Most people would assume that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) got it dead right in their choice of the jhadoo as election symbol. It’s endearing not just in its capacity to signify a much-needed clean-up but also in its reach among primary users—the marginalised who sweep to earn a living. But the broom they have chosen as their symbol, it turns out, isn’t proletarian enough. Unlike AAP’s jhadoo which is made with coconut fronds, Dalits make theirs using stiffer bamboo twigs for it has to be more durable and adaptable to dry and wet surfaces.
“In that sense, the AAP’s symbol doesn’t quite penetrate down the caste hierarchy of brooms,” jokes Kuldeep Kothari, secretary of the Jodhpur-based Rupayan Sansthan. How else could one discover such interesting anecdotes but on a visit to Arna-Jharna (literally ‘forest with a waterfall’), a museum formed in 2007 and managed by the sansthan that includes a permanent exhibit of around 150 brooms collected from across the state. Conceived by his father and renowned ethnologist, the late Komal Kothari, Arna-Jharna is a celebration of existing folk traditions and desert lifestyles, not a consecration of the ‘dead’ past. Over 70 per cent of the brooms exhibited have been collected from actual users (their provenance is even mentioned in the tags).
As Komal Kothari went around collecting material for the museum, he was struck with how many kinds of grass were deemed “useless”, not even fit as fodder. “That’s when some said they use them to make brooms. Then on, the broom became the common denominator for him to explore local traditional knowledge systems,” says museum manager Anil Sharma. While gathering brooms from across Rajasthan, those working on the museum stumbled on a neat distinction that was to later help them organise the display at Arna-Jharna—those used outside are made with thicker, stiffer material and always thought of as male, while the more flexible ones used inside homes are referred to as female.
It’s such little-known aspects of the broom, its makers and users that the museum revels in making public. We learn that the Banjaras are the ones who conventionally use panni grass to make their brooms and that the Kolis have always used date palm to make theirs. And that brooms have several myths attached to them; one, for instance, prescribes that brooms must not be kept under the bed, so as to avoid nightmares. Some of them mustn’t be rested on the end they are held with. Certain kinds of grass also have dedicated uses, like daab to make brooms to clean places of worship. Another fact is the veneration of the jhadoo as a form of Lakshmi or in the form of Bungri Matra (broom goddess) or Jhadoo Baba. The museum also stocks documentaries on the broom-making communities.
The broom, as a poster on one of the museum walls reads, can be “at once pure and impure, auspicious and oppressive”. “It opens contradictory insights into the critical issues of our times,” it adds. The aap too, some will say, throws up many contradictory insights into our politics ahead of the 2014 elections. With the party now assured of being given preference over the symbol, many have wondered if the broom-wielding party will have the same appeal in caste-rigid societies in rural areas the way it’s had in Delhi. Will it be seen as a party primarily of the downtrodden and the ignored by those from the upper castes?
This theory appears largely unfounded. “It’s now seen more as a tool to clean corruption and all that is perceived as wrong in the existing system rather than a conventional casteist tool,” says Rajesh Mishra of the Bihar Sakaldip Brahmin Samaj. “People, including Brahmins, are carrying it around proudly at rallies.” Bindeshwar Pathak, whose Sulabh International has helped transform the lives of many traditional users of the broom, says, “Gandhi took it up personally and asked his followers to use it, and the aap has given it newfound honour and prestige.”
By Debarshi Dasgupta in Jodhpur