Updated: May 19, 2021
Baba Garia is the biggest deity of the Jamatia tribe of Tripura. This devotion dictates many of the cultural expressions of the tribe in the form of music, festivals, and belief systems. Baba Garia where Baba means “father” is seen as the guardian who looks after each aspect of the lives of the people. For ages, the Jamatias have been singing songs for the deity where they seek his blessings and express their gratitude. These songs are called Suwari and the singers are called Suwari Bodol where Bodol means team or group.
The troupe performs in the middle of a courtyard whereas the audience sits around them in a circle. Each team consists of a dozen or more singers/dancers, one or two mettwng (drum) players, and a cymbal player. The songs begin slowly with the singers/dancers moving at a gentle pace. After a few minutes, the drums begin to beat faster and the singers catch up with the pace. After a few moments the tempo increases and the movements become stronger and faster. The drums and cymbals also play along accordingly and reach a frenzy just before the song ends. The songs are anywhere between 5 min to 10 min in duration. The songs are guided by the elongated drum or mettwng which requires years of practice to master.
For today’s training session, the village Suwari Bodol has invited a guest drummer from the nearby village of Shilghati. His name is Sadhan Bakta Jamatia and he is the most famous drummer among the community members. Over the years he has taught many children how to play the drum. “School education is very important so I usually encourage children to study first and then learn the instruments,” he says. According to him, children are either born with the talent of drumming or none at all. “My own children are useless when it comes to music,” he says with a laugh.
Sadhan started learning mettwng at a young age on a borrowed drum. He used to practice so much that his hand used to bleed. “But today when I play for many hours at a stretch, people ask me if my hands are made of iron, and I reply yes! Playing mettwng requires very strong hands,” he says. Sadhan adds that like every good musician, it is the beats and the rhythm that gives him the energy. As Suwari programmes go on all night long, the entire troupe has to be on their toes for many hours at a time. “Once I start playing, I forget everything else and find much energy from the music,” he says.
Every Jamatia village has one such group or Suwari Bodol which sing songs and play music in the name of Baba Garia. The Suwari is sung at the annual puja of the deity as well as during funerals. In many Tripuri communities, the death of a person is followed by night-long vigils where the Suwari Bodol perform songs till dawn. These songs call out to Baba Garia to take care of his children.
At Tota Kami, my village, where a troupe is practicing, one of the members, Chikon Jamatia says that these practice sessions are a way of keeping our culture alive. “We regularly perform here to make sure that no one forgets them. I myself began learning the drum only one week ago,” he says.
There are young children among those practicing the music. These children will carry forward the tradition in the future when they grow up and join the troupe as a member. The elders teach them how to play the drum and how to dance to the songs. It is a winter night but most dancers are perspiring profusely from the exertion of the dance that continues for many hours on end. Children, too, seem to become impervious to cold and fatigue as they get into the thick of the performance.
These practice sessions take place all year round and is a perfect example of how important music and dance is to the Jamatia community