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Rhythms from Down Under

Australian indigenous dance troupe Kuma Kaaru, a four-member team lead by Jack Buckskin, were in Mumbai recently. This expert in aboriginal language and dance revitalisation, shared stories about their land, community, history and modernisation.

Kuma kaaru: One blood (in Kaurna language). This language is integral to the Adelaide plains and the Greater Adelaide region of South Australia. The dancers of this group are family members and represent numerous Aboriginal groups of South Australia. This name, ‘One blood,’ was chosen by dedicated men who wanted to relearn more of their culture through song, dance, cultural practice revitalization and involvement with language revitalisation. They set out to relearn the language, stories, dance, culture of their people, for future generations and the audiences today to raise the awareness of their culture and connection to country through dance. Excerpts from a chat with the members of Kuma Kaaru during their maiden visit to India.

Australian indigenous dance troupe, Kuma Kaaru performs at a workshop for cancer affected children at  St Jude Child Care Centre India Cancer Society  at Parel.  Pic/Shadab Khan
Australian indigenous dance troupe, Kuma Kaaru performs at a workshop for cancer affected children at St Jude Child Care Centre India Cancer Society at Parel. Pic/Shadab Khan

Step one
We started dancing with an uncle of ours, who has taught many people in the community. Since we are all family here, it was very easy for us to start a dance group of our own. That’s how Kuma Kaaru was formed, to showcase culture on a regular basis. Also, in our part of the country, it was very far to travel to where our uncle was, all the time and we decided to start off on our own. Jack initiated most of us into dancing. We have day jobs as well. It’s our passion. It’s  emi-professional for us, in that sense ,but it is our passion that drives us. We learn from our elders.

Australian artist Jack Buckskin plays the Didgeridoo, an Aboriginal musical instrument for cancer affected kids. PIC/ shadab Khan
Australian artist Jack Buckskin plays the Didgeridoo, an Aboriginal musical instrument for cancer affected kids. PIC/ shadab Khan

All for a purpose
We tell our stories through our dance. When we perform, we appreciate, respect and acknowledge our country and community. When we dance the animal dance, we do not imitate animals. It doesn’t look pretty; it is all about a message. A lot of our dances are high energy, and shows the might and strength of men. In our culture, it is through dance that women decide on the man they wish to marry. The stronger you look and how you dance makes an impression. As young men, when we dance, we feel stronger and inspired, so do our elders and kids.

Cliffy (left) and Luke Wilson pose with cancer affected kids at a workshop. Pics/Shadab Khan
Cliffy (left) and Luke Wilson pose with cancer affected kids at a workshop. Pics/Shadab Khan

Music matters for us
We create live music: with clapsticks, our hands, mouth, and voices. Our dance is a part of ceremony that connects us. We didn’t have electricity in the old days. We create the background music — to tell a story.

Costumes
We paint faces and ourselves and wear headbands. The paint is made from crushed up rock. That connects us to the soil and country as well. We don’t change costumes in between the performance. We represent more than one language group, in the symbols we paint on our body as well. We mainly dance outdoors.

(From left) Jack Buckskin, Aaron Adams, Cliffy Wilson and Luke Wilson of the Kuma Kaaru Dance troupe, outside Taj Mahal Palace. Colaba. Pic/ Sameer Abedi
(From left) Jack Buckskin, Aaron Adams, Cliffy Wilson and Luke Wilson of the Kuma Kaaru Dance troupe, outside Taj Mahal Palace. Colaba. Pic/ Sameer Abedi

Culture code
Back home, it is a little different. We have a lot of internal issues that are affecting Australia as a whole. On an individual level, a lot of people get intimidated by dance because they don’t know if it is appropriate to clap, to participate, to cheer; sometimes, people see it as a spectacle. We tell people to break down those barriers. We crack jokes and pave the way for people to enjoy the show and make it a link between two cultures.

On saving tradition
We didn’t have colonisation till about 1836 in Australia. Within four years, our culture was banned, our language was banned too. In the 1970s, people who were held prisoners for this were allowed back into the city. They only have the opportunity now to start relearning their language and culture. We started doing that in 1980. We still struggle in terms of funding and support to revive aboriginal culture but in the last five-10 years, we have made progress. We now teach in about 15 schools. For a language that was banned for about a 100 years, we are now trying to get the younger people to relearn. We teach our children and are trying to upscale the process by getting our culture back home. Our culture is all about the future. I teach one; they teach others and there are now four men performing in India. We know our culture in English. We are now teaching our leaders to relearn our language and tell stories of our culture in our language. We have been allowed to speak the language and learn our culture since the 1980s. Our elders are not ahead but are learning with us. My grandfather had a certificate that said, if you spoke the language, you would be punished. If you performed indigenous ceremonies or associated with other indigenous persons including family, you would be punished. So, from my grandfather to me, a lot has changed. It’s been hard, and now, they have to unlearn Western influences.

Roadblocks
Support is an issue. We have a lot of issues anyway and language is not high on the radar. We are fighting for funding from the smallest pockets for books, resources etc. The language in Sydney is different from Adelaide.

Ladies special
The women were our main singers, they controlled our beat and the men were the dancers. We don’t have the luxury of having our women ruling our culture and society anymore.

While in India
We are planning to perform some animal dances, dances with stomping the legs. People know the kangaroo, so it will help connect with people who don’t know our culture at all. We had a 45-minute performance including 10 dances, of different varieties. We tried to give a snapshot of our culture in a short time. We don’t know when we will come back here, so we wanted to leave an impression of our culture on the people here.

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