on the Festive Dances of the Khasis

Page 152 – 154

There is another amusement for the Khasi people in which women also come to prominence and in which all the people take part with great zest and joy. These are the special dances, which take place as entertainment at solemn festive occasions or at religious celebrations.

A large place is chosen for the dance. The musicians sit on the ground in the middle and beat their drums, play their flutes and strike their cymbals. The music however, is very monotonous, with the same tune repeated over and over again.

The girls dance in a narrow circle around the musicians. Only unmarried girls form the dancing troupe. The dress, which they wear is rich and very precious. It is made of rare yellow or blue silk and covers the whole body. The shoulders and arms are covered with velvet jackets. The head is decorated with a golden or silver crown, artistically capped with a bunch of feathers or a bunch of artificial flowers. Around the neck they wear chains of gold and silver and several rows of genuine corals of various sizes. The ear lobes are decorated with heavy ear-rings. They do not wear socks or shoes. The arms and the wrists are encircled with massive silver rings or bracelets. The rings are large, almost in the form of cuffs. The hair is knotted at the back of the head and a long cord with three tassels is hung down the back. The more well-to-do dancers are accompanied by female attendants who hold an umbrella over them.

The Khasi dance is not characterized by lively and exciting movements as are our dances. Each dancer, moving about with arms motionless and eyes cast down is the very symbol of modesty. Each one goes through the movements of the dance alone, independently of others. Each dancer moves continually in a circle around the musicians sideways or backwards or forwards. Her movements can hardly be perceived. She keeps her feet close together and inches forward by a flexing movement of the toes. This movement is quite fatiguing and after a short time drops of sweat roll down from the forehead of the dancers. When one of them is tired, she withdraws in order to take some rest and then joins the dancers again.

The young men, too, take part in this entertainment, but it is unthinkable that the girls should dance in pairs with the young men. They too dance separately each one by himself in a wide circle around the girls. They also have a special dress for the occasion. Over the usual white linen clothes, which cover the lower part of the body they wear a shirt, and on top of it, a waistcoat without sleeves, made of silk and decorated with embroidery and tassels. A tail of animal-hair hangs down at the back. The breast is decorated with precious coral beads and the turban on the head is about thirty centimetres long and is adorned with artificial flowers called theria or black and white feathers from cocks. The right hand holds a bush of goat’s hair. Sometimes this is held in the left hand and in the right the traditional Khasi sword. Modern shoes and socks, which are now worn do not match well with this otherwise colourful uniform.

The movements of the men are livelier than those of the girls. They prance around in a leisurely way, like children, lifting one leg and the other but not leaping high in the air. In this way they move in circle around the girls and they swing the tuft of hair in the air. From time to time they stop and then a group gives a joyful shout, makes a bow towards the middle of the circle and makes a sweeping bow with the tuft of hair.

The dancing goes on for hours to the accompaniment of music. Around the dancing place thousands of spectators are gathered for this entertainment. They never seem to get tired of watching it and find great pleasure and satisfaction from this harmless entertainment. After such recreation they return to their daily tasks. There is a remarkable difference between their magnificent dancing costumes and the dress worn in day-to-day life. Only because these expensive clothes and ornaments belong to the family or the clan, and are handed down from generation to generation is it possible to find these precious costumes among the otherwise simple and poor people