The unlikely connection between Mahatma Gandhi and the Brazilian Carnival

In the spring of 1930, a myriad group of 78 satyagrahis, led by Mahatma Gandhi, set out from Sabarmati ashram to the salt-glazed shores of Dandi. Along the way, thousands more joined in, all wearing khadi in deference to the Mahatma’s call for homespun cotton and a boycott of foreign goods. Covering 10 miles a day, pausing only at night to rest, the procession is said to have resembled a white flowing river.

The march ended around 300 miles and 24 days later on the coast of the Arabian Sea. When Gandhi clenched the coarse, saline topsoil of the shore with his sunburnt fingers, it delivered a stinging yet unflinchingly non-violent blow to the British by reclaiming salt as a commodity, making the colonised Indian notionally self-reliant. The Dandi March marked a milestone not only in the subcontinent, but around the globe.

Throughout the years of the freedom movement, Gandhi and his contemporaries marched through different parts of the Indian subcontinent, seeking justice and social reform through nonviolent means. Unsurprisingly, when the Mahatma was fatally shot at a prayer meeting in Delhi in 1948, a gathering of over a million women and men marched alongside his cortege to the banks of the Yamuna. It is believed that a mourning Nehru implored the smothering masses to exercise restraint and respect the ideal of non-violence embodied by the Mahatma amid the outpouring of public grief.

Gandhi’s death did not end the march of his “sons and daughters” in India or in faraway Brazil. Nearly a year after he was assassinated in Delhi, a group of dockworkers over 7,000 miles away on the Atlantic coast of Salvador da Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, found themselves gripped by collapsing economic fortunes. A policy of wage-tightening, generated by a multi-dimensional post-war crisis, had created widespread unemployment and distress in Brazil’s northern Atlantic ports.

The Dandi March. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].
The Dandi March. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The majority of those dockworkers were Afro-Brazilians, whose families had settled on Brazil’s northern coastline for generations and had ancestral roots in western and central Africa (between the 1600s and 1800s, Brazil imported over four million slaves from Africa, 40% of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas, and was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery in 1888).

The Bahians, while rooted in the Afro-Brazilian cultural matrix, practised a series of distinct traditions. Most significant among these was Candomblé, a religion that developed indigenously through the creolisation of Yoruba and Bantu beliefs from western and central Africa, and was followed in secret by enslaved captives of the Portuguese Empire in northern Brazil since the 19th century.

According to Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, on the afternoon of February 18, 1949, a handful of Bahian dockworkers gathered under a tree in one of Salvador’s poorest neighbourhoods. Faced with an uncertain future, the outspoken group proclaimed themselves “Sons of Gandhi” (Filhos de Gandhy) as a tribute to the Mahatma, while drawing on local cultural practices of incorporating global icons – and their modes of protest – as a means of legitimisation and assertion. The Filhos de Gandhy would later come to be linked indelibly to the Afro-Brazilian carnival.

The question that begs our attention most is, how did the Mahatma posthumously come to inspire generations of Afro-Brazilians two oceans away from the Indian subcontinent? What led to Gandhi, a staunch Hindu, being placed alongside Yoruba deities and spirits filtered through the ritual lens of Candomblé-inspired masculine public worship?

Photo credit: Alex@Eddi (Diskussion)/Wikimedia Commons [CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence].
Photo credit: [email protected] (Diskussion)/Wikimedia Commons [CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence].

Tracing the roots

From the late 1940s, some of the Bahia afoxés (fraternal organisations and musical processions) had begun to incorporate figures from exotic cultures as iconic symbols of peace and resistance. With the Filhos de Gandhy, the intent of its founders was both to draw inspiration from Gandhi and legitimise a burgeoning politico-cultural formation of subaltern dockworkers (Coelho claims the name Gandhy was deliberately misspelled because the founders were worried about political implications). According to cultural historian Anamaria Morales, the identification with the independence struggle of India, which had suffered economic and cultural oppression at the hands of the British, gave “an (un)disguised political character” to the debut of the Filhos de Gandhy.

The foundational narratives of the group were, according to Brazil scholar Isis Costa McElroy, “multiple and poetic”. The founding members of the Filhos de Gandhy – dockworkers like Manuel dos Santos (Guarda Sol) and Durival Marques da Silva (Vavá Madeira) – were most likely inspired by the newspaper headlines about the death of Gandhi, a globally-reported event.

Another explanation is provided by a former president of the group, Djalma Conceição. According to him, the name (Filhos de) Gandhy was a phonetic corruption of Gunga Din, a 1930s British movie with a lower-caste anti-colonial protagonist (Gunga Din) that was inspired by a Rudyard Kipling poem based on the life of an Indian water bearer in the British Raj. McElroy believes that Gunga Din’s association with water could also suggest a parallel to a sacred Candomblé ceremonial feast, known as Aguas de Oxalá (Oxalá’s Waters). Further, McElroy says, both physically and ideologically, Gandhi recalled aspects of the archetype of Oxalá, a mythical spirit of the Candomblé: “As in the case of male ancestors in the Egungun (Yoruba) societies, Gandhi is praised by the Filhos de Gandhy in his essential individuality, enjoying a privilege exclusive to male spirits. As in Oro societies, he transcends his individuality in order to represent the power of a collective male ancestry.”

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Filhos de Gandhy Carnaval 2015

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AfroINBahia Bahia/YouTube.

Afro-Brazilians were known to privately practise a series of propitiatory ceremonies tied to the Candomblé for ancestral spirits (Orixás) – such as Omulu, Oxum and Oxalá – inspired by Yoruba cosmology. These rituals were meant for the sacralised confines of terreiros (mainly consecrated interior spaces of the home). From this perspective, the crystallisation of Filhos de Gandhy represented a secularisation of the sacred Candomblé, culminating in a carnivalised street Candomblé (Candomblé de rua), which incorporated collective marches, processions, parades and dance styles loosely inspired by Yoruba-Brazilian cosmology.

According to ethnomusicologist Clarence Bernard Henry, “The musical performances of the Filhos de Gandhy are similar to those of Candomblé religion in that most of the songs are sung in Yoruba [or bear a strong Yoruba lilt], some with a mixture of Portuguese, and in a call-and-response style.” The West African link is also visible in their use of instruments, such as the atabaque-type drums, shekere, agogô and the composite ijexá rhythm (performed by the Yoruba for the Orixás) in both steady and moderate tempo.

McElroy adds that in its early days, the Filhos de Gandhy was exclusively a group of male performers, who evoked the Orixás and Gandhi as a prodigal son and protegé of Oxalá, the creator deity, “king of the white cloth”. This perhaps explains the basic costume of the Filhos: white vestments with a turban, chains, socks, and sandals that drew heavily on the Mahatma’s iconic white loincloth. McElroy even goes to the extent of viewing the headdresses as being closer to the turbans of Punjabi Sikhs, and the white robe as a likeness of West African abadas, suggesting the Filhos de Gandhy represented a curious “Hindu-Muslim-Bahian Aesthetic Fantasy”.

In all this, what historians and anthropologists tend to agree on is that Filhos de Gandhy channelled a curious transformation of Gandhi, a global icon of non-violence, self-reliance and peace, into a mythically-mediated secular “Brazilianised” carnival icon. A precise description of this shift is provided by Arivaldo Pereira, the composer of the hit 1970s song Patuscada de Gandhi (Gandhi’s Revelry), later immortalised by musician Gilberto Gil, both members of the Filhos de Gandhy:

“[Filhos de] Gandhy was formed as a bloco. Its music was percussion, just batucada drumming. In the second year, we were singing Afro-chants and by the third year it was transformed into an afoxé [popular Afro-Brazilian style]. As time passed, there were a number of modifications in the costumes […]. In the second year, we had the goat and a small camel as allegories. In the fourth and fifth years, we had the lancer, the gunner and for the big allegories we had an elephant and a big camel. In the third year, the number of participants increased to about 200 men[…]. Only after the third year, when the Candomblé people started showing up, did Gandhy begin leaning towards this syncretic side. From then on, we always did the padi [propitiatory Candomblé offering] before we started […]”  

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Gilberto Gil Toda menina Bahiana