Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
ADIVASI : JULY 16, 2000
The author is President of the Samata Party.
The organising of Indian society has been among the most highly complex in the world and its intricacy and depth have contributed to its great endurance over two millions. A Hindu society divided into a hierarchy of castes and considering itself amenable to change and advancement but only within the compartments of caste, has found no spiritual conflict in living with tribal societies which have their own highly sophisticated social mechanisms while being considered simple and primitive. Many scholars believe that rigid Hindu society in fact had a subterranean need for the vitality, robustness and sensuality of the tribal cultures, and thus constantly reinvigorated itself with facets of these cultures.
V. Muthuraman/ Wilderfile
According to Richard Lannoy in The Speaking Tree, a study of Indian culture and society, "Every well-documented case of a great creative Indian personality abounds in evidence of such contacts with the non-rational culture of excluded peoples and classes". The major waves of ingress into India divide the tribal communities into the Veddids, similar to the Australian aboriginies, and the Paleamongoloid Astro-asiatics from the north-east. Some of them evolved group totemism which can still be seen in the Birhore tribe of the Chota Nagpur region of Bihar. The Mongoloids who spread further into Bihar and Orissa are the Mundas of today. The third were the Greco-Indians who spread across Gujarat, Rajasthan and Pakistan from Central Asia.
Wooden tribal mask, Bastar, M.P.
Caste Hindu society never consciously tried to assimilate tribal communities into their fold but in the process of economic, cultural and ecological change, tribals have attached themselves to caste groups in a peripheral manner and the process of de-tribalisation is a continuous one.
The most significant forum for interaction between tribals and caste Hindus has been at weekly village markets. Artisan castes have traditionally produced and marketed their wares at these haats and consequently moulded them to suit the tastes and needs of their local clientele. In Orissa, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh where the tribal population is considerable there are also a preponderance of village haats. In the north-east too there are large and small marketplaces where tribal women sell their handloom textiles, medicinal herbs, foodstuff and various types of forest produce. Handcrafts combs, mud pots, bamboo, baskets, musical instruments and wooden cooking implements are among the items that may be termed as tribal products.
While it may be stated that any hand-made item for decorative, ritualistic or utilitarian purpose within their cultures can be termed as tribal craft, it may not necessarily be true that all such items are made by the tribals themselves. In areas where the population is largely caste Hindu in composition, the crafts made for tribals are often actually fashioned by Scheduled Caste artisans and mistaken for tribal crafts in urban minds. What is interesting however, is that as in Orissa, many of the Hindu communities have absorbed the cultural practices of the tribals.
Courtesy: The Ford Foundation, New Delhi.
Festivals, wedding rituals, and other forms of social interaction follow all the tribal procedures. The articles they manufacture for tribal votive offerings at times of marriage, sickness, birth and death thus acquire a personalised meaning for the producer. While studying the lives and markets of such artisans it was found that in areas of missionary activity, where tribals were converting to Christianity and giving up the use of votive objects such as dhokra metal figurines, artisans were fast losing the clientele that sustained them and were having a seek markets for their products in larger cities through development agencies and government organisations. Age old cultural-economic links are thus breaking down as a result of social change. The process of industrialisation also replaces artisan products at village markets. Metal buttons, hair clips, combs and other forms of female fashion accessories among tribals are giving way to fluorescent plastic substitutes leaving the already impoverished Scheduled Caste artisan further deprived.
In Bihar many social work and development oriented organisations work among tribals to bring them a modicum of education, health and sanitary conditions. Among them the Birhore tribals have seen remarkable change in the past few years. Highly skilled in producing woven cloth for saris, lungis and scarves, grass baskets, hats and fans, they have been gradually brought out of their cave-like dwellings and have begun to discover the possibilities of using their skills to produce articles suited for urban needs. The Rathwas of Chota Udepur in Gujarat are another tribe discovering the urban world through their craft skills. They fashion semi-glazed pottery, the forms of which are highly aesthetic and sophisticated. Women use their leisure hours to make head necklaces and the men recently learned the more "settled" skill of wood carving to make distinctive statuettes.
Marie D'Souza/ Fotomedia
The most significant forms of creative expression of the Rathwas are their ritual wall paintings pertaining to the myths of creation and their deities, Babo Ind and Babo Pithoro. Mythological ideas of the Rathwas combining realism and symbolism, are depicted on walls in their homes and elaborate rituals are conducted in the process of their making and consecration. The Warli tribes of Thane in Maharashtra, the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh, the Rathwas of Gujarat all express an energetic assertion of adivasi cultural identity through their paintings at a time of socio-political change.
Outstanding innovators like Jivya Soma (Warli), Jangadh Singh Shyam (Gond) and Mansingh Rathwa (Chota Udepur) ared bringing their community art greater recognition and encouraging others to present their work to an urban and international audience. But today these paintings are also being done on cloth and paper and sold as tribal art, and when the paintings are further translated onto modern utility items they will, no doubt, enter the world of "tribal craft" as a rather sad transformation of myth and cosmos to market and commerce.
Almost all tribals (except in the north-east and Lakshadweep) characteristically adorn themselves with many silver, white metal or brass ornaments ranging from hair clips and combs to necklaces, shirt buttons, earrings, armlets, bangles, waist belts and anklets. Even men use ornamental shirt buttons and wear earrings and amulets. These items are generally made by settled Hindu and Muslim artisans and is applicable also to the nomadic communities of Jammu and Kashmir. The Gujjars and Bakarwals descend from the Greco Indians and are interrelated with the Gujjars of Gujarat and the tribes settled around Gujranwala in Pakistan. Their finely embroidered caps, mirrorwork embroideries (Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh) and distinctive freestyles consisting of innumerable tiny braids and ornamental hair clips have offered ideas for the designs of the "ethnic chic" style of urban fashion. Their embroidered blankets and quilts use geometric motifs common to Punjabi phulkaris, Iraqi rugs and Central Asia textiles.
Tribal communities are greatly fascinated by the comb. They are made of wood, bamboo, horn, metal, yarn wound onto wood, root fibre, gum or latex from trees. Patterns and designs vary according to communities. Not only are they used for setting the hair in place but as necklaces, gifts, sacred objects, magic rituals and as a form of communicating affection to a loved one. Tribes in Orissa who specialise in comb making are the Santhalis, Dharnas, Koyas, among others. Most tribes in Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland also make distinctive combs, while in Thana Mandi in Jammu a small oil container within the comb releases oil into the hair while combing.
Tribal textiles almost always demonstrate the identity of the community. Border designs and colours used for sarongs or shawls define the village of the tribe. Motifs in the north-east symbolise, mountains, streams, houses, snakes, birds or a temple. Specific colours are worn by designed priests on ritual occasions. There are ways of differentiating between a shawl woven by a hill tribe and a plains tribe and the chieftain's shawl is always distinct. Sometimes shawls are woven by one tribe and embroidered by women in another tribe, as among the Dongrias and Damas in Orissa. The use of the colours symbolise forest, fertility, unity and peace, gods and the sacrifices of animals.
Close knit communities like the tribals interweave their forms of cultural expression. Painting, wood carving, weaving, songs, festivals, birth, death, animals and forests are components of a cycle which metamorphose together to give their philosophy and understanding of the cosmos a holistic dimension. Artefacts such as cattle belts, buttermilk churns, spice grinders, blankets, jewellery, totems, garments and votive articles have the unmistakable imprint of community identification. It is only after these serve their basic purpose., whether ritualistic or utilitarian that they become crafts for the marketplace. A better understanding of their skills and offerings to the composite culture of India will help in preserving the true value of these crafted objects.
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