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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The People of India - The Bhats

The People of India series was researched and written by School Without Walls student, Cal Berer.   Cal was an intern at the Freer|Sackler Archives from January 2011-June 20011 where he was then sponsored by the State Department to learn Hindi while spending the summer in India. 

The Bhats
    The Bhats are an especially interesting tribe.  Unlike most, they didn’t occupy a single ancestral homeland, or even several.  Instead, they wandered throughout the country, as the Indian equivalent of minstrels and bards.    Among the bard Bhats there are two categories: the Birru-bhats and Jaga-bhats.  The former were hired out occasionally to sing at festivals and family ceremonies, while the latter served a single family for generations, and function as its historians, visiting the members from time to time to record significant events.  However, the most interesting aspect of Bhat culture is this:  “Among all the classes and tribes in which the crime of dacoity is followed as an hereditary profession, there is none whose proceedings are characterized by such boldness and skill as the Bhats.”  It seems that, in addition to the true minstrel Bhats, a separate clan of Bhat dacoits existed, claiming the same ancestry as their nonviolent counterparts, and using musical recitation as a front to tactfully conceal their real profession.  The modus operandi of these sinister Bhats is both chilling and fascinating.  Their crimes were nearly always directed towards wealthy bankers and sahukars.  Because most Bhats had no permanent residence, bands would travel from town to town, posing as musicians, while their most seasoned members ascertained the location of potential victims.  Then, after a target is selected, the Bhats would proceed to make camp some 50 or 100 miles away, and then assemble near the site of their attack.  The attack itself always took place at twilight, as a matter of tradition.  The doors would be broken down, the house stormed, and any resistors brutally killed without hesitation.  Upon raiding the home of its valuables, the gang would retreat from town to their camp, where the spoils would be divided.  It should be said that, although barbaric and cruel, the dacoit Bhats never killed indiscriminately; only resistance warranted deadly violence.  By the time POI was published, these bandit Bhats were almost entirely extinct, the remnants driven into hiding the by arrest, execution, or deportation of their fellows.  Still, they are a morbidly romantic part of India’s tribal history.  One might say they were to the subcontinent as the legendary highwaymen were to Victorian England: morally bankrupt, yet roguishly endearing. 

To see all text and images of the Bhats as they are represented in the People of India, go to our catalog in the Collections Search Center

The People of India series will be published once a month highlighting the various tribes as they're covered in the People of India. 

Cal Berer, Intern

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