Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CRAFT: March 21, 1999
Vibrant tribal expressions
Nanditha C. Krishna
"All art," said Henry Moore, "has its roots in the primitive." The indigenous vision has a vitality unsurpassed by classical art. Tribal art attempts "to make the imaginable real," to bring myth and magic to the service of objects essential for survival.
Tribal crafts reflect the lives of their users, their food and its source, their rituals to propitiate unknown forces, which include their arts and crafts, music and dance. Most Indian tribals lived in remote forests, and, till recently, stayed away from the nearby agricultural villages. In the confrontation between food producers and food gatherers, the tribal gatherers were defeated and, often, mercilessly annihilated. This left them deeply distrustful of the developing world. They became insular, withdrew into small integrated groups independent of the outside world and, occasionally, had barter trade with each other, till the twentieth century. While some tribes graduated to slash-and-burn cultivation, most relied on fishing, hunting and cattle grazing for their food.
Magico-religious beliefs play a prominent role in their lives. All calamities, diseases and even death are attributed to malevolent spirits which are propitiated for protection and help. Thus religion plays a major role in their lives: it is expressed through art and put to use in their crafts. Tribal art is generally ritualistic, lacking a distinction between the artist and the art lover. It is enmeshed in the consciousness of the tribe and changes according to the developments in the tribe.
Tribal crafts are dependent on local plant ecology. Man has been using plants even before he domesticated animals in the Neolithic age. The relationship between aboriginal people and their surrounding flora is the subject of ethno botany. Their use of the plants serves to explain the survival of certain species and the disappearance of others. For example, the use of bamboo for making bows, arrows, vessels and dwellings undoubtedly contributed to the conservation of the bamboo grass. Implements such as the digging stick and bow and arrow, canoes and boats, dwelling houses - all important craft items - were dependent on plants and trees.
The other popular raw material used by tribals is mud: pottery, storage jars, images of deities, votive offerings, decorations and burial urns (including sarcophagii) and other objects are made of mud. Most important, tribal dwellings are made of mud. Creation myths from all over the world, including those of most tribal societies, repeat the basic tribal belief that man was made out of clay. Ritual offerings of terracotta are made at every stage of the hunt or harvest, birth, sickness or death. Interestingly, clay images are created not of the deity but as offerings to the deity. Terracotta is a catalyst which initiates man into the mysteries of metamorphosis. The images are an intrinsic part of a total ritualistic enactment of the rites of passage. Clay is a medium of healing, a substitute for offerings of human flesh. The relationship with the earth perpetuates the cycle of birth, death and regeneration.
What distinguishes tribal craft is the practicality which is integral to its creation. Whether it is a pot to carry water, a storage jar, a bow and arrow, a basket to carry goods or a votive offering, the object must have a role to play, a purpose integral to its creation and existence.
The shapes and forms of tribal crafts are, interestingly, derived from basketry, as are the decorations on pottery. Basketry is the most flexible of tribal crafts, being extremely varied with its origins impossible to trace. Basketry weaves also establish the state of development of the tribe.
Tribal crafts can be classified into certain classes:
The tribes of India have rich craft traditions which are as varied as the basketry of Arunachal Pradesh, metal casting of Madhya Pradesh, terracotta votive offerings and decorations of Gujarat, and so on. Describing the crafts of all the tribes of India would run into volumes, so we shall restrict ourselves here to some of the tribes of the Nilgiris.
Interestingly, although each tribe of the Nilgiris is fully integrated, there is a clear demarcation in their craft production, making them necessarily dependent on each other.
The Todas are the most fascinating and intriguing tribe of the Nilgiris. They are known for their barrel-roofed homes and conical-spired temple roofs made of intricately-woven grasses. The Toda women do an intricate embroidery on the surface of plain cotton material. Their embroidery consists of geometrical designs such as zig zag bands, triangles, squares and dots. The embroidered cloth is used as a shawl and is known as a putkuli. Todas also wear intricate silver jewellery.
Todas are experts at cane craft. The most notable is the multi-pronged churning stick used in their dairy-based culture. One end of a long cane is split into multiple prongs and covered with a bud-like structure. For use in their funeral rites, they fashion a cane twig into an abstract buffalo head as a substitute for the buffalo sacrifice.
The Todas love music and dance, but the Kotas are their musicians; and the manufacturers of musical equipment such as the hard drum, tambourine and brass cymbals resembling oboes, which are beaten with a stick, and pipes. Kotas are expert musicians and the only artisans in the Nilgiris. They are expert blacksmiths who make iron implements both for the household and as agricultural tools. They manufacture iron knives and bill hooks. They make ropes and umbrellas out of buffalo hide, jewellery such as anklets, rings and necklaces out of brass and necklaces out of glass beads and cowry shells.
Kotas are also skilled potters who use the wheel to produce clay vessels out of the locally available black clay to which they add white clay in equal proportion. Sometimes they glaze the end product to produce glazed pottery.
In comparison to the Kotas who are the crafts people of all the Nilgiris tribes and receive payment in kind, the others pale into insignificance.
The Irulas make and use the conch, drum, dwarf pipe (kwale), long flute (buhin) and nagasore in their dances for rain and a good harvest, blessings of god Rangaswamy. While they make glass bead necklaces and brass ear rings and anklets, their noteworthy craft is the plaited palm leaf straw ornaments used as necklaces and anklets.
The Paniyas have very few crafts, music or dance. They use the drum (thudi) and musical horn (cheemam) for rituals. They are the labour caste among the Nilgiri tribals. The Kurumbas and Mulla Kurumbas are hunter-gatherers also noted for their basketry. The Kattunayakan, another hunting tribe, are collectors of wild honey and wax.
With the exception of the Todas who are lacto-vegetarians, all the others are avid hunters. The common weapon is the bow, made of bent bamboo and rope, and arrow. Other implements include wooden ground-digging sticks and simple tools. The basketry items include the woven triangular head cover (as a shield from the rain), carry baskets with handles for collecting minor forest produce, and large baskets for storage.
The natural environment of the Nilgiris - the high hills with tropical forests, rich and varied wildlife, salubrious climate and rich produce - has, undoubtedly, affected the material culture deeply, from the technique of food gathering to house construction. The hilly terrain, heavy rain, cold winters and the constant fear of elephants and predators have kept their crafts simple, light and inconspicuous. Bamboo is the most important material, followed by clay, wood, palm leaf and metal, although the last is rare owing to the non-availability, till recently, of the raw material. Unlike tribals in other parts of India such as the north-east, internecine wars are rare, and even unknown. Each tribe has a role to play: the Todas are buffalo herders and supply the dairy products, the Kotas are the artisans and craftsmen, Irulas hunters, Paniyas labourers and so on.
The loss of their land and habitat to agriculture and tea estates, to immigrants from food-producing traditions, has seared the soul of the tribals and is threatening their crafts and their very existence. If the other tribes do not buy their pots but prefer the aluminium vessels gifted by the government, how will the Kotas survive? If people buy Aavin milk in preference to Toda milk what will the Todas do? It is sad to see Toda women wearing nylon saris, rather than their rich embroidery. In their zeal to "civilise" the "backward" tribals, government policies and private initiatives, both religious and social, are destroying tribal India. Decisions are made by urban dwellers who have lost their connections with the land. The juggernaut of progress is determinedly rolling over the ancient knowledge and culture of the tribal people, leaving them bewildered, traumatised and a prey to exploitation by modern evils. It is already difficult to see many of the tribal crafts of the Nilgiris. It would be sad if they were relegated to the anthropology sections of museums, along with Neolithic huts and excavated artefacts.
The greatest loss is the cultural diversity of India, the traditions of millennia. Ignorance and a lack of awareness are the chief culprits. In fifty years we have succeeded in destroying the indigenous culture of the tribals in the mistaken belief that we are transposing a "higher culture," something even the racially arrogant British refrained from doing. Are we going to respect and encourage tribal crafts, the beautiful embroidery of the Todas and the pottery of the Kotas? Or will they go the way of the Toda woman in the nylon sari and the Kota man cooking in an aluminium vessel?
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