shoulders of giants. I asked, you mean reading Durkheim, Weber and the rest of the ‘grandfathers’ gang? Reasonable as that idea sounded, it made me feel extremely uneasy.

On the plane from Stockholm to Delhi I had been reading Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, co-edited by Ashish Kothari and co-authored by many other Indians, including my husband’s first ‘boss’, Vandana Shiva. As my parents-in-law went on a ‘real’ pilgrimage (there is some special Hindu temple to visit in each state), our little family of three ventured out on a small adventure of our own, and visited Manish Jain, an acquaintance of my husband’s and a colleague of Ashish Kothari. As we sat in their home full of exotic excitements, my son enthusiastically trying out musical instruments from around the world, I felt that ‘the pluriverse’ was right there. (‘Drop the sequel’, said Manish. ‘The original Development Dictionary is more solid’.)

From Manish’s gate we took an autorickshaw. The glass between me and the world was removed, I was taken out of my golden capsule, and I could finally feel Udaipur. I saw, heard and smelled it fully. What is it, what is it, I asked impatiently. Where is it, that thing I am looking for?

Suddenly I saw it. In the flood of city traffic, the drivers were signalling the right turns, crossing the traffic, with their hands. I saw dozens of tanned, slender hands signalling right turns. Some did it nonchalantly, lazily, some imploringly, pleadingly, some in a self-assured, commanding manner. Rings and karas (steel bracelets widely worn by men in Northern India) glinted in the afternoon sun. It was a dance of hands, a choreography of signals exquisitely executed. I saw a glimpse of my love for India which had waned; I knew it was somewhere hidden, tucked away for a rainy day.

My pain and misery of disconnection was momentarily lifted, and it occurred to me that perhaps going back to the roots means remembering who I am doing it for.

Do you first fall in love with something/someone and then do research about it/them, or is it the other way around? Do you start researching and then become inevitably woven into the tight fabric of whatever it is you are examining? If it lets you, that is. If they let you to go native with them.

We say that what we call ‘fieldwork’ is only a part, an element of what we do, but in fact it is the very reason we do it. Being able to remove the glass wall is where the fieldwork starts. Even if it’s very short-lived. And this is the real work.

As we were leaving Udaipur, in the car to the airport, I was as miserable as I had been before. The glass was there again, and I felt bitter. I put on my headphones and turned up the volume to the maximum, as this was the only way for me to be alone in a carful of people. I stared intently out of the window, trying hard to see something, to observe, to use my ‘sociological imagination’ as I was taught, which, given the initial absence of it, is to be minted, I guess, in the process. What did I see? I saw a woman in a red saree, the pallu (loose end of the saree) covering her head, sitting on the banister on the side of the lake, alone. I saw Indian tourists pouring in and out of boats which took them around the lake to see the magnificent palaces. I saw coconut vendors chopping off the tops of the coconuts and inserting straws in them, and then inserting those coconuts with chopped off tops and straws in them into the windows of cars of those who were thirsty for coconut water, smugly receiving folded rupee notes. I saw grey langurs (‘Hanuman monkeys’) crossing roads in huge gangs, swaying their mighty tails, flying effortlessly on and off tree branches and cars. I saw white marble mirage of Udaipur melting away in the mist, but I couldn’t make any sense of any of it, and I didn’t feel I had any sociological imagination to lean on, newly minted or not.

We returned to the house in Delhi, where my husband grew up and where, a year earlier, I had written the proposal for my PhD research, which I now (oh horror! Be careful what you wish for) had to actually carry out. Can one go further back to the roots than that?

There are many ‘pilgrimages to the roots’ to perform. To Rajasthani desert, where the Kalbelia tribe catch snakes and perform a dance in red-and-black lenghas, with some movements so intrinsic to flamenco that for a second I forget what I am looking at. To Andalucía, where Lorca lived and died, and where gitanos were evicted from Triana – and then returned.  To the field, which I am newly discovering – or newly minting, beading together, verbatim, one word at a time, the transcript of the first interview, even though I can’t yet make sense of it. To the field, which is everywhere, including in this very room, if only I am able to remove the glass wall.

What does ‘going back to the roots’ mean to you, and where does your fieldwork call you?

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