In the middle of a dry land of yellow sand and red forts, a loud wailing filled the heavy desert air. Another grand Rajasthani fort was weeping in more grandeur than the celebration of joy. The Thakur of the haveli (the palace) has died.
This deep scream of wailing is a tribute to the deceased as a tradition and by traditional mourners.
The common picture when a Thakur’s death news travelled through the village, everyone gathered in the courtyard of the haveli. The women of the house were still inside due to traditional norms; the men of the village gathered to recount the good deeds of the Thakur, and then there were women dressed in black.
These women wailed, beating their chests and the ground before them. Lines of thick tears stained their cheeks, but they did not bother wiping them. Everyone present looked on as they grieved and mourned the death.
These mourning women, Rudaali, have been traditionally hired to weep at the death of male relatives in the royal families of the state. Later, they also started being invited to mourn the deaths of the Rajput landlords’ families in Sirohi, Jodhpur, Barmer, Jaisalmer and other border areas of Rajasthan.
Mahasweta Devi’s book ‘Rudaali’, later adapted into a movie by Kalpana Lajmi, tells the story of the Rudaalis of Rajasthan. Through its protagonist, Sanichari, the famous Indian writer Mahasweta Devi talked about Rudaalis who are always dressed in black and have to sit and cry, beating their chests and the ground, screaming and crying. These women continue mourning the death for the next 12 days of its occurrence. It is believed that the more dramatic the mourning is, the more it is discussed in society.
Due to the increase in literacy and modernity, the Rudaali tradition is slowly fading. The royals also prefer quieter funerals. The profession has been abandoned by many for the hardships they face to make both ends meet.
But Rudaalis still exist in villages like Revdor of Sirohi, Shergarh and Patodi of Jodhpur, Chittar ka paar, Kotda, Chuli, and Fatehgarh of Brmer, and Ramdevra and Pokharan of Jaisalmer districts of the state.
Rajput landlords do not yield the same power as before. Therefore, the scope of work for the Ruddalis has narrowed to a great extent.
Rudaalis are widows, all of them. They are considered inauspicious, and society looks down upon them, as it mostly does to a woman whose husband has been demised. In some villages, the Rudaalis are instructed not to leave the house early in the morning, as they are still considered unlucky and wretched.
Most widow Rudaalis have bowed their head to the judgment of village council members and have accepted the Naata tradition, in which the woman is married in the same family to the elder or younger brother-in-law (if her husband passes away). Others keep living with the social stigma of being a widow.
Rudaalis’ attire is decided according to their age. A young widow has to wear green coloured clothes, whereas an older widow has to wear a long dark red blouse (Kurti-Kaanchli) with a dark red border paired with a skirt (Dhaabla) and dark red stole (Chunar). The Chunar is engraved with black peacock feathers.
Rudaalis’ first house starts where the last house of the village ends. Their houses are made of thatch and mud. Initially, the royal families and landlords owned large amounts of land outside the village, where they could shelter the Rudaalis as they were considered inauspicious. In some parts of Sirohi, Jodhpur, Barmer, and Jaisalmer, these women are given shelter on the outskirts of the village.
These widowed women are extremely vulnerable, prone to social injustices, and need rehabilitation. Even though they are ostracised because they are ‘untouchables’, it does not spare them from exploitation by the upper-caste men.
As their work of Rudaalis dries up, they are desperate to find other means of survival. To make a living, they undertake daily wage work, farm labour, animal husbandry, etc.
The romanticised past and myths read well in literature, but the original state of the Rudaalis is nearing a nightmare. There sits another cultural element of the vast Indian culture awaiting extinction.