Monday, October 8, 2007

Jesus beating the drum.

b. Drum(mer) Oil on Canvas. Painting at St Andrew’s Church, Aylestone, Leicester, 1995;

The divine Drummer, who often dances too, is another common theme in wide-ranging Indian tradition. The drum and its rhythms have been powerfully reverberating in all manner of cultural life through the ages. The tribal leader’s potency often derives from the drum, for it is through the drum that divine beings speak most powerfully. Chief and drum, tribal totem and drum, may well be seen as one.

It is the drum’s rhythms that often enable an ecstatic state, visionary wisdom, the power to expel demons, to heal, to be a rain-maker. A Shaman empowered in this way is even thought to travel between earth and heaven - because of the drum’s beating. Among India’s primal peoples it is especially the Mizos – the great majority now Christian – who have seen such ‘shamanic’ potency in their great drum.

India’s ‘classical’ Vedic tradition too attributes mysterious powers to the drum. Its divine voice resounds throughout earth and heaven, in vigorous joy and triumph. The drum is said to be a victorious lion, a mighty bull, thundering, roaring, dancing, subduing evil enemy powers. The drum’s thunderous beat – reverberating between heaven and earth – protects from evil and ensures the rain earth is so thirsty for. The actual form of the drum can be symbolic: sometimes it represents earth’s roundness, or (like Siva’s small hand-drum, with its hour-glass shape) show heaven and earth joined together in the divine Dancer’s hand.

Here, too, hopes that earth and heaven may dance together remain a tragic dream. For the ‘Drummer People’ (paraiyars) among Dalits, their drum (parai) has been a symbol of the polluted state ‘higher’ castes have believed them to be cursed with. In part because their drum is made from the skin of the cow – handling which is taboo for the dominant castes – the ‘Drummers’ are looked down on as a ‘polluted’ people.

Yet, their drum-beating is thought essential to all manner of events in the wider community - marriages, funerals, public announcements and suchlike. And some of these are times when demonic powers may especially threaten. It is these Drum-people who either ward off the evil others fear, or are expected to absorb it into themselves.

In this way their drum also becomes a source of internal resistance to utter brokenness and humiliation. In exploring its varied and ambiguous role in their life, Sathi Clarke (Dalits and Christianity, OUP India 1998) has also reflected on ways in which the Parai (drum) suggests the presence of Christ with the Paraiyar Drum-people.

Jyoti’s drummers here carry the deep-bodied drums of wider pan-Indian as well as tribal culture – where the drum’s membranes are often made from monkey-skin. One drummer – burning in the ecstasy of his rhythm - seems to brood over his drum. The other lifts his face in ecstasy, with three devotees and even nature too transported by the drum’s rhythms. The effect is similar to that of the divine Word reverberating inescapably through the Hebrew prophets, both in critical judgement and to comfort, to ‘tear down’ and to ‘build up’ (as Jeremiah put it).
Jyoti himself writes:

The drum is a symbol of the whole creation, emerging out of fire. The two faces of the drum, covered by a taut membrane, represent heaven and earth. The drum’s resonant sounds – the divine Word - emerge from this tension. It is the fire’s heat that increases this tension (Indian drummers using this heat to make their instrument taut).

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