Kolkata-based journalist and writer Nidhi Dugar Kundalia has written for various publications, often on society and subcultures. In her book, The Lost Generation, Kundalia chronicles twelve dying professions across the nation. Many of these professions, such as the letter writers of Bombay or the nomadic storytellers of Andhra Pradesh, Kundalia notes in her introduction to the book, are rendered obsolete due to technological advances, becoming “the debris left behind by the globalisation that is rapidly transforming the originally diverse and syncretic Indian society.” Some, such as the Urdu scribes and the kabootarbaaz of old Delhi, have lost their patrons—the kings, the nobles and the landlords. Kundalia also notes how these professions were almost always caste-coded, and passed on from one generation to the next. One such profession, of which she writes in the following excerpt, is that of the rudaalis of Rajasthan—helpless, impoverished lower-caste women that were hired as professional mourners for deaths in high-caste households. Although, Kundalia writes, “the changing times, enculturation and automation are all slowly eliminating these mourning practices, consigning them as some sort of an anthropological curiosity,” these women, whose lives are largely dictated by the upper-caste men of the village, remain “caught in the web of caste hierarchy.”
The Thakur sits on a charpoy outside his whitewashed haveli, wearing a stark white dhoti-kurta; a thick gold chain with a Hanuman pendant disappears between the buffalo humps around his neck. I scan the haveli behind him. A veiled woman peeps out from a jharokha on the upper floor of the building. She quickly disappears when she catches me looking.
The feudal lord’s progeny still carries his weight in the environs of the village. Eight or nine men called chelas, or followers, surround him—two attending to his horse cart, others sitting like hens on their eggs, by his feet, and the rest standing with their hands behind their backs, trotting around him in circles. In reality as well as in the pages of history these sidekick roles are demarcated as efficiently and clearly as that of a ship steward’s. These chelas are actually darogas, the hereditary servants who are the illegitimate offspring of a thakur with a daori, or female servant. The girls who were born to daoris were mostly killed at birth; the rest were either given away as dowry during the weddings of their legitimate daughters to chiefs and nobles, or married to other chelas.
The nobles, chiefs and thakurs housed the daoris in separate accommodations, often on the fringes of the havelis. Apart from serving as concubines for these thakurs, the daoris also doubled as rudaalis, or mourners, for the family in times of death and sickness.
“Do you know His Highness of Jodhpur? Yes, the maharaja and I are descendants of the same family,” the Thakur announces proudly. “I also recently attended a wedding in the Jaisalmer maharaja’s family. Madam, we are warm and hospitable to our worst enemies too, unlike people in your cities, hai na, Satar?” he said, turning to look at my driver, who is squatting with the Thakur’s other servants. “I have seen you around. Wasn’t your father a khaas [special] chela of my father . . . Ah, anyway, we’ll talk later,” he tells Satar, as his other servants move their head in accord. By now, Satar has folded both his hands and is nodding fervently. The Thakur would be able to peddle him for a few bags of grain, for nothing.