Watching tribal dancing live and up close is a hugely different experience from watching it on telly. For the 40-strong Gudalur adivasi group, recently invited by the Central University of Jharkhand to the Tribal Cultural Festival in Ranchi, the face-to-face with similar groups from all over India was mind boggling. For over 25 years, Stan (my husband) and I have explained to our adivasi friends in Gudalur that although they are a tiny minority in south India, there are entire states which are completely adivasi. Most people from rural India know little about the rest of the country, since books and pictures are not a part of their lives. It’s difficult to imagine how isolated people are. Poverty does not permit travel. The school curriculum is basic – if you’ve gone to school all.
For example, 25 years ago, Stan took a group of adivasi people from Gudalur to Kozhikode, a nearby Kerala port. They had never seen the sea. They had never even seen a picture of the sea. They just stood and stared in disbelief. Then they tentatively touched the water with their toes. They gazed in awe, stock still, silent and immobile for over an hour, just drinking it all in with their eyes, taking in the roar of the sea, the sounds and smells of the salt, sand and spray. Later they said they could not eat. The experience filled their senses and there was no hunger.
Even for those of us who’ve watched tribal dances on telly, the experience of being at the Tribal Cultural festival, a few feet away from Naga people (from northeast India) performing the Hornbill dance, or younger Nagas doing the cockfight, was surreal. That’s India. We in the south have so little contact with the northeast; even the average educated, Indians are totally ignorant about the landscape, the people, customs and geography.
The Naga people were colourful in glorious reds. They were majestic, their movements mesmerizing. The older people had faces full of character and wisdom, like some ancient, archetypal paintings. When they started dancing there was a hushed silence, although the open-air audience comprised hundreds of spectators, including little children. There were Manipur and Arunachal people too, also from the northeast. And their dances had a different rhythm and beat from the adivasis of central India, who have much in common with the southern adivasis. Santhals, Hos, Mundas and Oraons: our Jharkhand hosts were out in full force. As were people from Orissa and Bengal.
For the Gudalur group we were with, it meant being able to understand finally, that they are part of an enormous ancient heritage spread all over India. As well as all over the world. For the first time, they could see with their own eyes that the word adivasi, first introduced to them by Stan 28 years ago, was real. Here were people speaking different languages, unintelligible to each other, yet with a commonality that was immediately apparent. For example, the people from the northeast are bordered by China and Myanmar and their physical features are more akin to these neighbours than to the central, western and southern adivasis. They look and sound totally alien from each other. Yet the people of Arunachal had the same way of cooking rice in bamboo stems or wrapped in leaves. There were hundreds of other shared customs between people, such as clans and oral histories. Anthropologists have written reams on the subject.
For us, the event was a phenomenal shot of adrenalin. An enormous boost to our cultural dialogue. The six teenagers in the group discussed whether they should start wearing adivasi clothes to school at least one day a week! There is loads to criticize in the way the festival was organized but that’s for another time.
There was an academic part to the festival too, criticized because of the dominance of non-adivasis. But for adivasis, seeing Dr Khathing, a northeastern tribal person, as Vice Chancellor was another plus. There’s no-one quite like that in the south. The Khathings, charming First Couple of the campus, were present throughout the dancing and even joined in – a rare couple in the staid, boring world of academia.
In the background loomed the sombre crisis of adivasis all over India being pushed to the brink, annihilated, as governments and mining companies usurp their land in the name of development. The stories are gut-wrenching. It was hard to put that fact out of my mind as the dance went on.
But that’s another story.