Anyone who has had some meaningful interaction with India’s indigenous or adivasi people, cannot fail to be touched by the encounter. There is a directness in them, an absence of artifice or guile, an almost childlike innocence, born of simplicity combined with a lack of greed and avarice. The more interior and untouched a village, the more unsullied the people.
Unfortunately, this easily gets eroded when the outside world creeps in to contaminate them with its consumerist culture and worldly ways. Alcoholism, in every corner of the globe, has been the biggest factor in the downfall of indigenous people and in the decimation of their society. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe provided a perceptive insight into the disintegration of tribal society in Things Fall Apart.
For over 25 years, we, the team in the Gudalur Valley, Tamil Nadu, have worked with adivasis on issues of land alienation, dispossession, education and health. We saw the need for a focus on culture, but it constantly took a back seat as more pressing problems such as health and education headed the ‘to do’ list.
Adivasi elders have complained of the loss of old ways and values, as the young move into modern clothes and emulate both filmstar heroes and non-tribal neighbours. Traditional adivasi garb has almost disappeared from younger people’s wardrobe. Women have switched to saris or salwar-kameez. There is a battle for adivasi souls between RSS-Hindutva (or Hindu nationalist) groups and Pentecostal Christians. Conversions, Christianising or Sanskritising, further alienate them from their roots and culture.
Recently, there were discussions on whether the loss of tradition and culture is irreversible. Whether there is some hope of at least making kids aware of their heritage. A camp might do the trick, someone suggested. And so a series of children’s camps were organized to see what the kids might make of all these cultural questions. We were pleasantly surprised
The children trooped in,delighted to have a holiday. They enjoyed the tribal singing, dancing, food and company. But the turning point in every camp was the group discussion on adivasi and non-adivasi culture. The really surprising factor, considering the kids seem so non-adivasi now, speaking Tamil rather than their traditional languages, was that they had a strong awareness of their own culture and identity.
They recalled that in the past, all adivasis wore the same clothes, and had similar houses because theirs was an intrinsically egalitarian society. One gem came from a boy who wanted a serious discussion on whether it was good to wear traditional or modern clothes. He then stuck his chest out and proclaimed he wanted to point out ‘it’s important what is inside not outside’.
Unanimously and very vehemently, the children declared that ‘the adivasi way of life is better’.
Their reasons: we try to find work close to our houses and villages, but non-adivasis go far away for jobs and money. The poor things have to leave their families and villages. Then, Gopalan, an adivasi facilitator said: ‘our bridegrooms pay a token gift to the bride’s family because women are valued’. Discussions ensued, on how women are viewed in the non-tribal society and the burden on families with daughters. ‘Our marriages are different,’ the kids announced. Why, we asked. ‘We don’t have dowry (or burn brides). We don’t wish only for boys and sons. We love daughters equally. Our wedding ceremonies are carried out by our elders, not by outsider priests or pujaris’. Very few kids had heard of female infanticide or sex-selective abortion. On learning what this meant, there was utter shock and disbelief on their faces.
Unexpectedly, the kids also felt, ‘our gods are in our homes, our trees, our forests. They are always with us. But the neighbours must go to temples, churches or mosques. We are more dependent on nature for food. They go to shops more. We live as a community not as individuals. Sharing is part of our lives.
The highlight of the camp was the walk through the Madhuvana (honey) forest. Every single group, every single child picked wild mangoes and jackfruit to their heart’s content. Spontaneously, they collected a stone to take back as a memento, in keeping with tribal tradition that you should never leave a place empty handed. In a farewell ritual, each child stood with eyes closed around a lamp lit by child representatives. The elders reminded them of all the things they learnt at the camp and planned to do after the camp. The stone would be kept carefully to remind them of their commitment and determination to protect their adivasi identity.
We hope this is the beginning of a cultural revival.