The Interview with The Potraj

Read Part 1 of this story here – My Rendezvous with the Potraj Community

Lakshman Babu Rao Sathe, the man who had just astounded us with his performance or kala pradarshan as he would call it, is the eldest member of the Potraj community of Pune. He belongs to 21st generation of the community, and he has learned the art from his fathers and forefathers who too, were self-flagellators and performers in Maharashtra.

The Potraj cmmunity. Photo credit: Devyani Nighoskar

Read: My Rendezvous with The Potraj Community

The temples in Pune called him regularly to perform and entertain on auspicious days, and on special events like Amavasya, Purnima and certain Hindu Festivals.

“The rest of the days, I rest,” he says amused. This 60-year old has devoted his life to the goddess, says, “I will perform for her till the last inch of my body gives up.”

The male members of this community do not have to undergo any sort of ritual to start practicing this art. “We are born Potraj, and we die Potraj” he affirmed. “We dedicate our whole life to this, we were born to do this, this is what our fathers have taught us, and we have been doing this for twenty-one generations. But mine…mine will be the last,” he says.

A performer from the Potraj Community Photo courtesy: World Photo

“With the spur of education, the newer generation wants to have secure jobs and I don’t blame them. This is the type of art where money is scarce, and with the government doing absolutely nothing for our upliftment, we would have to leave our kala behind and find a way to survive in this world,” says Sathe.

But there are some who still want to take this art further. He introduces me to Lakhan — his 18 year old student who has recently started performing. One of the very few among the young Potraj, he wanted to solely concentrate on taking ahead the culture of their community by performing and not take up any conventional jobs.

The Potraj artists do not have a stable source of income. They rely on whatever their audience gives them. Sometimes, all they manage is a Rs 10 note and on other days, a Rs 500 note if they are lucky. Life is tough for this community who is trying really hard to preserve their culture. Some Potraj artists have taken up part-time jobs as waiters or manual laborers to fill their stomachs.

The travelling bunch does not limit them to the place they stay. “We go as far as Beed and Latur to perform,” he says proudly.

“But doesn’t it hurt? Don’t you suffer any medical conditions with the constant flagellation?” I ask him.

“Hurt! No not all, he says rather confidently. I am doing this for my Devi, how can it hurt me?” Prodding him further, I ask, “Devotion aside, but does it really hurt you?” And he replies reassuringly with a firm “No.”

I take the five kilogram whiplash and it weighs heavy on my heart.

A masked performer from the Potraj Community Picture Courtesy: Vaibhav Mehta

The Unique Art Forms: 9 Nomadic Tribes from Maharashtra

Today, there are now only a few hundred Potraj artists left in India. According to the latest survey conducted by the BabasahebAmbedkar Research and Training Institute in Pune, only 7 percent of the total Potraj population resides in cities; the rest lead a nomadic life in remote villages, where life perhaps is even tougher. “I wish the government would support our art, or provide some sort of economic stability or more opportunity for performers like us,” says Sathe.

With no aid coming in from Government institutes or even NGOs, the Potraj artists survive by doing menial jobs. They have been given the status of a Scheduled Caste and not a Scheduled Tribe, and are thus not bound to many of the advantages that an ST status gets in our country like attempts to preserve their art and culture as well as assistance from NGOs.

As I ask him my last question, and stand up to leave, he holds my hand and blesses me. At that moment, I do not sympathise, but on the contrary I am filled with massive respect for him, his community and, his will to perform and preserve the Potraj tradition.

It is ironical how India boasts of having such a wide variety of heritage and diverse culture, but would hardly do anything to patronize such a unique and powerful form of art. As time goes by, the art would slowly fade away, and people would give up on their traditions to fulfill their bare minimum needs. And I fear that it won’t be long before an entire community becomes extinct.

One day, I imagine sitting in a popular Indian café, looking out at the streets that would perhaps be bustling with mundane life, but my eyes would long to see a Potraj standing in the middle of the street, holding his whiplash and, readying him for yet another performance.

Our writer Devyani Nighoskar was in Pune to research on the Potraj community. She visited the Peths of Pune to discover them. This is part II of her story.

Read Part 1 of this story here – My Rendezvous with the Potraj Community

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