George Scott Robertson.

The Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush; online

. (page 14 of 38)
Online LibraryGeorge Scott RobertsonThe Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush; → online text (page 14 of 38)
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suiToimdini^s. The people behaved like wild men, in a
manner, but did not look the part. Some of the old men
amongst the spectators had faces of an intellectual type,
quite up to the average of Orientals. Many of the
dancers were my own friends, and to see them for the
first time in their changed attire, posturing in such
unusual attitudes, with, of course, a complete absence of
shyness or self-consciousness, made me at times, when
lulled by the monotonous music, or by the Gregorian-like
chant of the singers, start as if from a dream. The
continuous stream of people always dancing round in
one direction made me dizzy and drowsy. Then from
out of the stamping throng the face of some one long
dead and gone would gaze upon me. It gave me no
surprise, but seemed quite reasonable. The sudden
change to some other face caused no astonishment, and
when with an effort I roused myself, it was most difficult
to discover what trick of feature or expression had created
the illusion.

The dancing-place was just outside the gromma, which
borders it to the north, and is used in bad weather. The
building also formed a stand for spectators. On the
opposite side, a dwelling-house with a large porch formed
a. similar vantage-ground for the show, and was crowded
with sightseers. Behind, the steep hillside was covered
with densely-packed spectators. In front, projecting over
the slope, was a large square wooden platform, supported
at its outer extremity on long posts firmly planked in the
hillside. This platform was furnished with a rail, and
with seats on three sides. It looked dangerous enough,
but was much stronger than it appeared. There were
collected all the fathers of the tribe, the wise greybeards.


To face page 216.


who solemnly discussed current affairs and family matters.
Amongst them I was given a place. The actual dancing
space was perhaps twenty yards square, the largest flat
expanse of ground in the village.

When I arrived the first day, escorted by one or two
young braves, friends of mine, the performance was in
full swing. In the centre of the dancing-place, close by
the rough altar, was the effigy of a man. It was carried
on the back of a slave, above whose head and shoulders
it towered a couple of feet. The long straight legs were
covered at the ends — there were no feet — by tufted
dancing-boots. A Badakhshan silk robe was thrown over
the shoulders, and the head was bound round with a silk
turban, into which eight paint-brush-shaped contrivances
of peacocks' feathers were thrust. The odd-shaped
face, huge and solemn, the white stone eyes set close
together, and the bobbing up and down of the big image
as the slave bearing it shifted from one foot to the other
ill time to the music, and every now and then gave it
a sudden bunch up, made a curious picture. The effigy
bore a look of such massive grotesqueness that it ought
to have been comic, but for me such figures always had
something repellent ; the sight of one of those sinister
faces (of the small variety) peering through \hv foliage
would at once extinguish the charm of the loveliest
thicket, and invariably excite me to thoughts of icono-
clastic anger. The monotony and the evil expression of
these conventional shapes became more and more irritat-
ing as time went on. In the present case it seemed a
wonder that one man should be able to sustain so heavy
a burden. He always looked tired, and was frequently
changed, but, nevertheless, the wood from wliicii the


imafije was cut must have been extremely light for one
man to be able to uphold it. During the intervals of
the dance the image wns propped up against the altar,
and left in charge of the women. Of these during the
dance, about two dozen, including little girls, the seniors
wearing horned headdresses, circled slowly round the
figure, keeping time by a slow bending of the knees, and
moving the feet only a few inches at a time. They inces-
santly moved one hand, palm upwards and breast high,
slightly backwards and forwards, towards the bobbing
effigy. This action of the hands is intended to symbolise
the words, "As this dead person is, so also shall I
become." All the women and' little girls were shockingly
dirty and unkempt, their garments being much torn. The
women wore the large serpentine earrings, and two or
three had on silver blinkers also. Outside the women
was a dense throng of men, all dancing round from
left to right. The women of the inner circle were of
the family of the deceased, while their male relations
in the dancing crowd were distinguished from the others
by wearing bright-coloured clothes and all the bravery
they possessed, and by each carrying a dancing-axe.
They wore gorgeous sham kinkoh chappans or long
robes and white cloth turbans.

The attire of some of these men deserves description.
In the ears they wore long silver earrings, in shape similar
to those seen in old-fashioned portraits, while the neck was
frequently circled by a silver, or what looked like a silver
ornament, solid and heavy, such as those worn by Hindu
women. If an individual were the proud possessor of
two chappans, he wore them both, exposing some of the
glory of the one underneath by slipping an arm out of


22 1

a sleeve of the one above. The waist was girded by
a narrow shawl, or the usual metal-studded leather belt
of the country, supporting a dagger. The feet were
covered with curiously worked dancing-boots, with red
woollen rosettes on the instep, while from the long, soft,
drab-coloured uppers, which reached nearly half-way to
the knee, there depended a long fringe of white goat's
hair, dyed red at the tips. The boots were secured to
the legs and ankles by narrow tapes of list. Above them
appeared Chitnili stockings, into the tops of whicli the
loose, baggy trousers of coarse white cotton cloth were
carefully tucked. This, with a dancing-axe, completed
the full dress of a swell, but there were all gradations in
attire, according to the wealth or position of the wearer.
Some merely had a silk turban, worn as a sash over one
shoulder and under the opposite arm, the ends hanging
free. Others had for their only ornament a diadem or
fillet, consisting of two rows of silver half-spherical but-
tons, behind and at the sides, while the portion over the
forehead and brows consisted merely of two narrow black
strips. This circlet was much affected by the young
girls also. I observed that some of my friends wore
only Chitrali stockings, or a scrap of turban cloth as an
additional ornament ; while those dancers not related to
the deceased wore their ordinary clothes, which they had
not had washed for the occasion, probably fearing to appear
conspicuous. Almost everybody wore "wats;is," the soft
reddish leather boot of the country, but there were ex-
ceptions to this, and bare feet stamped and ])ran((Ml witli
the liveliest. The music was supplied by professionals,
kindly assisted at times by amateurs. It consisted of
three tiny drums and two or tineo of the ordinary

222 Till-: KAFiJiS {)V 'niK lilNDU-KUSll

wretched-toned reed pipes. The drums did not exceed
four inclies in the diameter of the heads, and were con-
tracted in the middle like hour-glasses. The performer
beats with a small stick, while he keeps up the tension of
the drumhead by pulling at certain leather thongs with
his left hand, by which the tightness of the stretched hide
surfaces could be regulated. I was told that these little
drums are costly, being each of them worth a cow, because,
out of many, not more than one or two turn out a credit
to the maker. The "time" allowed great latitude to the
dancers, who indulged their individual fancy, either walk-
ing slowly round and round the dancing circle, taking
several steps of not more than six inches in length to
the bar, or two skips on each foot alternately ; or some-
times prancing, stamping, or rushing forward. It w^as a
question of pace.

A favourite movement seemed to be to march round
more or less steadily, merely raising the knees slightly,
and then suddenly to rush violently at the orchestra with
the head bent, as in the act of butting. Nearly all the
dancers were in pairs, with arms over one another's
shoulders. Characteristically, if a man wanted to scratch
his nose, he was just as likely to use his encircling
arm as the free one, W'ithout the slightest thought of
the discomfort he was causing his partner by twisting
the latter's face round. The splendidly dressed re-
lations danced singly. Often in the mob, especially
when near the musicians, the leading pairs would face
round to those behind them, hammering their feet with
great force on the ground, and bending over to watch
the effect. Round and round they went, round and
round, smiling, very happy, fully conscious of the excel-


lence of their own performances, and never tirinij^. Ai^ed
men, with that tonch of nature which makes us all akin,
danced with an added grace, from the consciousness that
they were showing their juniors how the thing should he
properly done. With wooden step they doubled up their
knees, gyrated, performed the back-step, side-kick, all
the figures of the highest style. These men never smiled,
while they were frequently out of time. The axes were
twirled by some, jerked with both hands by others, or
were merely bobbed up and down on the shoulder.
Every time the band stopped the head-drummer sounded
a few last taps to show his finished touch and his re-
luctance to stop. The intervals in the dancing were
filled up by extemporary addresses to the wooden image
by an individual specially appointed for that duty.
He extolled the liberality of the deceased, his bravery,
and his good deeds, as well as the virtues of his ancestors.
As the orators on these occasions are always members of
the dead man's family, they probably say all that is to be
said on the subject, and never err on the side of false
modesty. His style was curiously like that of certain
uneducated itinerant speakers one sometitnes hears in
England. Breathless staccato sentences, with pauses,
all the speech broken up into passages of nearly equal
length, while the pauses show a constant tendency to
grow longer and longer. I could hardly understand a
single word uttered until my companions made it clear
to me; but it was obvious that the orator thought little
of repeating himself over and over again.

While the orator declaimed, the dancers refreshed
themselves with yvine hulled from a tub with wooden
cups. The same not particularly generous fluid was also

224 'J'HE kAfIES of the HINDU-KUSH

circulated amon

Online LibraryGeorge Scott RobertsonThe Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush; → online text (page 14 of 38)