The Jarawa women are made to sing and dance, bare breasted, for tourists in return for a few morsels of food.
Over the years, the words became an idiomatic expression to convey one’s need to work for money or reward. But, more popularly “Sing for Your Supper” suggests the compulsion of having to go through a boring seminar or lecture at the end of which a sumptuous spread of food awaits.
However, nobody could have imagined that the Jarawa women (members of a tribe that has lived on India’s Andaman Islands for several thousand years) would be told to sing and dance, bare breasted at that, for tourists in return for a few morsels of food.
Gethin Chamberlain’s article on and video footage of the Jarawas recently featured in Britain’s Guardian – also carried by Indian television channels and print medium – should shame a country that never ceases to brag about its 5,000-year culture and its modern sheen.
Chamberlain writes: “‘Dance’, the policeman instructed. The girls in front of him, naked from the waist up, obeyed. A tourist’s camera panned round to another young woman, also naked and awkwardly holding a bag of grain in front of her. “Dance for me,” the policeman commanded.
“The young woman giggled, looked shy and hopped from foot to foot. The camera swung back to the others who clapped, swayed and jumped.”
“This kind of video is the trophy tourists dream of when they set off into the jungles of the Andaman Islands ‘on safari’. The beauty of the forest functions merely as a backdrop. The goal of the trip is to seek out the Jarawa, a reclusive tribe only recently contacted, which is taking the first tentative steps towards a relationship with the outside world.”
Today, there are just about 400 Jarawas, a highly endangered tribe which lives in a protected jungle reserve. Since they are vulnerable to exploitation, the government keeps them secluded, and it is only in recent years that they have begun to build a relationship with the world beyond their own home.
As has often been the case in India, protectors turn predators, defenders change into destroyers. On the Andamans, policemen reportedly accept hefty bribes in American dollars from especially foreign visitors for the Jarawa jig.
Yes, the cops give the tribals food before (and after) the show starts and video cameras roll, candidly capturing and merrily magnifying the almost naked dance which the women do to the sound of songs. As they clap their hands and tap their feet, tourists hoot and laugh.
This is perhaps one of the cruellest forms of exploitation, of a people known for their innocence.
Despite warning signs at the entrance to the reserve area that forbid photography and contact with the Jarawas, visitors flout these rules. They are never prevented by policemen, who brazenly take bribes.
What is even more scandalous is that the police appear to be actively pushing tourists into committing a crime that is as heinous as any other. One is also told that visitors – many from so-called civilised West – actually fling food at these tribal men and women, treating them as animals.
I remember a film, whose title I cannot remember now. Set somewhere in Europe in the 19th century, the movie was about a huge woman with an oversized clitoris who is kept in a cage and made to perform. She is whipped and paraded in the nude, and audiences are encouraged to touch and even fondle her, much to her pain and chagrin. Probably, it was based on a true incident.
India is replaying this sort of horror in this day and age.
While cops play villains in this whole sordid business, tourists turn abettors, humiliating human kind.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected] He is an FMT columnist.