Isis Costa McElroy. Afro-Hispanic Review. Volume 29, Issue 1. Spring 2010.
It is eleven o’clock on a hot morning in the city of Salvador, in the northeastern coastal state of Bahia, Brazil […] A large group of men have donned long white tunics, they have decorated themselves with white terrycloth turbans, each with a large plastic sapphire-blue gem sewn on the front. They wear white leather sandals, sapphire-blue socks, and many strands of plastic beaded necklaces, worn crossing their torsos. Among this gathering of hundreds of men is an old black man carrying a staff and wrapped in a white toga-like sheet, wearing dark brown leather sandals. Behind him there is a crowd of yet more men dressed similarly, dancing and playing instruments, one man dancing while carrying a stuffed goat. The sash adorning their bodies reads Filhos de Gandhy. Sons of Gandhi. Gandhi, the slain pacifist who helped free India from British Raj, but he was not black, nor did he wear terrycloth turbans with plastic gems on them, nor did he parade on the street’s playing percussion instruments during carnival time. How did a stuffed goat fit in Gandhi’s program? The men start to spray the crowd with pungent Alfazema eau de cologne as a blessing often used in Candomblé, the syncretized religion of Afro-Brazil. The procession begins. What is going on here?
~ Pravina shukla
The figure of Mahatma Gandhi fascinated me as a pre-teen living in são Paulo. I remember the enthusiasm with which I watched richard attenborough’s movie Gandhi in the early 80s. By then I had not yet seen, either live or on tv, images of the Bahian carnaval group Filhos de Gandhy, but I knew quite well Gilberto Gil’s musical tribute to the group. through Gil, I first learned about this group of male performers who evoked the orishas and Gandhi as a prodigal son and protégée of oshala, the creator deity, “king of the white cloth.” like other Brazilians, I must have “Brazilianized” Gandhi in my imagination, and because of it, I must have felt a sense of kinship with the historic figure portrayed in the film. I remember how when I later came across images of this semi-religious carnaval group, or afoxé, I was enchanted by what I perceived as beautiful, poetic, political, and “carnavalistically” sacred. nothing in my state of enchantment was threatened by a critical positioning or by uncomfortable perceptions of corruption, contradictions, or exotifications. Years went by. I persisted in following the group’s development, its portrayal by the media, and its analysis by scholars. Even if my enchantment remained unbroken, as I zoomed into the group’s symbolism, certain metaphorical, incongruent enigmas increasingly intrigued me.
Gil’s song “Filhos de Gandhi” was composed after he returned from his london exile. Gil commented that the group had been one of the “strongest emblems” of his childhood and that his post-1972 participation in the group was a stimulus to “thicken the stew” (Rennó 146). Other factors contributed to the national popularity of the Filhos de Gandhy. Towards the end of the 1970s, two major government tourist agencies—Bahiatursa (state of Bahia) and Emtursa (city of Salvador)—began sponsoring the Filhos de Gandhy. By the 1980s, the bloco was able to put 10,000 “sons” on the street and had become an international trademark for Bahia and Salvador. Nowadays, the Filhos de Gandhy is occasionally accused of having been co-opted by government bureaucracies (Oliveira 303). the trajectory of the Filhos de Gandhy from the 1970s onward was inevitably conditioned by the consolidation of the cultural and telecommunications industries that took place during that time period, leading to the present transformation of carnaval into a mega-event in which each carnaval group functions as an industry within itself (and as such deals with other private and state industries, including those that promote sexual and afrocentric tourism).
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), the pioneer of satyagraha, the principle of non-violence as a form of protest and revolution, inspired generations of activists. In Brazil, Gandhi was transformed into a sacredly-profane carnaval icon. Hindu anthropologist Pravina shukla asks: “How did Gandhi shift from south africa to India and end up in the heart of the african Diaspora in the sweltering heat of salvador?” (39). In light of the awe and bewilderment of shukla, I propose to reflect on the development and aesthetics of the Filhos de Gandhy from the following aspects: (1) the contextualization of the group within the performative tradition of Bahian carnaval; (2) the question of gender in the group; (3) the cosmology of the group according to the narratives of its founders; and (4) the process of a Hindu-Muslim-Bahian aesthetic enunciation.
On the one hand, if I believe I have developed a hypothesis for reading some of the cultural paradigms of this afoxé, on the other hand the enigmatic and contradictory aspects of this interpretive community reveal themselves as an analytic challenge that I can only tackle here within an open and metaphorically plausible reading.
The Contextualization of the Group Within the Performative Tradition of Bahian Carnaval
The term afoxé has already been defined as “divination,” “a plague or curse,” “the enunciation that makes (something) happen,” “royal entourage in the representation of a group of noble hunters originally from africa who carry as a symbol a black doll (the babalotim),” and “semi-religious carnival groups composed of Candomblé devotees wearing white tunics of West african-style and singing songs in yoruba.” In the sense of entourage, carnaval procession, or “street Candomblé,” the afoxés have their origin in afro-Brazilian performative festivals such as the cucumbis, the maracatus, and the processions of the Reis Congos (“Congo Kings”) (Vieira Filho 51).
The first significant “afro-carnivalesque tide” of Bahia occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century and was recorded by Rodrigues, who described groups such as the Embaixada africana (“african Embassy”), Filhos da África (“Children of africa”), a Chegada africana (“african arrival”), and Pândegos da África (“african Merrymakers”). Muniz Sodré analyzed a major aspect of these groups especially in the pre- and post-abolitionist periods as a “tactic of collective penetration (with regard to time and space) in urban territory,” that is, a “reterritorialization (the breaking of topographical limits imposed by urban social division on the blacks)” (36). Two groups with high local visibility towards the end of the nineteenth century were especially paradigmatic: the Embaixada africana and Pândegos da África, who would make their respective debuts in 1895 and 1896. Rodrigues described them as follows:
The richest and most important clubs to have emerged are Embaixada africana and Pândegos da África. But, beyond small clubs such as a Chegada africana and os Filhos da África, etc., there are innumerable anonymous african groups and isolated african revelers. Two currents are revealed in the constitutions of these groups. In some, such as Embaixada africana, the dominant idea of the most intelligent or most adapted blacks is the celebration of survival, of a tradition. The personalities and motives are taken from the educated people of Africa, the Egyptians, the abyssinians, etc. In others, if on the one hand the directors had intended to revive traditions, their popularity comes from their being genuine popular african celebrations. their theme is the uncultured africa that came enslaved to Brazil. (208)
These different tendencies of early Bahian carnaval performances registered by rodrigues suggest varying levels of participation and acceptance of afro-Brazilians in the carnavais of the 1890s. In the view of Kim Butler, when Embaixada africana organized processions within the formats established by the white clubs and presented an image of a “civilized” africa, the white elite was more accepting than were the black masses of Bahia. Despite adhering to the format of the white carnaval clubs, Pândegos da África had a lower level of acceptance, introducing aesthetics and rhythms of Candomblé. Finally, “the anonymous african groups and isolated african revelers” cited by Nina Rodrigues, those independent revelers currently described as pipocas (“popcorn”), were then perceived as the subversive elements of carnaval. Rodrigues mentions that these revelers horrified the white population. The urban penetration tactic of these later groups did not propose to follow the aesthetic or conduct of a “civilized africa” or of an “enslaved africa,” but of a “Maroon africa.” These were “guerrilla” performers interested in giving free expression to their emotions, critiques, and desires. antonio risério’s study concurs with Butler, stating that the “afro-carnivalesque” displays of the end of the nineteenth century were hierarchized by the spokespersons of the dominant culture: the clubes uniformizados (“organized clubs”) that imposed the theme of the “cultured people” of Africa maintained their dominant position in the hierarchy while the afoxés or candomblés de rua (“street candomblés”) were condemned to a subordinate position as “expressions of primitiveness and barbarism that were an embarrassment to Bahia” (História 563).
Some changes appear from 1905 to 1914, when “the black-mestizo carnaval” was prohibited, but as Peter Fryer points out, “it was not so easy to take the streets away from black people in Brazil. and one of their responses was the creation of afoxés which took shape in salvador in the 1920s” (23). The influence and visibility of the afro-Mestizo-organized carnaval groups declined. They became reduced to smaller groups and a few afoxés (such as Filhos d’oxum, lordes africanos, and Filhos de obá) until 1949 with the birth of the Filhos de Gandhy and the trio elétrico (“electric trio”) of Dodô and Osmar and the revitalization of these same groups with the symbolic landmark of the first performance of Ilê Aiyê in the 1970s-a time period which risério refers to as the “re-africanization” of the Bahian carnaval. One could point to the Embaixada africana as one of the matrices for the formation of the escolas de samba of rio de Janeiro, and to Pândegos da África as the matrix for the creation of the blocos of Bahian carnaval.
Raul lody describes Pândegos as an afoxé whose performance included the parade of a central group of revelers adorned in the clothing and symbols of the orishas and musicians dressed in Moorish style turbans, tunics with puffedout sleeves, and bombacha-style pants. They carried with them the babalotim, a wooden totem that possessed magic powers and that had to be carried during the procession by a male child (Afoxé 13-14). As Lody explains:
Only a boy could carry it; this was part of the mystery that surrounded the totem. Inside the doll a set of utensils prepared in the terreiros [“Candomblé temples”] was deposited. This constituted the so-called ashe, that is, the magic force or object that possessed this force. In this way, the totem represented the power and religious security of the group. […] animal sacrifices were carried out; birds and small goats were ritualistically sacrificed for the babalotim. (Afoxé 10)
According to Lody’s analysis, the strategic positioning of the babalotim in the front of the group’s parade formation served “as a true magical abre-alas [‘lead-off contingent’], since the participants believed that this wooden sculpture emanated good things as well as repelled bad ones” (Afoxé 10). the connection between the babalotim of the afoxé and the calunga doll, which remains present in maracatu performances of recife and olinda, is evident. the crucial difference is that the calunga has to be carried by a woman, the Dama do Paço (“lady of the Palace”), who marches in the front of the formation.
According to one of the founders of the Filhos de Gandhy, the first group of Gandhys would have set out with “a black clothed doll,” a calunga (Félix 45). the initial calunga has disappeared. Curiously, the figure of the babalotim, literally “the owner of the cachaça,” was substituted in the Filhos de Gandhy, first by a figure known as Cândido Elefante, “a gentleman weighing over 200 kilos who could dance to the ijexá rhythm beautifully” (Félix 55). A second substitution of the babalotim came with an inclusion of a quasi-processional element or aspect of almost profane pilgrimage, with the incorporation into the parade of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi (Risério, Carnaval 52). the third and definitive substitution was the “materialization” and embodiment of the image portrayed by Raimundo Queiróz lima, “Raimundo Gandhy” (1925-2006), a reveler who reports how he was informed one day: “You are going to represent the portrait” (Filhos de Gandhy).
Édison Carneiro explains that in the standard formation of an afoxé, the line of march would be: “The arauto [‘announcer’]; the guarda branca [‘white guard’]; rei e rainha [‘king and queen’], the Babá l’ôtin, the Papai Cachaça [‘Daddy Cachaza’], the masculine equivalent of the maracatu doll; the estandarte [‘flagbearer’]; the guarda de honra [‘guard of honor’]; and the charanga de ilús (atabaques), agogôs and cabaças ijexás [‘the band of ilú drummers, cow bells, and shakers’]” (52). according to lody, the ilús are small, two-headed atabaque drums which are used in the ceremonies to oshun in the temples of Ijesha (Afoxé 6). In the afoxés, the atabaque drums are not taken to the streets “dressed” or decorated as they would appear inside Candomblé temples. the afoxé drums are not decorated with the ojá straps in the colors of the orishas worshipped during Candomblé ceremonies (17). The call and response melodies of afoxés sung by a soloist and repeated by a chorus are practically the same as the ones sung in afro-Brazilian temples that follow the Ijexá cosmology, while the choreography presents simplifications of the traditional steps and gesticulations of sacred Candomblé evocation dances. according to lody: “What really matters when the Gexá [Ijexá] is danced—and this is what is danced in the afoxé—is the characteristic ginga swing, the movement of the shoulders and arms and the quick, short cadenced steps” (16). But what constitutes the Candomblé Ijexá performative repertoire? Is there, in fact, a clear distinction between the sacred drumming and dancing of Candomblés Ketu and Ijexá (yoruba cosmologies originating from present-day Benin and Nigeria, respectively)? Risério is right when he affirms that “the term ijexá acquired a generic meaning from the fact that the majority of new afro-carnivalesque groups do not use aguidavis, that is, drumsticks, when playing the atabaque drums” (Carnaval 11-12). While followers of Candomblé Ijexá play the atabaque drums with their hands, those of Candomblé Ketu play them with drumsticks. The generic meaning of ijexá as a secular musical and dance style transcended the particular type of percussion and extended itself to the choreography and song, which do not follow a line strictly connected to any specific yoruba-Brazilian cosmology.
The Question of Gender in the Group
Aside from the symbolic conversion of sacred Candomblé into secular Candomblé, and the influence of other secular performances such as the maracatus and congadas, less explicit influences may aid in understanding not only the figure of the babalotim but also the question of the male exclusivity of the Filhos de Gandhy afoxé. Olabiyi yai has already pointed out the influence of the Geledé societies in the formation of Brazilian carnaval (risério, História 563). In the yoruba tradition, female ancestors are referred to as Ìyámi Agbá (“my ancient mother”). These ancestral spirits are worshipped in Nigeria by the Geledé societies, which consist exclusively of women. oro societies also exist in Nigeria. Oro is considered the general representative of male ancestors and can only be worshipped by men. The Egungun societies carry out another form of maleancestor worship. Only the spirits of deceased men can make apparitions, as it is believed that only men possess or maintain individuality after death; women are denied this privilege as well as the right to participate directly in worship. In Brazil there are two Egungun societies, both in the island of Itaparica in Bahia: Ilê agboulá and Ilê oyá. the Geledé and oro societies did not have a “literal” continuity in Brazil. The Geledé societies actually existed in Brazil for a while and had as its last highest priestess omonikê, Maria Júlia Figueiredo, “Major purveyor of the devotion to nossa senhora da Boa Morte [‘our lady of Good Death’], which was established in the 1820s by women who were members of the Irmandade dos Martírios [‘Brotherhood of Martyrs’]” (silveira 81). The Irmandade da Boa Morte (“sisterhood of Good Death”) continued the Geledé ceremonial worship of female ancestors by a women-only group while absorbing and adapting Catholic referents. The oro societies likewise appear to have been developed and transformed into the Filhos de Gandhy afoxé and perhaps, before the creation of this exclusively male afoxé, into some Folia de Reis (“revelry of the Kings”), originally a Portuguese celebration that was transformed in colonial Brazil and that also did not allow women in their processional performances. According to yoruba cosmological principles, every person has his or her own orisha. The archetypical personality characteristics shared by orishas and their human protégées are maintained after death by the spirits, or eguns. Mahatma Gandhi, both physically and ideologically, recalls aspects of the archetype of oshala. As in the Egungun societies, Gandhi is praised by the Filhos de Gandhy in his essential individuality, enjoying a privilege exclusive to male spirits. as in the oro societies, he transcends his individuality in order to represent the power of a collective male ancestry.
The current president of the Filhos de Gandhy, agnaldo silva, offered a much more pragmatic explanation for the non-participation of women in this afoxé. According to him, since the group was formed by stevedores, and there were no women working unloading the ships, they could only offer “logistical support” by taking care of the costumes and “beautifying the turbans.” But such a clear division of roles in this afoxé of dockworkers has not been the pattern in the formation and development of other groups. Carole Davies observes: “[t]he group remains all male exclusively. Thus the question of gender in afoxé becomes important. While some of the afoxés tend to incorporate both men and women, Filhos de Gandhi is principally a brotherhood.” Davies’s analysis of the question of male exclusivity of Filhos de Gandhy looks beyond the easily refutable essentialism of agnaldo silva by pointing to an apparent reversal of roles when she states “The masculinist orientation of afoxé as represented in Filhos de Gandhi tended to relocate women to the periphery which they are not in Candomblé ritual” (Davies).
Far from occupying a peripheral position in Candomblé, the authority and standard of women in Candomblé have been experienced and perceived as central. This status quo leads one to question and reflect on the process that relocated the position of men from more centralized (in original yoruba cosmologies) to peripheral (in the new World and mainly in Brazil). Lorand Matory analyses both the process which has culminated in current understandings of Candomblé as a matriarchy, and the role that intellectuals such as ruth landes, Arthur Ramos, and Gilberto Freyre have played in the repositioning of men in Candomblé. Landes, author of The City of Women (1947), filled a crucial yet overlooked role in this process, as is evident in an article from 1940 in which landes makes a surprising and unprecedented statement which subsequently reflects on her intentions and purpose:
[A] mother of a nago cult tries to avoid making “sons.” She prefers instead an inconclusive ritual or cure […]. In very rare instances in the past men have acted as the heads of nago cults […] they made few sons and many daughters and forbade male sacerdotes to dance with the women or to dance publicly when possessed, and debarred male novices from certain female mysteries. In comparison with the women, they were only partially initiated, and tolerated in view of certain anomalies. (389-90)
As Matoy observes, the figure of the gay man in Candomblé, the adé, was transformed into the antihero of the matriarchal nation as defined by landes. “From the 1930s onward,” states Matory, “the priestess became an object of public talk to the same degree that her adé antitype became an object of silencing” (199).
The silence surrounding the adés promulgated both a series of negative stereotypes more or less experienced in the practice of Candomblé, and a marginalization of heterosexual men who feel compelled to “prove” their heterosexuality by defining patterns of behavior in opposition to the adés. One of the stereotypes of the adés is to simulate possession, or dar ekê (“to give ekê”). Èké in yoruba means “lie” (Cacciatore 109). As Patricia Birman explains: “[t]o give ekê means a paroxysmal exhibition of competence in this obscurely sexualized and feminine realm […] although this is not exclusively a practice of the adés, it is, at the very least, a recurrent charge made against them” (118-19).
The terms egun (“ancestral spirit”) and elegun (“one who has the power to receive and materialize the ancestral energy”) are concepts that offer us other interpretative channels into the social paradigms reflected in the Filhos de Gandhy. In yoruba the meanings of the radical gùn involve references to mounting, saddling and riding, and to spiritual or sexual possession. Gùn means to mount, as a horseman mounts his horse, or as an orisha mounts and “rides” a human. It also refers to the sexual act of a man “mounting” a woman or another man from behind. As Matory observes: “[since] a physically mountable man seems highly qualified, in a symbolic sense, to be mounted spiritually [there is a] reluctance of ‘real men’ to be possessed in the Brazilian Candomblé” (212). this notion of “real man” resonates in the definition of the Filhos de Gandhy by one of the founders—curiously nicknamed Quadrado (“square” or “straight”)—as a “bloco of respectable men” (Félix 57).
The development of a group of men who gradually incorporated Candomblé referents into their afoxé, a male group which uses the music and dance of the orishas without being “mounted,” reveals an affirmation of ultra-masculinity. this is observable even in the song of Gil that became a national hit and reveals an inversion of roles between humans and orishas. In the lyrics, Gil—as a participant of the Filhos de Gandhy—evokes the orishas, the ancient afoxés, and nosso senhor do Bonfim (“our lord of Good End”) to evoke one another, that is to say, to command each other to “come down” to the world of the living so as to watch the parade of the Filhos de Gandhy. Thus, the role of the gods and the ancestors becomes that of a voyeuristic audience: the Filhos de Gandhy are not evoking the gods in order to be mounted but rather to be seen and admired. During the parade of the Filhos de Gandhy the performance is used to seduce the onlookers, who are cordoned off from the group. Shukla notes in detail:
[O]ver 5000 men in one place for the days of carnival. this fact, inevitably, is appealing to young women interested in boyfriends for the duration of the carnival festivities. Gay men of salvador, likewise, scope out the parading route of Filhos de Gandhy for precisely the same reason, to have a quick pick at the turbaned, majestic men of the carnival […]. Just as the perfume should be shared with others, in an act of good faith and symbolic blessing from oxalá, members of Filhos de Gandhy have customarily carried a small stash of beaded necklaces to give out on the streets. Although many members of the bloco still give out beads, and increasing number of young men use the beads and a dab of perfume as barter, for a can of cold beer or a kiss […]. During the quest by many members of Filhos de Gandhy to look attractive in order to appeal to the young men and women of salvador, the connection with the Mahatma’s humble appearance and years of celibacy becomes ironic. Another strong incongruity between the Mahatma and the carnival revelers who impersonate him has to do, again ironically, with what Gandhi is most associated with peace. the bloco Filhos de Gandhy attracts many young men who exhibit violent behavior, and in fact, see membership to the group as an opportunity to enable aggressive tendencies while hiding behind the guise of a peaceful group of marchers […]. Members of the group often engage in more direct acts of violence, such as fistfights in the streets. (40-42)
The original fame of the Filhos de Gandhy as seducers and tough guys persists. today they are called by the press “the bloco of smoochers,” and fights with other, smaller blocos frequently break out in the various circuits in Praça da sé, the heart of the city of salvador. Present members of the group nurture images of courage, virility, and irresistible seduction. As an example of the consciously created image of desirable brave men, we can note the taken for granted narratives of police aggression suffered by the Filhos de Gandhy the first time they participated in carnaval, and their courage in confronting the police. Interestingly, such accounts are not confirmed in any of the interviews that anísio Félix conducted with the founders.
The Cosmology of the Group According to Its Founders
Gandhi was assassinated in new Delhi in 1948. In the following year, a group of stevedores, a unionized labor elite, brought out to the streets of salvador a carnaval bloco paying tribute to the Mahatma. as anamaria Morales explains, identification with the struggle for the independence of India, which had suffered economic and cultural oppression at the hands of the English colonizers, gave “an (un)disguised political character” to the debut of the Filhos de Gandhy (269). The foundational narratives of the group are, as with all oral traditions, multiple and poetic. Manoel dos santos, “Guarda sol” (“Parasol”), relates, for example, that “vavá Madeira [Durival Marques da silva] would have been inspired by the newspaper headlines about the death of Gandhi” (Félix 41). Eduarlino de souza, “Dudu,” states: “We were sitting there under a mango tree drinking and chatting away when the wind blew a magazine our way; antonio and vavá looked at it, and there he was: Gandhi. right then they got the idea to start a carnaval group named after him” (51). Djalma Conceição, ex-president of the Filhos de Gandhy, adds a new element to the story: “[o]ne of them had seen a movie called Gunga Din, they thought it was a nice name (the stevedores mixed up Gunga Din with Gandhi) and then a few of the guys suggested the name Filhos de Gandhy because Gandhi was a man who had fought for peace” (13). Other participants and founders conferred a politico-religious meaning to the group. Humberto Café, a member of the board of directors of the Filhos de Gandhy, confirmed: “Gandhy was founded with the objective of bringing Candomblé to the streets. the offerings performed today by the members were the same as those originally performed by the founders when it started” (17). nelson dos santos, “lobisomen” (“Wolfman”), has a different understanding: “[t]he fellows who inspired the creation of the group were more into booze than into religion” (62). Arivaldo Pereira, “Carequinha” (“little Baldy”), composer of the hit song “Patuscada de Gandhi” (“Gandhi’s revelry”), is the founder who provides the most detailed version of the evolution of the performance of the group:
Gandhy was formed as a bloco. Its music was percussion, just batucada drumming. In the second year, we were singing afro chants and by the third year it was transformed into an afoxé. As time passed there were a number of modifications in the costumes […]. In the second year, we had the goat and a small camel as allegories. In the fourth and fifth years, we had the lancer, the gunner and for the big allegories we had an elephant and a big camel. In the third year, the number of participants increased to about 200 men […]. Only after the third year, when the Candomblé people started showing up, did Gandhy begin leaning towards this syncretic side. From then on, we always did the padê [“propitiatory Candomblé offering”] before we started […]. The idea for starting the Filhos de Gandhy didn’t come from Gunga Din like some people claim, but there was a connection, because the film had to do with India and their struggle against England. (22)
The association of the Filhos de Gandhy with the film Gunga Din (directed by George stevens and released in 1939)—even if perceived as peripheral by the majority of founders, current members of the group, and researchers—still presents itself as yet another contradictory and revealing influence. the protagonists of the film are three British sergeants (one played by Cary Grant) and the Hindu water bearer Gunga Din (played by the new york Jewish actor, sam Jaffe). The plot centers on the struggle between the British army and a Hindu group, the thugees, who worship the goddess Kali and propose the extermination of the British colonizer. The group’s war cry is “Kill for the love of Kali!” the destroyer/builder archetype which Kali represents in Hindu cosmology resembles that of ogun, “the violent warrior who, having water in the house, bathes in blood” (verger 14). The thugees, as one would expect, are represented in the film as fanatic terrorists. Their revolutionary struggle fails due to the action of the water bearer Gunga Din, who, by sounding the alarm with a bugle, warns the British army that they are walking into an ambush set by the thugees. Gunga Din, previously treated with irony and condescension, is transformed into a hero worthy of an official burial; a stanza from the rudyard Kipling homonymous poem is read in eulogy:
you lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din! (30)
One of the founders of the Filhos de Gandhy states: “Gandhy was not inspired by the movie Gunga Din, like many people think, just the outfits” (Félix 57). Another adds, with respect to the figures: “there was a lancer and a water bearer […] the water bearer isn’t used anymore” (32). the lancer’s role was to prevent people-“mainly women,” added another founder-from breaking past the security cordon that protected the group during the parade (41). Today, it is primarily women who patrol the security cordon, and the lancer has become a kind of supervisor. We know that in the beginning there was a certain degree of concern with respectability and preventing confrontations with the police. As a result, alcoholic beverages were prohibited during the parade; in theory, this prohibition is still enforced. originally we had the water bearers, and one can no longer ascertain the ethylic properties of the liquid they were then bearing; nowadays it is primarily the women who accompany the parade who offer the “logistic support” in this arena, exchanging drinks for kisses and bead necklaces. The original figure of the water bearers appears to be a direct reference to the figure of Gunga Din. If the costumes were in fact inspired in the George stevens film, the source of inspiration was not the film’s heroes, but in the “bloodthirsty” Hindu thugees. Gunga Din could never be read as a pacifist or as a revolutionary. His association with Gandhi is nonexistent. But as a “water bearer” he shared, along with Gandhi, the archetype of oshala. this aesthetic and cosmological similarity and approximation direct us to another reference point which helps to decipher the representation of the water bearer Gunga Din within the Bahian context.
A processional ceremony of a sacred character opens the liturgical calendar of Candomblé: the cycle of ceremonial feasts known as “Águas de oxalá” (“oshala’s Waters”). In this auspicious ceremony, the devotees set out at dawn in search of the closest source of water in order to “cool” the sacred quartinhas, that is, to change the water of the vessels that contain the sacred rocks and symbols of the orishas. this procession and its chants recall the mythological voyage of oshala and the battles between the Ile-Ife and the oyo Empires. What we are dealing with here is a historic reference liturgically evoked in the narrative of the imprisonment of oshala during the reign of shango, an imprisonment that resulted in seven symbolic years of drought, unhappiness, and sterility and that ended only when shango and his vassals dressed in white went to beg forgiveness from oshala (Beier 72). This narrative is used as a parable for the interpretation of the history of african slavery in Brazil as well as in Cuba.
The cycle of “Águas de oxalá” ceremonial feasts introduces two relevant aspects to our analysis: the metaphors of water and water bearers in the sacred universe of Candomblé and the reference to oshala as symbolically “colonized” by a despotic power. the relation of the water bearer Gunga Din with the Filhos de Gandhy provides various supports for these metaphoric creations. Perhaps the major contradiction is that Gunga Din betrayed the thugees. However, considering that the thugees, rather than the British army, inspired the costumes of the lancers, and that the iconic Gunga Din inspired the Filhos de Gandhy directs us to representations of the Bahian imaginary from a somewhat different historic moment when men dressed in white occupied the streets of salvador: the revolt of the Malês, which counted on the crucial support of the water bearers and was also defeated because of informers. In this sense, Gunga Din interpreted in Bahia in 1949 would at once represent the desire for liberation from colonial domination (which in Brazil prevented the separation of Bahia and the establishment of an independent Muslim state) and concomitant efforts towards the maintenance of the ruling powers.
The revolt of the Malês (as the african Muslims in Bahia were called) was the organized culmination of various insurrections occurring between 1807 and 1835. these african Muslims—notably including Hausas, Fulanis, nupes—were brought to Brazil in the final decade of the seventeenth century in the aftermath of the civil wars in the oyo Empire. Islam in Brazil served as an afrocentric social and political organizing venue. The ethnic distinctions and historic enmities of the enslaved africans in an area like Bahia lost their immediate relevance in light of organizing a liberation struggle and preparing for an Islamic seizure of power, as Décio Freitas describes:
The rebels planned to carry out their struggle dressed in uniforms. as such, they manufactured the uniforms in advance. More than six months beforehand, Belchior and aprígio had started working on them. the uniforms consisted of berets or hoods made of white and blue cloth, large camisoles or roupetas [“tunics”] worn over pants and fastened at the waist with white cotton belts. (78)
According to risério, the revolt of 1835 resulted in a
[F]rantic race against time-uncontrolled and bloody-through the rugged landscape of the city of Bahia, breaking out at Água de Meninos, at the cavalry barracks, the site of the crucial battle. Seventy Malês were killed, and Black Islam was defeated. the dream of the establishment of a caliphate in Bahia died that night, the dream of an all-black Bahia where the whites would be exterminated-and the mulattos turned into slaves. (História 335-33)
The saga of the Malês-despite being somewhat “nebulous”—has endured in Brazil as a powerful source of mythic pan-african inspiration. Raphael Vieira Filho recalls that as early as 1897 the carnaval group Embaixada presented a manifesto demanding reparations for the africans killed during the revolt of the Malês. references to the Malês are common in the theme songs and plots of carnaval escolas de samba and in a Filhos de Gandhy offshoot, the afoxé Malê Debalê (founded in 1979).
The testimonies of the Gandhy founders mention three tunes originally sung by the group: (a) “Entra em Beco, sai em Beco” (“Get in an alley, get out on an alley”)—a reference to the meandering route of the group through the city, through the “rugged landscape of the City of Bahia”; (b) a melody from Candomblé “Êfila-la-e-ô de balalaêôaa,” a reference to the filá, a hat used by oshala (Castro 235) and the somewhat conical cap worn by Black Muslims (Cacciatore 126); and (c) “alá-lá-ô,” a tune composed by Haroldo lobo and nássara for the rio de Janeiro carnaval group Bloco da Bicharada in 1940 that refers to the sahara Desert and to allah (remembering that alá in the afro-Bahian context is also a reference to the white shawl that envelopes and protects oshala). The fact that the Filhos de Gandhy present syncretic references to Candomblé and to Islam merely reflects religious syncretism which was well underway in africa long before Europeans arrived.
The Hindu-Muslim-Bahian Aesthetic Fantasy
Abadá, a yoruba word referring to the white tunic of arabic origin used by the Malês, is currently used to refer to the uniforms that participants wear in afro- Bahian carnaval associations (Castro 135). The members of Filhos de Gandhy wear a costume that consists of abadás and turbans. As we know, Gandhi did not wear a turban. A careful analysis of the turbans that the Filhos de Gandhy wear reveals that their turbans do not derive from a Hindu aesthetic, but are in fact closer to the headdresses of the sikhs, the inhabitants of Punjab, the border region between India and Pakistan that was divided into an Indian Punjab and a Pakistani Punjab in 1947. This observation amazed me. Far from concluding that the founders or current participants in the Filhos de Gandhy would construct a metaphor based on this referent, what we perceive is a conscious and unconscious collage of signifier and signified elements leading to an inclusive performative discourse open to continuous interpretation. My amazement owes to the following: (a) Gandhi opposed any plan to divide India into two states, although this happened and resulted in a predominantly Hindu India and a predominantly Muslim Pakistan; (b) the afoxé Filhos de Gandhy developed into a quasi-processional spectacle in which men wearing sikh turbans and Muslim abadás follow the mythical figure of a Hindu leader; and (c) the division of Punjab occurred a few years before the death of Gandhi. Gandhi’s support of Pakistan was what in fact provoked his assassination. Punjab presents itself as a borderland between Hindus and Muslims, populated in the Indian section by sikhs. this border area, a site of conflict and negotiation, is reflected in the aesthetic of the Filhos de Gandhy.
Today, almost 60 years after the death of Gandhi, the Hindu anthropologist Pravina shukla visiting salvador during carnaval observes:
The parade float, white with sapphire-blue painting, features what are considered to be symbols of India-a camel, an elephant, and a goat-yet these are relegated to secondary place in the iconography when compared with the implements of the orixás, mainly the sword of ogun, the crown of oxalá, and the bow and arrow of oxóssi, the orixá of the hunt. the carnival processions and any other important presence of Filhos de Gandhy also feature the Gandhi “look alike,” a slender older black man with an uncanny resemblance to Gandhi himself. This Brazilian Gandhi sits atop a white elephant effigy. […]. the costume, said to emulate that of the Mahatma, consists of a long tunic dress, in the Brazilian carnival tradition of the requisite african abadá. the turban, as used in caricatures conjures up images of majestic, “oriental,” kings, surrounded by incense, rich foods and harem beauties, straight from a fantasy inspired by A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. In fact, the Filhos de Gandhy turban, with its huge plastic gem, does resemble some cartoonish illustration of a fairytale. […]. It is not the dress of the simply clad, threadbare Mahatama, but rather the display of an african kingly man, in cool and flowing garments, adorned in the requisite turban that is worn because, as one informant told me, “everybody looks better in a turban.” The turban not only frames the face, it adds a few inches to the height of the wearer, an important reason why many men opt to join the group: the choice reflecting, not political and musical affiliation, but pure vanity. (39-40)
Yet the turbans were already part of the afro-Brazilian reality well before India-via- Hollywood, as raul lody writes in observing the attire of a “traditional” Bahiana:
On the head of the Bahiana, a shawl or a turban, usually white, forms an arrangement that resembles a crown […]. the turbans also demonstrate the influences of Muslim peoples in the constitution of this figure, which further involves bringing to the head a twig of arruda, of guiné, of são-gonçalinho or other leaf meant to protect the body. The association between Islam and the turban is not simple. If the head is the container of the design of our rational option between what is true, illusory, right, wrong etc., the turban symbolizes and reinforces spiritual consciousness. In the Muslim conception, the turban opposed all that is profane; it protects thought, which is always pre-disposed to dispersion and to forgetfulness. (Cabelos 79)
According to early descriptions, the turbans which the Filhos de Gandhy initially used were garlands tied with ribbons and garlic, much like the selis of the sikh gurus, which are tied with strings. The contemporary turbans follow the configuration of the sikh turbans, the dastaars, which are decorated with a khanda, a broche, which the Filhos de Gandhy replaced with a circle containing a plastic blue stone. the sikhs decorate the dastaars with khandas in weddings, the Anand Karaj or “blessing ceremony,” representing the union of the individual soul with the universal soul. the khanda is therefore a metonymy of a ceremony that seeks the individual’s fusion with the universe.
The mixture of geographical, rhythmic, and thematic references of the Bahia carnaval can be read, according to Milton Araújo Moura, as the expression of a conscience that perceives the multiplicity of the world and attempts to position itself in it in order to elaborate its identity (Dunn 173). A cosmologically fertile and protean solid foundation allied to the political and poetic consciousness of the organizers and of the participants of the Bahian carnaval allows for the inclusion of foreign icons and elements. and these, especially when they are metonymies of other cosmologies, end up producing performative creations of a metaphoric value unexpected even by the creators themselves.
Pravina shukla argues that any observation of the Filhos de Gandhy would immediately reveal fundamental contradictions between the group and Gandhi:
The Mahatma was simple; his “sons” are extremely vain, bejeweled, perfumed and beautiful. the Mahatma was celibate; his “sons” swap beads for kisses and hope for more. the Mahatma was a vegetarian; his “sons” eat the flesh of animals cooked and sold on the streets. the Mahatma was a pacifist; his “sons” are aggressive and unduly violent. a closer look at the bloco Filhos de Gandhy reveals not only that the reality of Gandhi is imagined, but also that the references to the orixás oxalá and ogun are idealized. (42)
But who is this Gandhi whom the revelers of yesterday and today celebrate? agnaldo silva, the current president of the Filhos de Gandhy, defines the group as a “Hindu-african entity” and adds that “ijexá fits right into the philosophy of Gandhi” (Filhos de Gandhy). A member of Gandhy stressed the importance of learning yoruba, “the language of the secret,” since according to him, “Gandhi also works his magic in yoruba” (Morales 274). The group known as “the sorcerers of Candomblé” interpreted Gandhi as the greatest sorcerer (268). However, the lure of carnaval is sexual and carefree, the exact opposite of the self-control and self-discipline preached by Gandhi as the paths to divine truths. this apparent contradiction can also be explained according to Bahian logic, for a reading of Gandhi from within the cosmology of the orishas immediately invests him with sexuality. so much so that the oshala portrayed in the Filhos de Gandhy is oshaguian (a younger warrior oshala) and not oshalufan (an older oshala). the sexuality of the orishas and their “children”—of the gods and human beings—is dealt with in quite different manners from what is found in Hinduism. The sexual potency of certain orishas is celebrated precisely as an aspect of their divinity.
Pravina shukla offers pertinent observations regarding the constructed caricature of an exoticized India as seen through the filter of second-hand Hollywood orientalisms. The mass media of popular culture play an undeniable role in the construction of carnaval performances. The old afoxé Mercadores de Bagdá (“Merchants of Baghdad”) emerged in the same era as the Filhos de Gandhy, and “promoted recreations from movies with storylines of the East of the ‘thousand and one nights’ in their elaborate parades” (oliveira 278). The índio or caboclo afoxés presented “costumes and plots inspired by the North American Indians of John Ford and other directors of Western films” (Risério, Carnaval 67). What perhaps escaped the perception of Pravina Shula is that these recreations or idealizations occur not only in the profane realm of carnaval, but also in the sacred realm of Candomblé and Umbanda, of religions and philosophies that have an inclusive, interpretive character. So does the indigenous caboclo in Umbanda and Candomblé refer to afrocentric Bantu ancestry and not to the cosmology of the indigenous peoples in Brazil. Although Gandhi has not yet—as far as I know—been included in the sacred repertoire of Umbanda, the secular reverence with which carnaval revelers receive him follows a similar process of interpretation and inclusion.
In 1999 the afoxé Filhos de Gandhy marked its fiftieth year. Lula Buarque de Hollanda filmed a documentary with scenes in which some members of the group parade through the streets of the city of Udaipur in India. If for the anthropologist Pravina shukla the group was a source of awe, how might the figure of raimundo Gandhy and his “sons” be perceived by the people of Udaipur? The documentary presents images of sikhs and Hindus greeting raimundo Gandhy and reverently touching the ground, but we do not know what they are thinking or how they interpret this unexpected figure. According to one of the Filhos de Gandhy founders, the group is “almost a sect” nowadays (Félix 31). The people of Udaipur seem to have recognized this essential element-between devout and festive, between sacred and profane. Moa do Catendê, the creator of the afoxé Badauê (1979), recognizes the spiritual and political function of the afoxés when he says:
They always demand a lot from us [the leaders of the afoxés and afro-carnaval associations], since we are for them spiritual nourishment. After all, in a certain way we made them wake up from a terrible sleep of constant nightmares. And every step we take, be it in a practice, a simple presentation or carnaval itself, by way of the strength of our culture that other perceptive blacks understand that our struggle is only one: black social integrity. (252)
In his analysis of the carnaval group olodum, Piers armstrong comments that the pragmatic procedure of the group is essentially a form of bricolage or type of intellectual cannibalism which simultaneously combines discourses of resistance and liberation alongside essentialisms, utopias, modernities, parareligiosities, and vanities (38-45). And that summarizes some of the essential nature of Filhos de Gandhy: a transdiasporic paradigm that intersects Hindus, sikhs, and Indian Muslims with yorubas, Hausas, Fulanis, nupes. A group of carnaval performers that has consistently recreated itself through north american cinema and in the complex afro-Brazilian cosmology.