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Haryana Culture

Haryana’s boundaries were redrawn by politicians, with the division of the Punjab into two States. But the land where this small State now lies has a long history and a thriving culture.

The law book of Manu designated Haryana as Brahmavarta from where the Brahmanical religion and social system grew up and spread outwards to the rest of the country. In a sense, therefore, one can say that much of the Hindu religion and society was formed on the flat, dry plains of present-day Haryana. In the epic of the Mahabharata, it was at Kurukshetra, during a battle between that Kauravas and Pandavas that Lord Krishna delivered one of his most important messages, through the celestial song – the Geeta.

With Delhi as the prize awaiting generations of invaders, Haryana served as a part sort of geographical corridor. Over the centuries, waves of invaders poured across the plains of Haryana, sometimes fighting battles there. At the end of the 14th century, Timur led an army through the State towards Delhi. In 1526, the Moghuls defeated the Lodis at the Battle of Panipat and 30 years later, in 1556, the Moghuls won yet another decisive battle there. By the mid-18th century, the Marathas were in control of Haryana, an era that was brought to an end only by the third battle of Panipat in 1761.

With all this martial progress across their lands, it is hardly surprising that the people of Haryana are a brave and proud race and, inevitably, the different races and creeds that traversed the land left traces behind. A prime example of this is the co-existence of Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs in the State and the existence of a robust local folklore and folk culture that have survived battles, incursions and politics.

What is late 20th century Haryana like? It is still at heart an agricultural State, a land of hard-working farmers and their equally sturdy wives who help out with much of the farm work. The Haryanvi is a simple, straight-forward, no-nonsense person who believes in the virtues of hard work and then, when the work is done, of enjoying himself and relaxing. The small towns and villages that cover the State are slowly coming to terms with such modern-day intrusions as video shops and satellite dishes but there is still a robust folk tradition that has survived. Haryana is, generally, a prosperous State and even the smallest village will have bustling markets and shops where the farmers and their families arrive on their tractors to do their shopping.

The background to much of the State’s popular culture is essentially agriculture and martial and both the folk dances and the accompanying music appeal to the farmers and villagers who predominate in the State’s population. Haryana has a wealth of folk dances which are usually performed at weddings, births, festivals and, of course, during the all-important harvest times.

A dance called ghoomar is especially popular in the west of the State towards the border with Rajasthan and is only danced by girls. It is performed at such festivals as Holi, Gangor Puja and Teej and depicts the girls carrying the thalis of offerings to the temple for their Puja. The girls sing while they dance in a turning movement and as the tempo increases the girls form pairs and swirl faster and faster.

As in many communities and regions in India, weddings give rise to many dances and much revelry. Another all-female Haryanvi dance is the Khoria dance which is usually performed during the long wait for the bridegroom to bring his new bride home. The women often mime the entire wedding ceremony.

It is not only the women of Haryana who dance. At harvest time, when the farmer can sit back and rest a little, a very popular men-only dance is often performed called the dhamal. The been player opens the proceedings with a long note which is taken up the other instruments as the dancers start. Many of the dancers carry sticks wrapped with tinsels and with tassels at both ends which are called shuntis. The men form a semi-circle and bowing down to the ground they invoke the blessings of Lord Ganesh, the Goddess Bhavani and the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. As in many folk dances, the choreography of the dhamal is simple with much energetic jumping. Individual prowess is of course shown off to great advantage in this kind of dance and the shuntis are often used to great effect. Sometimes in the dance, the men imitate – with much teasing – the women of the village.

Both men and women dance together in another popular Holi dance called the phag. The men open the dance during which they act out the spirit and actions of Holi and then they invite the women to join in. These arrive carrying koraras which are knotted lengths of cloth with which they try to hit the men who defend themselves with their shuntis or sticks.

All these dances are performed to songs whose lyrics are almost naïve in their directness and simplicity and which are based on traditional Haryanvi folk tunes. The songs tell of honour and bravery, of harvests, of romance, of the sorrow of parting and are always couched in uncomplicated everyday language. The instruments that accompany these dances and songs are the been, the sarangi, the flute, the shehnai and the dholak and nagara.

The people of Haryana love bright colours, especially at festival time, and the dresses of the dances are often dazzling, literally, with lots of tinsel. Typically, women wear a calf-length ghagra made from at least 20 metres of fabric and short kurti on top the chundri that covers their head glitters with tinsel and the women wear lots of heavy silver jewellery. The men are almost as bright with their dhotis and kurtas and contrasting coloured sashes and, of course, vivid pink and read turbans.

As well as folk dances and folk songs, Haryana also has a strong tradition of folk theatre called saang. Saang theatre is restricted to men who play the female roles, the latter often involving elaborate make-up and costumes. These plays are usually performed in the open on a simple raised platform and with no backdrops or curtains. The audience sits on three sides of the platform and there is always a chair reserved for the director-cum-producer known as Panditji or Ustadji. Essentially Saang folk plays consists of long question and answer sessions between the actors and since much of the dialogue is improvised, the actors must be able to trade quotations and puns and proverbs and songs at the drop of a hat. The subject matter varies – sometimes popular ballads. Sometimes historical events and often satire is woven into the dialogue. There is much singing and dancing and there is always a clown character called the makhaulia.

Thankfully, for the future of folk culture, since so many of Haryana’s songs and dances relate to the harvests and to the traditional, accompanying festivals, as long as there is agriculture festivals, as long as there is agriculture in the State, there will always be a distinctive Haryanvi folk tradition.