Every year in February or thereabouts it is possible to catch a glimpse, on the pages of newspapers and on television screens, of what Brazilians like to advertise as the greatest street show on Earth: the Brazilian carnival parades.
The best known of these is in Rio de Janeiro, arguably because of the generous amount of flesh on display from aspiring models and would-be stars of TV serials. But the one that Brazilians themselves enjoy most is in Salvador da Bahia, on the northeastern coast of Brazil, with its promise of six days and six nights of non-stop partying and dancing along the city’s two main drags.
The carnival in Salvador wasn't always a fun street party, though. When it started out in the 1930s and early 1940s, revellers were kept away because of the threat of violence from groups of young men, who were notorious for going out in drunken numbers during carnival, spoiling for a fight.
Yet even at that time, and in such a distant country, some people had become aware of Gandhiji and of his message of peaceful yet determined resistance. Among these were a group of workers in the dockyards in the port of Salvador. For these poor and disadvantaged men, carnival was one of the few outlets for good, clean fun; yet they were dismayed at being systematically targeted by those for whom carnival was just an excuse for fisticuffs.
Inspired by Gandhiji’s example, which became even more widely discussed after his death, they founded a new group in 1949, dedicated to ensuring the peaceful enjoyment of carnival by all, and called themselves the “Sons of Gandhy”.
The idea was that the new group would go out during carnival, in a big and distinctive enough show of numbers, and by steadfastly refusing to be drawn into fights on the one hand, and actively promoting slogans of peace and non-violence on the other, provide a successful deterrent. In their search for a distinctive visual image, they were once again inspired by Gandhiji, in adopting a simple, white piece of clothing as their dress.
However, whereas the message and example of Gandhiji were well understood, the visual aspect seems to have been more approximative, and constrained as well as influenced by local availability. Thus the official costume of the “Sons of Gandhy” incorporates a white turban (made, for the anecdote, out of bath towels) and resembles, rather than a typically Indian dhoti, the djelaba of North Africa and Arabia (perhaps conflated, in the stevedores’ imperfect geography, with the subcontinent).
And to the white dress were added blue details, especially long necklaces of blue and white beads, worn crossed across the chest. This was to honour the African god Oxalá, also associated with peace, and whose cult had been brought to Salvador da Bahia by the slaves from whom 80% of the population is now descended in some measure or other.
The “Sons of Gandhy” made a powerful impact, and changed the carnival parades in Salvador da Bahia for good. Sixty years on, they have become an indispensable fixture, their outings eagerly awaited by all.
They are respected and admired, of course, for their moral authority, through their long-held attachment to peace and non-violence, and in this way perpetuate the legacy of Gandhiji for ordinary Brazilians, who would otherwise not have the Mahatma’s example constantly before their eyes. But there are also, dare we say, slightly more frivolous reasons.
They are traditionally male-only, and in keeping with the image of a group founded by dockyard workers, they attract young men who are fairly fit, and buff, and handsome. For the young girls who are also out during carnival looking for good, (relatively) clean fun, a “Son of Gandhy” ranks very high indeed on the carnival romance stakes. He is seen, in a sense, as safe: someone who can be flirted with, with little risk of his turning threatening if refused.
But as it is, a “Son of Gandhy” is rarely refused, and rather, actively sought. The young “Sons of Gandhy” are of course well aware of their pulling power, and will not shy away from enjoying its rewards. For instance, a tradition has now developed for them to load up with extra bead necklaces, so as to give one away to each girl they kiss; and it can be said that the young girls are quite as eager in the collecting of these trophies, as the young men are pleased in the giving away of them.
As we celebrate Gandhiji’s birthday, it may be heartening to find that his name lives on in some unexpected places, in some (perhaps) unexpected ways.
( Paula Gonzaga de Sa followed up her Ph.D. in theoretical statistical physics with a career in IT. She was lately CRM project manager for a credit insurance company in London, and is currently on sabbatical leave in India, pursuing creative writing projects.)