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Show and Tell: The broom, and promises of sweeping change
A newsletter that breaks down the visual construction of imagery.
Early in March of this year, I asked the lady who cleans our home to stop coming for a few days. I had just returned from travel, and didn’t know if I was carrying the virus. Then the Prime Minister announced a lockdown and I phoned her and asked her to stay away for longer. Spiders quickly built webs above my kitchen counter. They hung upside down at eye-level, taunting me as I boiled water for coffee in the morning. I reached for my broom.
Every morning, homes in India are swept clean by brooms made of plant fibre. They make a gentle swish-swish sound as they sweep across the floor. The fibres are made of grass if the sweeping is happening indoors, and coconut fronds if the use is outdoors or wet. These brooms are our first line of defence against the dust that fills our homes ten months of the year, and then they help sweep away the water that the monsoons bring in the other two.
Between December and January, the women of Kolar district pick grass from the outskirts of the forest. They beat this grass to rid it of its seeds, dry it in the sun and knot it into feathery brooms that they can sell for ten rupees apiece. In different parts of the country, these brooms are made from different grasses and fibres: whatever grows there. The Banjaras use panni grasses, the Bagariyas of Rajasthan use date palm fibres. In the south, coconut leaf fibres are dried and bunched together to make the ubiquitous narial jhadu, valued for its flexibility and endurance.
A variety of uses
Whole communities of Indians are involved in the process of broom making. It is a traditional art that shows no signs of dying. Brooms made from these natural fibres have proven more versatile than plastic or manufactured ones, which quickly surrender before the Great Indian Dust. They are also put to a variety of other creative uses. When my ear piercings began to close, my grandmother suggested I insert a velakkumar kuchchi (a stick from a broom) dipped in coconut oil into them. The fibre from the stick would absorb water and expand, enlarging the piercings. My father taught me how to make kites using a frame made of these coconut fibre sticks. During functions and feasts, meals are served in banana leaf cups called dhonnai. Fibres from these broomsticks are used as pins to hold the cup together.
Tradition and myth
Brooms are used extensively in tantric practices and in order to remove drishti or the evil eye. One such practice involves rotating broom fibres several times over the head of anyone afflicted with the evil eye and then setting them on fire (the fibres, not the person). In homes, brooms are revered objects, kept under beds or behind doors so we don’t accidentally touch them with our feet, seeing as they sweep away dust and bring in wealth. Lucknow has a 400 year old temple to the goddess Sheetla Devi, who holds a broom in one hand, a winnow fan in another. Jains carry brooms in order to sweep away insects in their path to avoid stepping on them.
Symbolism and appropriation
Sweeping is traditionally women’s work, when done inside the house or within the courtyard. Outdoors and in public spaces, it often becomes men’s work, but only of those considered lower in the hierarchy of caste. The brooms for the two purposes are different too: the indoor brooms are lighter and more delicate. Outdoor ones are coarse and robust.
The broom is also a symbol of aggression: a walloping with a jhadu is a familiar threat.
I was present at the birth of the Aam Aadmi Party. It was August 2011 and Anna Hazare, the self-proclaimed Gandhian, was fasting at the Ramlila Maidan. There was a row of enterprising sellers outside. For a few rupees we could buy paper flags to wave and roasted chickpeas to snack on as we watched a man fast himself unto death. Arvind Kejriwal was making a speech about how they would sweep politics clean. Anna watched weakly from his mattress.
It is a combination of all of the associations that we’ve assimilated that make the broom such a powerful political symbol, something the Aam Aadmi Party recognised. They promised to rid politics of corruption and mismanagement. Unfortunately in India, sweeping is a daily task, because the dust always comes back.
The Modi government, too, appropriated the jhadu as a symbol of its Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan. Here the broom symbolises Gandhian ideals of cleanliness and egalitarianism, and an attempt was made to remove the stigma around sweeping, it being seen as the task of the oppressed castes and the less privileged. It was a spirited attempt, but centuries-old structures of privilege and discrimination are almost never dismantled by photo-ops.
It is fascinating to watch the broom transition from being a daily household tool to a symbol against the Man to a symbol appropriated by the Man himself, who wishes to make it a daily tool again.
I’ve been thinking of all this through this strange year, as I used my broom to shoo away spiders and pull down their cobwebs, kill a centipede, gather up the shards of the many glasses we broke, scare away a mouse, and, of course, to sweep our house clean: that most Sisyphean task.
Links I liked that I thought you might too:
How students preparing for competitive exams coped this year. (Not well)
Jennifer Aniston and vitamins are a no-brainer pairing.
I’m going to try to follow Sister Corita’s art rules in 2021. Also, Wendy Macnaughton’s Instagram feed has been a source of constant light and inspiration.
Pantone couldn’t pick just one colour for 2021, so they picked two. This doesn’t represent indecisiveness, but a metaphor.
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And thank you, readers, for following along these past few weeks, as we close off this disorienting year. I hope your New Year is filled with joy and promise, and all your resolutions hold well past January.