*Photographic contributions to this text by Christian Cravo
On a rather warm day (what days are not heated in Salvador?), still recovering from the fieldwork carried out a day before, I went to Pelourinho with two other researchers, Paula Montes from the University of Sao Paulo and Renata Cardoso from the Federal University of Bahia. The region was astir with activities of FLIPELÔ (Festa Literária Internacional do Pelourinho). We found new publications on Candomblé, made a few purchases, got slightly distracted by a Capoeira performance and then headed to our mission of the day; a Filhos de Ghandy Festa at the eponymous square on Rua Maciel de Baixo down the street.
As we stepped into the lavender-fragranced reception area of the edifice, it was evident that blue and white were the colours of the bloc. An imposing oil painting of Mahatma Gandhi (yes, Mohandas Karamchand (‘Mahatma’) Gandhi) the Indian political leader and religious and social reformer) garbed in his idiosyncratic dhoti and loincloth wrap, hung on the largest wall. On either side of Gandhi painting were four framed photographs of all eight founders of Filhos de Ghandy. There were offerings at the altar dedicated to the Orixás; Oxalá (also known as Obatalá) and Oxaguian.
In Yoruba cosmology, Oxalá is one of the oldest and the most respected of the Orixás, on the account that he created the world and all human beings therein. Oxalá colour is white and he is often visually represented, holding a wooden sceptre called opaxorô. A sceptre that can be used to divide the world into two if needed. “He is praised as the father of men and creator of humanity. He is very wise and compassionate with his children; he leads them along the paths of victory. He is the ruler of the throne of faithfulness, and this is to say, he is associated with all matters involving optimism and trust.” (Tharcio Pedreira). The second Orixá, Oxaguian -within Candomblé- is the younger version of Oxalá.
How, then did Gandhi come into the picture? What led to the positioning of an unfaltering Hindu alongside Yoruba divinities in an all-male public spectacle?
The afoxé (loosely translated as public or street Candomblé) Filhos de Gandhy was founded by the city’s dock workers on February 18, 1949. Their mission was to emphasise the need for brotherhood, peace, and tolerance within an environment that was rife with racial intolerance and discrimination. An exclusively male afoxé unit was organised and they referred to themselves as adherents of Gandhi’s principles of non-violence.
(In the 1960s’, the bloc of the Daughters of Gandhy was created, linked to the same organisation and was committed to developing cultural, educational, social and political activities that resulted in the formation of a collective of women in search of the fight against social inequalities.)
The Afoxé’s apparel is made up of a white turban, blue and white wrap clothes, a pair of white sandals, sapphire-blue socks, an armband, a bottle of lavender scent and blue and white necklaces. The necklaces are traditionally known as Colares dos Filhos de Gandhy. During carnivals “Ghandy’s sons’ necklaces” are offered to spectators as a way of wishing them peace during the carnival and throughout the year.
Let’s take a peep into history to fully understand what term afoxé signifies. Sometime in the late 1800s, a group of Ogans (Ògá, men who stand out in the Yoruba society) from Candomblé Terreiros, who were also Salvador dock workers, met to decide how they could appease the Orixás in order to break religious proscriptions that prevented them from participating in the Carnival. After consulting with a Bàbáláwo (Ifá oracle priest), they were asked to give offerings to Exu (messenger of the Orixás). The Oracle also advised Candomblé adherents who wished to take aspects of Candomblé to the public to refer to themselves as “Afoxé” (translation: “may the future be fulfilled”).
Afoxés are, therefore, groups formed by supporters and followers of Candomblé houses that participate in the Carnival. They entertain Candomblé fans and admirers during public festivals while safeguarding their religious identity. This explanation I received from Balablorixa Tharcio Pedreira was an Aha! moment for me. The part of my research dealing with the spectacular aspects of Candomblé is founded upon this term Afoxé.
Several Afoxés existed before Filhos de Ghandy and the retention of religious identity at public events includes conforming to the Candomblé “xiré” (order of chants and dances of the Orixás from Exu to Oxalá).
Afoxé songs are particularly illustrative of the immersion of Bahian cultural production in Yoruba religious cosmology and rhythms! The Afoxé dance, therefore, originates from the rituals performed in the Candomblé terreiros. An Exu padé takes place before any parade; it is a ritual where Filhos de Ghandy –and all Candomblé faithful -make offerings to Exu and request of him not to interrupt the ceremony. ( I had witnessed three Exu padés beforehand) This festival was not an exception; the Exu Padé had already taken place before we arrived.
We were led through a narrow staircase into large quadrangle where drumming and dancing had already commenced. Paula (who belongs to another Candomblé terreiro in Sao Paulo) called my attention to the Xiré as she sang along.
Drumming patterns and dance movements, I observed, were inspired by Candomblé’s rhythmic Atabaques (drums) and agogô (metal gongs) and Yoruba chants of Ijexá.
“The examples of ijexá are characterised by duple meters, with a heavy, syncopated accent on the “weak” or upbeats. Several agogô are used, and a variety of shakers.” (Sparks 70)
How is it that Gandhi is spelt with a “y”? I inquired.
In 1946 The dockworkers’ union was under the military government intervention that kept watch for possible outbreaks of rebellion. Many social movements were persecuted and in order not raise any suspicions about their group, Almir Passos Fialho ( or was it Vavá Madeira?) one of the founders of Filhos de Ghandy, recommended replacing the “i” with “y” in Gandhi’s name.
The Afoxé paraded for the first time in 1949. Since then membership to the group increased, including singer Gilberto Gil, in 1970.
In 1996, “Gandhy Social”, a social and educational project linked to the institution, aimed at children and underprivileged communities, was also founded. Filhos de Gandhy has evolved into one of Bahia’s intangible heritage. In February of this year, the bloc celebrated its 70th anniversary with a series of festivities. With close to 16,000 members, it is said to be the largest and most famous Afoxé in Salvador.
The infiltration of Yoruba traditions from West Africa in Brazil is not bewildering, given historical events. What I have found quite intriguing is the incorporation of Gandhi into Candomblé’s religious, political and cultural cosmos.
Meanwhile, across the globe, A “Ghandi must fall” campaign began in October 2019 in Manchester UK where a statue of the Gandhi is set to be unveiled outside Manchester Cathedral on November 25. Student activists at the University of Manchester called for the figure to be removed based on his ‘well-documented anti-black racism’ and ‘complicity in the British Empire’s actions in Africa’. This event follows a similar protest by students and faculty at the University of Ghana in December 2018 that led to the removal of a Gandhi statue from its campus.
While I tried to frame the question around this protest for a member of the bloc, I was pulled to the dance floor by a Baiana whom I had filmed briefly. It was perhaps neither the time nor event to pose such questions but contentious issues keep emerging from associations with the name and image of Gandhi; I asked my questions within a structured interview on another occasion!
Here, the song Filhos de Gandhy (1975) by Gilberto Gill and Jorge Ben
A QUOTE ABOUT THE SONG:
"Filhos de Gandhi" also speaks to the spiritual aspect of afoxé music and Gil's work. In this song, Gil begins by invoking the orixá Omolu (Baba- luayé), Ogum, Oxum, Oxumarê, Iansã (Oyá), Ieman- já, Xangô, and Oxóssi, asking them to descend to their "Filhos de Gandhi." He names other afoxés - Mercador, Cavaleiro de Bagda, Filhos de Obá - and also makes reference to a Christian divine being, Senhor do Bonfim, who has been syncretized with He leaves us with the powerful feeling that the gods do indeed descend to earth at Carnaval time, taking up residence in the bodies of their devotees.- ( Sparks, 72 )
Gil, Gilberto, and Jorge Ben. Filhos De Gandhi. YouTube, Nocturne5, 24 Dec. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7MHBZmdvis.
Safi, Michael. “Statue of ‘Racist’ Gandhi Removed from University of Ghana.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, December 14. 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/14/racist-gandhi-statue-removed-from-university-of-ghana.
Sparks, David Hatfield. Gilberto Gil: Praise Singer of the Gods. Afro-Hispanic Review, Vol. 11, No. 1/3, African-Brazilian Culture (1992), pp. 70-75
Pedreira, Tharcio. Personal Interview. 26 Sept. 2019.
Courtesy of Christian Cravo
Cravo, Christian. Filhos de Gandhy. ESTÚDIO APUENA, 2018.