I know Ola from the choir. We unexpectedly ran into each other at an event at the Embassy of India in Warsaw where she was dancing the traditional Indian Kathak dance. We haven’t seen each other for years. That is why I didn’t know Ola had been married to Dawood, a man from India.
Few years ago Dawood started renting a room in Ola’s mother’s friend’s house in Warsaw. The woman regularly visited Dawood and other tenants helping them with accommodation. Ola’s parents were also frequent visitors. This way they also got to know Dawood whom they immediately liked.
He came to Europe to study mechanical engineering in Lithuania. He decided to do a second master’s degree in Poland: computer science. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in Delhi, Dawood had the opportunity to go to the USA, New Zealand, Australia and several other places to do his MA studies. However, they were all too expensive for him.
‘I am glad I have eventually decided to come here. What if I didn’t meet Ola?’ says Dawood smiling broadly at his wife.
Language of marriage
Dawood is Muslim. He comes from the village of Palthur in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Palthur is located about 180 km from Bengaluru, a city in southern India sometimes called the Indian Silicon Valley. His parents are farmers and they have always cared about their son’s education. They have gone to great expense and sponsored him an undergraduate degree in Delhi. They didn’t even care about a particular field of study, they just wanted him to receive good education.
Dawood learned Hindi, the main northern indian language, in the capital city. It is normal to be multilingual in India especially if you live in a city. As many as 52% of twenty-year-olds from urbanized areas are bilingual.
‘I, as well as my whole family, also speak Kannada and Telugu [languages from the Dravidian language group, spoken primarily in the south of India – ed. note],’ says Dawood. I realize that we are talking in English. Distrusting, I count in my head. Dawood is 31 years old and is fluent in four languages.
‘I was the first in my family to go abroad,’ he says. As I find out later, he is also the first person among his loved ones to have a relationship with someone outside his community.
Ola watches ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’
When asked how her passion for dancing began Ola’s eyes light up. ‘It all started with Bollywood. Do you know the movie „Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham”? The first time I saw it I was blown away by the music, dance, costumes, everything,’ she says enthusiastically. Ola also emphasizes the role of her mother who was interested in Hinduism in the past. Once she even joined Krishnas for some time.
‘Since childhood my mother taught me and my sister to be curious and respectful of traditions less frequently cultivated in Poland. She took us to multicultural festivals, concerts and dance shows. I owe her my open mind,’ says Ola. ‘One time I went to a concert by Indialucia which combines traditional Indian music with flamenco. A Kathak dancer was invited to the concert as a special guest. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I was watching as her feet were hitting the floor, the way she was turning around. This is how my love for this dance began.’
How to show Goddess Kali?
Ola attended free Kathak classes at the Embassy of India in Warsaw. Over time she also began to cooperate with the Embassy hosting various events. She regularly performs solo and with the group of Magdalena Niernsee, the precursor of Kathak dance in Poland. She studies another style, Bharatanatyam, online.
‘To me Kathak seems softer in movements because a dance step usually starts with a gesture made with the wrist.’ Ola arranges her fingers in a complicated gesture. ‘Kathak is also full of heel turns, it is light as the breeze. On the other hand, when I do Bharatanatyam I have to be strong and precise. The movements are simple and energetic,’ she adds. Ola proceeds to a thorough analysis of the first position in both styles. Together with her husband, they begin to show me mudras, that is, hand gestures, and explain their meanings. ‘To represent the bloodthirsty goddess Kali you have to spread your fingers like a tiger’s claws,’ Dawood demonstrates. ‘My family praises Ola for her rich expression in dance,’ he adds.
The crossroads of cultures
Ola plans to be a professional dancer in the future but there is still a long way to go. She needs to do a trip to India, special scholarships, long-lasting exams.
‘I have to hold off on that because starting professional preparations requires long trips.’ she says. I hear a squeal in the background. We talk via Google Meets so I only see Ola and Dawood on the webcam. But Yaseen Józef, who is almost two years old, is sitting with them on the couch. I can hear the little one talking to himself in his own language. From time to time he shouts ‘tata, tata!’, which in polish means ‘father’. Dawood finds it very funny because in Telugu ‘tata’ means grandfather.
How do you bring up a child in a family where the mother is Polish and the father is Indian? Ola talks about how they celebrate Easter, Christmas and Muslim Ramadan together. They spend Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights which is celebrated by almost all of India, with friends at Indian events in Poland. Yaseen freely interweaves single words in Polish, English, that is the couple’s language, Telugu and Kannada. A little polyglot grows up.
Ola and Dawood’s family is therefore connected with three great traditions: Christianity, thanks to Ola’s origin, Hinduism and Islam.
The Dudekula community: people who connect
After our conversation Ola sends me a message: ‘We didn’t have time to talk about it but Dawood comes from the Dudekula community. They practice Hinduism and Islam simultaneously. Google who they are.’
Hinduism and Islam together? I find it hard to believe. Anti-Muslim sentiment in India has been on the rise in recent years fueling divisions between Hindus and Muslims.
I visit the blog which, as I learn from the information on the site, was founded to spread the news about the Dudekula community. From the portal you can download the Quran in Telugu or check the list of ‘socially and educationally backward classes of Muslims’ which includes the Dudekula people. The Indian constitution contains a list of groups, divided into four subgroups, which are considered to be disadvantaged in society and the Indian government has the duty to provide them with social and educational development. ‘The backward classes’, for example, have the right to reserve 27% of jobs in the public sector and in higher education. However, Dawood emphasizes that he and his family did not enjoy any privileges of this kind.
The Dudekula people actually practice partly Islam and partly Hinduism. Muslims converted a few generations ago and before that they were Hindus. As Dawood explains to me, his family follows both religions. Many years ago his great-great-great-great-grandparents converted from Hinduism to Islam thanks to a certain Sufi, a mystic. ‘We, however, still feel that we have our roots in Hinduism to the extent that when I was growing up I didn’t really know who I was. I was a Hindu at first. With time, however, I got to know the Muslim ethics and felt that it appeals to me. My mother was at the temple today but she also goes to the mosque.’
Muslims and Hindus
Due to their unorthodox approach to Islam some Dudekulas have faced a double exclusion for years: on the one hand, they belong to a low caste that has traditionally dealt with the purification of cotton. Casteism is primarily associated with Hinduism. According to Islam everyone is equal but the casual relationship with the faith that characterizes the religiousness of the Dudekula people often does not appeal to other Muslims. This community is therefore despised for social (low-caste) and religious (unorthodoxy) reasons.
Dawood, however, categorically denies that he or his family have ever faced discrimination based on caste or religion. ‘I personally do not believe in the caste system. On paper we belong to the second subgroup of the „backward classes” but neither my friends nor my family have ever felt worse treated.’
It is worth mentioning that the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination based on caste. According to this document the Republic of India is a democracy and its citizens are equal before the law. However, the law does not reflect social norms. The divisions in Indian society persist. The list of ‘backward classes’ is not intended to strengthen the divisions but to identify the causes of the poor situation of certain groups in society and to improve them.
Ola sends me her last message: ‘Despite my interest in Kathak dance, before I met Dawood I would have never thought that my husband would be from India, it seemed impossible. It was both natural and completely unexpected for me. I believe it’s destiny’.
Translated by Wojciech Rozner.