Dhaka, Bangladesh
The unlikely connection between Mahatma Gandhi and the Brazilian Carnival

The unlikely connection between Mahatma Gandhi and the Brazilian Carnival

(From previous issue) The cultural links between West African Yoruba traditions and the Brazilian carnival have long been legible, given the nearly three-century-long history of slavery that ties the two regions. What is most fascinating is the insertion of Gandhi into this cultural and religio-political universe as embodiment, myth and ideology. The logo of the Filhos de Gandhy today bears an insignia of a smiling, bespectacled "Gandhy". Brazilian anthropologist Raul Lody suggests that given its roots in Yoruba culture, the first group of Gandhys would have used a black cloth doll (babalotim), a Yoruba totem with magical powers, in their processions. Over time, they began carrying a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, and then started featuring a Gandhi look-alike. Land of Gandhi Fascinatingly, in 1999, on the eve of their 50th anniversary, a group of the Filhos de Gandhy visited a village near Udaipur, Rajasthan. The trip was filmed by Brazilian documentary filmmaker Lula Buarque de Hollanda. The sentiment evoked when a Gandhiesque, Portuguese-speaking man with a loincloth over his bony frame paraded before genuflecting villagers is both surprising and unsurprising. A clip from the film also shows Gilberto Gil engaged in conversation with a local about the the "trans(cendent)-ness" of Gandhi. The Filhos de Gandhy today is the largest carnival group of the Bahia circuit, with a purported following of over 10,000 members. Their evolution from a motley gathering of recalcitrant dockworkers intent on securing social and racial justice to a highly commercialised group of networked males follows the arc of political-economic developments in Brazil from the 1970s. Their journey represents the transformation of the carnival into a mega-event of industrial proportions, drawing together several threads of patronage, promotion through tourism and bureaucratic appropriation. Curiously, anthropologist and folklorist Pravina Shukla argues that any observation of the Filhos de Gandhy today would immediately reveal fundamental contradictions between the group and Gandhi. Describing a contemporary afoxé Filhos de Gandhy, Shukla says: Tied to this, another curious aspect that flies in the face of the Afro-Brazilian history of the Filhos de Gandhy, particularly it's associations with Candomblé, is the masculinised nature of the afoxé. Africanist scholar Carole Davies has observed that "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", where women have a central role to play ritually and mythically. The strongly masculine overtones of the Filhos de Gandhy have, over the years, acquired a reputation of promoting a bawdy, sexual culture in which the revelling filhos are seen exchanging blue-bead necklaces for kisses and embraces with "pretty women". Similarly, the Filhos de Gandhy can be seen holding bottles of lavender-scented perfume (alfazema), "a blessing from Oxalá", liberally squirting it on their women as a gender-locked suggestion of purification and sexual invitation. This suggests that "the original fame of the Filhos de Gandhy as seducers and tough guys continues to persist", according to McElroy. "Present members of the group nurture images of courage, virility, and irresistible seduction." Further, given the deep racial histories and anxieties of the Afro-Brazilians in Bahia and their charged relationships with the white colonisers, narratives of police aggression and confrontation suffered by the Filhos de Gandhy may in part be responsible for encouraging such a masculinist culture among the Sons of Gandhi. Sons and daughters This deeply raced and gendered history is shared equally by Gandhi's Brazilian "daughters", who in 1979 - mainly as a response to their continued marginalisation in the afoxé - instituted themselves as Filhas de Gandhy (Daughters of Gandhi). Thus far relegated to the status of "the women, mothers, girlfriends and even lovers" of Gandhi's sons, Filhas de Gandhy aimed at reclaiming not just public and private space in the cities of Bahia, and wider Brazil, but also cultural space in male-dominated traditions like Samba, Capoeira, and Carnival. In their history of critique, many filhas are known to have argued that Brazilian society does not stop being racist, sexist or homophobic during carnival. Traditionally, the Filhas de Gandhy paraded for three days in the carnival but always behind the white rug formed by the Filhos de Gandhy. This has begun to change in recent years. However, compared to their male counterparts, who number 10,000, the afoxé Filhas de Gandhy has struggled to amass a following of even a few thousands. In July, Filhas de Gandhy will complete 40 years of its creation. But based on this year's spring carnival, there are reports that the bloco was barely able to parade for a day in Bahia, owing to the lack of financial and other support. What do such cultural paradoxes tell us? Is it time for Gandhi's Brazilian "daughters" to revitalise an indigenous satyagraha? Or is it time to look for a new Orixá altogether? In the singing works of Marielle Franco, the Brazilian activist and city counsellor who was gunned down while returning from a historic march in Rio de Janeiro, "Quando uma mulher de luta morre, todas nos morremos um pouco com ela". When a woman of struggle dies, we all die a little with her.

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