As Nandlal hunched over his drum, ready to start, he said, “In our state, there are no observers. Everyone participates.” I had asked him how he learned to play, and he gave a similar answer as others I had asked. “I went to the Dancing Ground,” the area of every village where ceremonies and performances occur and from where, according to legend, the village’s music and dance emerged, “and I listened, I watched, and I participated.” With that spirit in mind, after Nandlal and Suda Masin performed for me on the mandar and dhol, I sat down with Suda for a drum lesson on the mandar. Nandlal left to attend to some business, so I followed Suda’s lead, attacking the drum with the different strokes he was teaching me, until my hands pulsed in pain and I begged to stop.
When Nandlal and I met, we bonded almost immediately, connecting over the shared knowledge of location. Like everyone, he asked where I am from. “America,” with a rolled ‘r,’ pronounced something like “Amay-ree-ka,” is my answer, spoken in an approximation of the way Indians speak English. He asked where, and I said “Boston,” and he chuckled and again asked where. I said, “Milton, just south of Boston,” and he said, “I know Milton.”
Around twenty years ago, a woman came to Ranchi to study tribal music and dance with Mukund Nayak, Nandlal’s father. She and Nandlal met, fell in love, married, and Nandlal moved to Somerville, Massachusetts, which is just north of Boston, with his new wife, Wendy Jehlen. Two years ago, Nandlal moved back to Ranchi. He and Wendy are still happily married, and Nandlal says that every day he misses her and their two daughters. However, he feels a sense of obligation to his state and its culture.
Nandlal and I spent most of our time together sitting and talking. He is a professional performer, having traveled around the world playing the dhol and other drums, directing collaborative performances, and working with musicians from many different countries. He still performs, but now he sees his role as more of a grass-roots organizer. He envisions India and the world recognizing Jharkhand for its heritage of performing arts, and his experiences around the globe make him one of the few able to bring that vision to fruition. For example, when TED Talks came to Ranchi, they invited Nandlal to speak about his life and his culture. Still, how to turn his vision into reality remains a problem, and that was the topic of many of our conversations.
Nandlal approaches the problem on multiple fronts. He is building a recording and teaching studio in the heart of Ranchi. He wants to develop an exchange program, giving Ranchi’s most promising students the chance to visit America. He is trying to work with Jharkhand’s politicians and hopes they eventually come around to support the arts. He is organizing performances with two hundred drummers, where the drummers are paid internationally competitive salaries. Most of all, he sees himself continuing where he thinks his father’s work will leave off, bringing his culture into a more professional and highly modern world.
Throughout our conversations, my thoughts often returned to the idea of participation. If active participation is the norm in Jharkhand, then why are there so few performing artists? Nandlal thinks it has something to do with pride. In the world, America is perceived as the biggest country with the best culture. Even within India, it is the classical music that is the respected art form, not the tribal arts. As he says, “In the great development of India, [my people] were left behind.” So, in Jharkhand, established artists gave up and the youth stopped going to the Dancing Ground.
But, Nandlal works on. Many people question his move back to India, and even Nandlal says that, at times, he is unsure of his purpose. Still, little by little and person by person, Nandlal will reinsert the pride, the work ethic, and the intense drive to revitalize tribal culture—all hallmarks of his own performing career—into the DNA of his people. One new participant at a time, his work will pay off.