New Internationalist

Jharkhand – an adivasi extravaganza

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.

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  1. #1 Stan 14 Nov 12

    For me, (Mari's husband) it was also a chance to meet up with old friends from the 70's who turned their backs on ’career paths’ and chose to take sides with the adivasis of India. Long before NGO's and international funding came on the scene. It was heartwarming to find everyone still dedicated to the ’cause’ more than 3 decades later, each in their own way.
    Xavier Dias and his friends from Birsa who met with the adivasis of Gudalur and shared stories of their struggles against mining and other corporations; Megnath with his lyrical and powerful documentaries of life among the adivasis; Stan Lourduswamy - one of the pioneers who has set up Bageecha a resource centre for adivasi people's movements...
    While the song and dance was rather orchestrated and therefore lost on authenticity it was a reminder that a society under tremendous pressure, fighting to survive can still fall back on their roots and find the spirit, strength and resolve to keep singing and dancing.
    The struggle to hang on to their identity and value systems will and must still go on...

  2. #2 Pushpanath 14 Nov 12

    Another excellent and indeed very provocative article.
    There has been more interaction and interface with young North Easterners coming down South- exceptional indeed and made possible because of economic opportunity.What are the contours of this encounter and engagement?.It is worth a look as I notice from my brief exchanges with the young people that it is not always negative.

  3. #3 Aloke Surin 14 Nov 12

    This reminds me of what a friend who attended a worldwide seminar on indigenous peoples a couple of years ago at the United Nations in New York told me: that the decline and decimation of native communities and people (tagged with various labels, depending on which part of the planet they live in) and their culture and way of life is a global phenomenon. Kind of sad but it would seem that the march of history is unstoppable.

  4. #4 priya thomas 14 Nov 12

    lovely reading-heartwarming to see the intermixing of the tribals of the different parts of the country-it is at times like this that you suddenly realise how diverse our country really is and how little we really know of it-we are in fact a little like the adivasi staring at the sea.a little eye opening article for us marie-very nice.

  5. #5 ludwig pesch 14 Nov 12

    Another example for lucid writing on the meetings of minds and cultures, like your preceeding blogs!
    The added value here is that you and Stan have lived with indigenous communities for a long time whereas any sympathetic visitor like me would (and should) question whether first impressions are wishful thinking. Yet from a few interactions with members of different communities, young and old, I know that we owe them more than respect, namely a willingness to learn from them as regards the primary values in relation to culture/nature long lost in urbanized, consumption and growth-obsessed society. (Trash, addictive substances, and media induced triviality seems its primary export to those who have little use for our ’lifestyle’ rather than sharing that which does indeed make a difference in times of need: informed choices that come with a modicum of education.) And like Tagore, we should hink in terms of a give and take on eye level while cherishing diversity. It makes such a difference by showing the wonder of it all.
    Romantic ideas? Far from it, just an affirmation of things we should have put into practice long ago and all over the world. Hats off to all capable of celebrating life in this manner, and thanks to you and others who find the right words to get the message across - looking forward to reading more!

  6. #6 Priyashri 15 Nov 12

    Thanks Mari...
    You're right, it did seem like a shot of adrenalin. And now looking back I have so many questions in my mind

    I realise that while I was there I was searching for signs of authenticity, looking for the 'original' adivasi, uncorrupted by the world. And what I found was exactly the opposite. I suppose my gaze was not different from that of colonial administrators or classical anthropologists. What did the tailored costumes, synchronized steps and pre recorded music do to the 'adivasi identity' ? Where do we locate tradition and culture in all this? And yet, would a festival like this have been possible without the glitz and glamour (not things one would associate with adivasi tradition)?

    I wonder if festivals like these create spaces where culture is constantly being made. Every representation of culture and tradition simultaneously redefines it. In the act of showing to others what we are, we end up showing to ourselves too.

    I have many many more questions....very exciting indeed....

  7. #7 Kabir Roy Chowdhury 15 Nov 12

    Dear Mari,

    Ludwig Pesch (Germany/Netherland), who met you in January this year, introduced me to you and your work. It touched a special chord in me, as I was born in Ranchi. Although I grew up in Varanasi, we spent many school/college summer-holidays in Ranchi. During those leisurely months, I came in close contact with local Munda and Oraon youths, and was even an ’honorary’ member of their soccer team against the local Bengalis, which included some of my cousins :-)

    Wish you success in your projects. Regards, -Kabir (India/Netherlands)

  8. #8 tariq 19 Nov 12

    My son Tariq, had a different take on it all......mari

    I definitely don't think the whole experience was as romantic as you're making it out to be. Especially not for the communities participating.

    There was absolutely no interaction between any groups and I surely don't think it gave them an idea of the enormous ancient Indian heritage. You should also ask the people from the group if they actually felt any of this apparent commonality. During the performances most of the people were bored and totally uninterested. Even the authenticity of the performances - the majority seemed like they were putting on an act for the completely non tribal big shots on stage.

  9. #9 tariq 19 Nov 12

    My son Tariq, had a different take on it all......mari

    Sorry to harp on about this but you'll didn't stay to watch the ridiculous evening fashion shows. They were mostly college students from other universities for whom this was some kind of fancy dress competition.(and I think this applied to most of the events). The audience in the evenings after u left, were mainly jharkhand university kids hooting and whistling to some trashy bollywood music.. can you imagine the panichis from Gudalur walking on the ramp with flashy lights and people whistling?!!thankfully we didn't participate after the group discussed it and said that we won't.(although many of the non paniya animators though it might be a good idea!! ). the few tribal groups who were in the audience didn't really know how to react and just sat there getting bored and waiting for it to get over so they could get dinner and go to bed.

    Another thing that really annoyed us was the way the staff and organisers were treating the participants. Especially the adivasi groups.. the university organises a festival every year and this year they just happened to choose 'tribals' as the theme. The festival didn't come together to make the people feel some solidarity among the groups but just to get their annual fest out of the way.. this was definitely the vibe that the organisers gave off..

  10. #10 elizabeth thomas williams 19 Nov 12

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. Your description of the whole festival was a real treat. Great job.


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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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