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From Performance to Literature and Cinema: Adivasi Art and Activism, with a Focus on Eastern India

Raphaël Rousseleau

Abstract

Activist art is a rather recent development within contemporary art, articulating reflections on artistic expression, art commodification, and political criticism. When it comes to Adivasi arts, however, one tends to think of dances or of Gond and Warli paintings of trees and animals. This article seeks to explore the confluence between Adivasi art and activism, while addressing what could be referred to as the “triple bond” of Adivasi artists. Contemporary Indian artists already face a sort of double bond in the sense that they tend to be recognized either as “contemporary artists” or as “Indian artists.” The position of Adivasi artists is further complicated (Rousseleau 2017) by the fact that they belong to an economically disadvantaged cultural minority within India (Scheduled Tribes). Inasmuch as they tend to be labeled according to their origins, Adivasi artists find themselves caught between stigma, an ascribed identity and their self-conception, thus facing three key issues: moral judgement, folklorization and appropriation, and identity conflicts. This article portrays the complex situation of contemporary Adivasi artists, drawing both on historic landmarks in developments in the way Adivasi arts—that is dancing and singing, theater, painting, literature, fiction and non-fiction films—are received, and on artists’ assertion of cultural and political identity.

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“Some philosophers say that Adivasi cannot speak… But, let them talk!”
(an Adivasi activist in Ranchi, Pyara Kerkheta Foundation, January 2021)

  • 1 By Adivasi, I mean peoples from central India who consider themselves the “first inhabitants” of th (...)
  • 2 This article was in the editing process when I came to know Alice Tilche’s Adivasi Art and Activism(...)

1Strictly speaking, activist art is a recent development within contemporary art, articulating reflections on artistic expression, art commodification and political criticism. A similar development can be discerned in Adivasi literature, which has recently become a growing area of study and is almost solely considered through the prism of literary criticism. Adivasi arts, by contrast, usually evoke images of circular dances or of Gond and Warli paintings of trees and animals, and tend to be studied by anthropologists of art.1 This article seeks to fill the gap between these perspectives, and to explore the confluence between Adivasi art and activism2. It also tries to address what could be referred to as the triple bond of Adivasi artists. Contemporary Indian artists already face a sort of double bond in the sense that they tend to be recognized either as “contemporary artists” or as “Indian.” The position of Adivasi artists is further complicated (Rousseleau 2017) by the fact that they belong to an economically disadvantaged cultural minority within India (Scheduled Tribes). Inasmuch as they tend to be labelled by their origins, Adivasi artists find themselves stuck some way between being stamped with a stigma, an ascribed identity, and their self-conception, thus facing three key issues: moral judgement, folklorization and appropriation, and identity conflicts. This article starts by outlining the historic landmarks in the recognition of Adivasi arts, as well as the artists’ assertion of their cultural and political identity. A fundamental change here concerns the status of dances and songs, which were considered to be of a “primitive tribal” nature by early ethnographers, before being stigmatized by missionaries and Hindu reformers, and later reclaimed as folklore or as forms of self-expression. Script and writing, on the other hand, were regarded as signs of “civilization” by colonial as well as by Indian agents. As this trend was particularly prominent in Jharkhand, I shall concentrate on this region, highlighting similarities and differences with other Adivasi-dominated areas in Gujarat, in India’s central belt.

2As literature has been considered the main field of expression in Adivasi art, my analysis initially focuses on performance, writing and theater, the latter having become popular with some Adivasi educationists and cultural activists as a way of integrating orality and writing. I then discuss the fact that Adivasi painting, during the same period, became recognized as “art.” Subsequently, I study documentaries and films, which have opened up new forms of expression in Adivasi art. My interest in the subject emerged from critical research on Kond and Sora art in Odisha, as well as in Gujarat and Jharkhand. The data for this study was collected through multi-sited ethnography, in Odisha, Gujarat (Tejgadh) and Jharkhand (Ranchi) between 2006 and 2021, and was completed by a literature review and personal research. In this article, I aim to transcend functionalist opposition between fixed “tradition” and changing “modernity” and to contribute to a dynamic understanding of Adivasi arts and activism in all their wealth and diversity.

1. The first Adivasi aesthetic expressions

  • 3 Post-functionalist anthropologists have shown that orality constantly actualizes “tradition” (See L (...)

3The first Adivasi aesthetic expressions take the form of poetry and narratives in the artists’ own language, embedded in songs, riddles, and sayings, the “art of public speaking” in ceremonial contexts (Carrin 2015), as well as domestic and ritual paintings or sculptures. I insist on the pragmatic aspect of performances because the “creation stories,” for example, are not so much recited as actualized in songs and retain old structures while including innovations and references to the present.3

  • 4 Xurux or Kurukh is the Dravidian language spoken by Oraon peoples living in Jharkhand, often in clo (...)

4In most Adivasi societies, two institutions played a central part in the transmission of this cultural heritage: the village center, which was used as a dance area (called akhara or sadar), and a communal house and dormitory for unmarried boys (dhumkuria in Xurux,4 giti-ora in Munda, dhangara/dhangari-basa in Oriya). The girls were usually housed separately. Here, young people learnt stories, songs, language games, dances and music in order to compete in choreographic and poetic jousts under the watchful eye of adults and ancestors. In this sense, authorship was collective, but individual mastery and creative talent in storytelling was priced at a local level (Hembrom 2022:1472; Jain 1998).

  • 5 See the Tarzan series relocated to India, more recently Raavan (dir. Mani Ratnam 2010, Reliance BIG (...)

5Urban Indian authors, however, have tended to depict peasant festivals as rude and Adivasi ancestors as impulsive and impure “forest dwellers” or “hunters” (sabara, nishada, bhila). In the Epics, the Laws of Manu and medieval court literature, they project the opposite of their own royal and Brahmanical ideals onto Adivasis. In the Mahabharata, for example, the hunter Ekalavya is rejected by Prince Arjuna for not belonging to a kshatriya lineage and for being a better archer than the latter. Alternative versions of such stories are being reclaimed today and told by Adivasi authors (see part 3). Unfortunately, such stereotypes still feature, however, in Hindi or regional movies.5 These elements of an ancient Indian courtly imaginary contributed to the negative reception of highland customs before colonial agents added a new layer of clichés.

2. From missionary and colonial clichés to state folklorization

  • 6 The Bhils are the largest Adivasi group (speaking an Indo-European language) which spread from Guja (...)
  • 7 “The Tribal Folk”, “speech delivered at the opening session of the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled A (...)

6From the mid-19th century onward, missionaries, colonial officers, and ethnographers began to recast Adivasi peoples according to evolutionist terms. The imposition of permanent zamindari rights and land taxes in the Indian hinterland provoked a series of rebellions against British colonial rule and against regional kings who, on the basis of this legislation, infringed on Adivasi territories: Paharia (1784), “Kol” (1831–32), then the Bhil, Kond, Gond, and Khasi wars, the “great tumult” of Santal or Hul/Ulgulan (1855–56), led by Sidhu and Kanhu, and finally the Birsa Munda movement (1894–1900).6 These events laid the foundations for an—albeit only later—emerging consciousness of a collective Adivasi condition of dispossession of autonomy and lands (Devalle 1992; Rycroft and Dasgupta 2011). Missionaries played a key part in this process inasmuch as their works, though steeped in the colonial prejudice of Western superiority, were fundamental to the recognition of Dravidian and Munda languages, as well as being amongst the first written collections of poetry and “mythologies” (P.O. Bodding on Santali literature, for instance). As R. Hembrom points out, however, such studies were only possible due to the rich preexisting tradition of language and poetry on which they focused, while the “Santal guides, teachers, collaborators, and helpers like Sagram Murmu and other contributors were all but relegated to the margins of history” (Hembrom 2022:1480). Bodding’s main helper, Sagram Murmu (1892) can be said to be the first Santal author (Carrin 2014), and Majhi Ramdas Tudu the first to publish in Santali (in Bengali script) in 1894 (Choksi 2014:51). Murmu selected certain tales, legends and historic memories to be written down in his own style (Anderson, Carrin and Soren 2011). On the basis of these sources, M. Carrin (2015) takes the memories of the Santal “great tumult” to mark a shift away from creation myths toward present-day narratives and as a turning point in the tradition (p. 251). Among the Indian ethnographers and social workers who supported the Adivasi cause, albeit within a reformist framework, were Sarat Chandra Roy in Chota Nagpur and Amritlal V. Thakkar among the Bhils (Dasgupta 2022; Tewari 2022). William Archer and Verrier Elwin followed in their footsteps and published Oraon, Santal, and Gond collections of songs and poetry respectively, which betray their view of “traditions” as being fixed. The 1920s also saw the emergence of Bengali romanticism in Indian art which, in the form of “primitivist” novels and paintings, idealized Santals as “natural” (Bhattacharya 1998; Mitter 2007). Adivasi dances were a central recurring theme in clichéd representations. Colonial agents and ethnographers, such as Edward T. Dalton (Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, Calcutta 1872), describe in positive terms scenes of girls moving in half-circles as they face boys playing drums, whilst simultaneously associating them with primitivity. Conversely, youth houses and dances came under fire from missionaries and Hindu reformists alike, who seemed to put Brahmanical purity on a par with Victorian puritanism. Nehru’s Adivasi politics shows the legacy of Elwin’s functionalism, as well as the influence of the Soviet approach to minorities, in the sense that it celebrates (cultural) diversity within a single (political) unity 7—as, for example, in the “folklorized” staging of Adivasi dances with feathers, bison horns and drums during Republic Day celebrations.

3. “We, the aborigines”: a brief history of Adivasi cultural and political activism

  • 8 “Memorandum submitted by the Chota Nagpur Improvement Society” (Unatti Samaj 1928) and “Deputation (...)

7It was the mission schools which—despite the missionaries’ initial intentions and despite their limitations—paved the way for the emergence and the growing self-assertion of an Adivasi elite in Chhotanagpur. The Chotanagpur Unnatti Samaj or Improvement Society was created in 1915 by Adivasi priests and students from the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church and were joined by Anglicans, and later by non-Christian Adivasis. By submitting a Memorandum expressing people’s common opinion, it seized the opportunity that presented itself in the form of the Indian Statutory Commission or Simon Commission in 1928, which was set up to investigate the effects of reforms. In this landmark text, the authors present themselves as “we, the aborigines,” whose “forefathers cleared the jungles” and whose right to prior to occupation had been denied by alien landlords recognized as Zamindars by the British administration. They called for the abolition of the zamindari system, for villages to be granted self-government and for the creation of a separate province. They also criticized the existing voting system and demanded the introduction of mandatory primary education in the local language, under the governance of an aboriginal board, as well as facilities for higher education. As such, their demands comprised economic, political, and cultural stakes (Prakash 2001:57–9), and their introductory address bore witness to a unitary consciousness ten years before the birth of the Adivasi Mahasabha.8

As representatives of the aborigines of Chota Nagpur …, we …ask for a more suitable and progressive Constitution which will afford us full scope to develop more rapidly on lines suited to the genius of our race and which will enable us to attain to the full height of our capabilities for political, social, economic and intellectual development. …

Since the early days of British rule we have been gradually reduced from the position of peasant proprietors holding villages in joint ownership to that of humble cultivators of gradually descending degree of subordinate status down to mere serfs on lands which our ancestors reclaimed and owned…

We aborigines, sir, can with equal or perhaps greater justice claim that as descendants of the earliest known owners of Indian soil and with more hoary traditions of sovereignty in the land, we too like the Muslims, who plead for a separate representation are entitled to as much or perhaps greater indulgence and an equal, if not a larger, share in the government of our own people.

8This declaration clearly contradicts the view of Christian authorities and members of the Simon Commission, who professed that aborigines were not “civilized” enough to decide for themselves. After the Civil Disobedience Movement, the British Parliament passed the 1935 Act of India, which introduced parliamentary government in India. In the Bihar Provincial Assembly elections in 1937, six seats were reserved for “tribal” representatives, but ended up being taken by Congressmen. Three Adivasis won nonetheless their cause independently. Ignace Beck, who was among the three claimants, concluded that the Congress majority would always dismiss Adivasi concerns as minor issues. He thus established a united front for the next election which, in May 1938, became a permanent body, the Adivasi Sabha (Beck 2002:12–19; Prakash 2001:96–99). The Sabha invited Jaipal Singh (born Pramod Pahan), a Munda educated at Oxford through the mission school and a former minister in Bikaner, to be their chairperson. Singh changed the organization’s name to Adivasi Mahasabha and presided over it until it became the Jharkhand Party in 1950, which finally merged with the Congress in 1963. During that time, the Adivasi Mahasabha established an “All India” platform which served to promote an Adivasi identity (Devalle 1992) as well as building up a “cultural memory” (Jan Assmann) drawing on personal and collective memories of a shared past.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Photo of the Founding members and leaders of the Adivasi sabha, 20th January 1939, in Singh [2004:105]

Copyright Jayant Jaipal Singh

  • 9 Santal dramas follow a Bengali and Oriya tradition of social and political theatre (see Ruud 2003).

9The discovery of the Indus civilization (1924) and its attribution to pre-Aryan populations by Sir John H. Marshall (1931) was an important catalyst for the growing self-assertion of the Adivasi people. The discovery was discussed by Dravidian-speaking and Munda authors (Ramaswamy 2001:122), amongst others, and several attempts have been made since then by Oraon/Xurux and Munda authors to relate Indus signs to their languages (e.g. Tirkey 2013). This debate, in conjunction with the language politics of the 1930s, informed successive “discoveries” of Adivasi scripts for Santali, Ho, Xurux, and others (Singh [1982] 2006). The existence of a script was considered evidence of “civilization” as well as of the capacity for self-representation (Rousseleau 2022). The Adivasis’ growing political engagement fueled and was in turn fueled by a drive towards education: Adivasi activists founded schools and wrote social novels and dramas as a way of spreading ideas among illiterate villagers (Carrin 2014:89; Choksi 2017:1535).9 The most prominent example of an Adivasi activist in the field of education is the Santal “Great guru” Ragunath Murmu, who had been an Industrial Institute instructor, but preferred to return to his native region to become a headmaster. There, he developed the Ol Chiki script around 1935–36, and wrote novels and plays in Santali. His plays Bindu Chandan (1942) and Kherwar Bir (1944) depict an idealized and reformed Santal past, represented as a communal Spartan Golden Age (Mahapatra 1982:150; Lotz 2007; Carrin 2014). In the early 1950s, he founded the Adivasi Socio-Educational and Cultural Association (ASECA, registered in 1964). Via a network of a growing number of local branches, it served to promote Adivasi literature and continued to run newspapers and magazines (Choksi 2017). In the 1960s, the journal Adivasi Patrika, for example, published stories by Alice Ekka (Alice Ekka ki Kahaniya, 2015 edited by Vandana Tete), who addressed women’s issues and questions of caste. Another cultural activist, Julius Tigga, a former Adivasi Mahasabha secretary, followed in Murmu’s footsteps and became headmaster of a Joint Adivasi School renamed Dhumkuria (from dormitory-school) in 1944. He integrated Xurux/Kurukh and Munda as languages of instruction into the modern curriculum, and established singing and dancing as means of knowledge transmission. The school became a center for literary activities (Kurukh Sahitya Samelan) but closed in 1957 due to a lack of funds. A. V. Thakkar, meanwhile, was instrumental in disseminating the term “Adivasi” from Jharkhand all the way to Gujarat, albeit only in reference to social reform.

4. The re-imaging of Adivasi dance and the convergence of the cultural and political movements

10The trajectory of developments outlined above paved the way for the Adivasi cultural awakening in the 1970s as well as for the political Jharkhand movement. Ram Dayal Munda (1939–2011), who had trained as an anthropologist with L.P. Vidyarthi and had then become a linguist in Chicago and professor of Indian literature, returned to India in 1980 to head a new Department of Tribal and Regional Languages at Ranchi University. A film documentary by Biju Toppo and Meghnath (Naachi se Baanchi) and the memoirs of Carol M. Babiracki bear witness to the significance of this era:

Students and faculty of the Department of Tribal & Regional Languages were not simply collecting and documenting village poetry, music and dance; they were self-consciously defining it, improving it, shaping it into literature, textbooks, and urban staged performances. (Babiracki 2001:49)

11Both Tigga and Munda reinstated the dance floor as the center of all activities. At the same time, village songs and dances were reframed in order to present Adivasi cultures to urban audiences (Babiracki 2001:44; Prévôt 2014). This process of “performing Adivasiness” has also been described in Gujarat (Tilche 2022: chapt. 7). Munda counters the prevailing negative view of Adivasi society by depicting it as a model for modern India:

… it is egalitarian and democratic with respect to politics and gender; it is communal, cooperative, and non-hierarchical; it values both intellectual and physical labor; its economics are collective and self-sufficient; … its literature and art are people-oriented; and its beliefs are naturalistic and environmentally sound. (talk to the Ranchi Rotary Club in 1981 paraphrased by Babiracki 2001:42).

  • 10 I would argue that this expression draws on Elwin’s functionalist view of tribal vital energy.

12In recognition of his achievements, Munda was made vice-chancellor in 1986, and became a leading personality in the Jharkhand Movement (Padma Shree 2010). Meanwhile, under B.P. Keshari and S. Bosu Mallick, the Department’s cultural activism became increasingly political with the help of as well as in critical discourse with regional Marxist leaders—which eventually led to the formation of the Jharkhand Council in 1995 (see Naachi se Baanchi). At the same time, the Adivasi identity issue also started to embrace a broader Jharkhandi cultural context. In 1993, Ram Dayal Munda thus reframed Vidyarthi’s phrase “the tribes who dance cannot die,”10 and coined the new Nagpuri/Sadan slogan “saved by dance” or “by dance, survive” (naci se baci) (Babiracki 2001). In keeping with the convergence of political activism in the region, tribalness came to be defined as “a set of positively charged qualities or values” that non-Adivasis could equally acquire, either via their upbringing in the region, or by choice (Babiracki 2001:47, 42).

  • 11 See for example R.D. Munda’s poem “The Pain of Development” (Vikas Ka Dard) (Yudhrat Aam Aadmi, 200 (...)

13Munda, meanwhile, had been engaged in the Indian Council of Indigenous & Tribal Peoples and, from 1987 onward, in the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples (WGIP, Karlsson 2006). In the 1990s, other tribal leaders founded the All India Coordinating Forum of Adivasi/Indigenous Peoples and the Asia Indigenous People’s Pact, as alternative Indian organizations to contribute to the UN debates. Despite other differences, all three organizations agreed on the demand for the implementation of international standards, on the basis that Indian Adivasi/tribes have the status of Indigenous People. R. D. Munda, though terminally ill by then, lived to see the creation of the State of Jharkhand (November 2000)—even if this was ultimately driven by corporate interests and led to further unregulated industrialization, environmental exploitation and Adivasi dispossession, so poignantly summarized in the slogan “jal, jangal, jamin” (rivers, forests, lands).11

5. Adivasi painters and the issue of art and craft patronage in India

  • 12 With less freedom in terms of their movements and time, women rarely get similar opportunities.
  • 13 Tilche (2022:17). Alice Tilche made a participative ethnography during the creation of Vaacha, Muse (...)
  • 14 Lingo is both a god and a civilizing hero, who freed the Gond gods who had been locked in a cave by (...)

14In independent India, arts and artists gained recognition through the patronage of national academies, museums, and awards. The first Adivasis to be recognized as artists by Indian institutions were the two painters Jivya Soma Mashe, of Warli origin, and Jangarh Singh Shyam, a Pardhan-Gond. They both developed their own styles, drawing on but also excelling in a tradition of domestic and ritual wall paintings, which were previously mostly produced by women.12 The former received the National Award of Craft Master as early as 1976. In the wake of their contributions to the exhibition Les magiciens de la terre at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989, both painters received recognition as post-modern artists, which was echoed by their celebration in India as “other master” painters (Jain 1998). Caught, as they were, between the expectations of their international patrons and their duty to their relatives, the two artists were not, however, engaged in activism. Art, in an Adivasi context, is not usually associated with “spontaneous community resistance”13; it is not clearly distinguished from craft (Rousseleau 2014) and is not considered a stable economic activity, but a “form of wage labor” and, as such, less desirable than a government job (Tilche 2022:17). The second generation of acclaimed Adivasi artists’ engagement is, for the most part, centered around the discourse on their identity in what has been called a process of ‘narrativization’ (Jain 1998; Hacker 2000). Jangarh’s nephew, Bajju Shyam (2004), published a book illustrating his residency in London in 2002, in which he compares his role as painter to that of storyteller bard whom the Pardhan had played among the Gonds. Another of Jangarh’s nephews, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, in Finding my way (2016), co-written with the activist Anand, refers to the Adivasi past, always with a view to the story of his life and in connection with social discrimination and environmental issues. When he mentions the Mahabharata, he paints a very positive picture of Ekalavya as an archer who cares for forest life. Many of his reflections revolve around Jangarh, whom he likens to the god Lingo in the way he opens up new paths for his people,14 as well as to Rembrandt for his ability to incorporate other artistic styles and to influence fellow artists. His work concludes with a self-portrait, which plays on the ambiguity of his references and identities: “Rembrandt in Jangarh kalam with a plumed crown, me in Rembrandt style having nicked his sabre.”

Figure 2

Figure 2

Venkat Raman Singh Shyam self-portrait. Courtesy S. Anand

6. A voice for themselves: the plurality of Adivasi literature

15In the wake of the rise of Dalit literature, the past few decades also saw the emergence of new literary categories, such as Adivasi and Tribal Literature, Adivasi and Dalit Literature (see the edited works of J. Misrahi-Barak and N. Thiara) or the intersectional category of Bahujan Literature, which was launched in 2013 by the editorial committee of Forward Press Group (with Janardan Gond) and comprises Dalit, Shudra/OBC, tribal and women authors. Notwithstanding the fact that establishing these categories has been conducive to a broader recognition of Adivasi literature, the inherent amalgamation of the authors’ perspectives and demands has not been to the liking of all Adivasi authors.

16The national conference on “Adivasi philosophy and contemporary Adivasi literature” (ādivāsī darśan aur samkālin ādivāsī sāhitya) in June 2014 in Ranchi was the first of its kind to bring together three generations of Adivasi writers from all over India (Consolaro 2018:148). The delegates approved the Manifesto of Ranchi, which states that Adivasi literature is rooted in a specific philosophy based on a sense of community, equality, and consensus. This philosophy draws on the work of R. D. Munda as well as on Marxist values: notably, an awareness of the legacy of the knowledge and artistic expressions handed down from ancestors, the commitment not to harm living beings, a rejection of the violence of the market economy and consumerist society, the refutation of the Brahmanical narrative, and resistance against the ideology of individualism at the heart of both feudalism and consumerism (Mīṇā 2017:100–102, quoted by Consolaro 2018). What this philosophy has in common with those of other indigenous movements around the globe is a holistic view of society and the cosmos, an understanding of the Earth as a mother to be protected, the rejection of any form of discrimination, as well as the celebration of the diversity of languages and cultures. In January 2020, a second edition of the conference, this time bearing the title “Tribal Philosophy/Ādivāsī Darśan,” brought together Adivasi as well as some non-Adivasi writers, philosophers and social scientists, mostly from Northeast and Central India. Organized by the Dr. Ram Dayal Munda Tribal Welfare Research Institute, Ranchi, and with the support of the Government of Jharkhand, the conference aimed to define and highlight the unifying principles of Adivasi philosophy in terms of epistemology, ethics, and politics. The large variety of contributions and debates showed the extent to which Adivasi writers now consider their own language and culture as a resource of which they claim ownership, or as a collective memory which they have the right to remember, as well as to forget.

Figure 3

Figure 3

The closing play of the conference, on Adivasi identity and ecology by a Ranchi-based theatre company (photo author)

  • 15 The Constitution of India distinguishes between tribes living in Central India (art. 244.1 and the (...)
  • 16 The best-known Adivasi writers in Maharashtra and Rajasthan are Vinayak Tukaram and Hariram Meena.

17In assessing the works of individual artists, we have to bear in mind that the situation regarding tribal languages in India varies considerably from one area to another (Xaxa 2008). In the Northeast, the dominant language within a region is usually a tribal one; the literacy rate tends to be high, and most people have a good command of English, and often of Assamese and Hindi. There has been an increase in the number of tribal and indigenous writers and poets in the Northeast-East today, who publish mainly in English. The focus of this study, however, is on Adivasi authors from India’s central belt15 where, by contrast, vernacular languages tend to be subordinate to the state’s respective dominant regional language. The Bhils and the Gonds/Koitors are the two largest tribal groups in India, but most of their authors write in the main regional languages: Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Telugu.16 As we will discuss only a few of these authors in the following section, I would like to recommend Akash Poyam (2021) for further details.

18The most famous Bhil activist and writer, Waharu Sonavane, was engaged in the Shramik Mukti Dal, the Adivasi Sahitya Movement and in the Adivasi Ekta Parishad. His works include Godhad (1987), as well as Marathi and Bhilodi poems which emphasize the role of nature and highlight the “uncorrupted” values of Adivasi society. Another of Sonavane’s poems, Stage, is famous for denouncing the absence of Adivasi representation in the leadership of the Narmada Bachao Andolan:

We didn’t go to the stage,
nor were we called.
With a wave of the hand
we were shown our place.

There we sat
and were congratulated,
and “they,” standing on the stage,
kept on telling us of our sorrows.
Our sorrows remained ours,
they never became theirs.

When we whispered our doubts
they perked their ears to listen,
and sighing,
tweaking our ears,
told us to shut up,
apologize; or else…

Waharu Sonavane, Stage (translated from Marathi by Bharat Patankar, Gail Omvedt, and Suhas Paranjape; Interview by Prachi Patankar, towardfreedom.org, 5 Oct. 2012)

19The fact that Adivasi activism dates back longer in Jharkhand than in other areas explains why Adivasi journals flourished there in particular, their current numbers reaching about a hundred and fifty (Gupta 2009). A growing number of Santals, the third largest group of Adivasis in India, write in their own language, even if at times they switch to Oriya, Bengali or Sadani/Nagpuri, a Bhojpuri dialect with Munda-Dravidian words (Choksi 2014).

20In the wake of the democratization of smartphones and access to digital technologies throughout the 2010s, Adivasi associations established their own websites and forums, and founded their own publishing houses, the most prominent of which are Adivaani, run by the Santal publisher Ruby Hembrom and Luis Gomez (Kolkata), and Adivasis Publications, run by Gladson Dungdung. A Human Rights activist and writer from the Kharia community, Dungdung wrote several books denouncing the “corporate grab” mentality and the oppression of Adivasis in Naxal areas (Whose Country is it anyway? 2013; Mission Saranda. A War for Natural Resources in India, 2015; Adivasis and their Forest, 2019). In addition to the established publishing houses, there is also a growing number of festivals (i.e., Peoples Literary Festival, Kolkata; National Tribal Festival, Attapadi, Kerala), platforms and forums, as well as online journals specializing in Adivasi literature, such as The Journal of Adivasi and Tribal Studies (ed. A.K. Sen); All India Tribal Literary Forum; Adivasi Resurgence platform (ed. Akash Poyam); The Johar Journal (ed. Ivy I. Hansdak); Indian Journal of Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action (2014); and the Tribal Intellectual Collective India (published by Adivaani). In the following, I shall focus on three authors from this vibrant scene and on the issues that they each address.

6.1. The folklorization and appropriation of culture in exchange for market goods: Nirmala Putul, Mahadev Toppo

  • 17 Nirmala Putul’s books have been translated into many languages, and have received many awards (Sahi (...)
  • 18 The Munda writer Anuj Lugun and the Kharia cultural activist Vandana take a similar stand in their (...)

21Adivasi authors tend to lend greater importance to identity questions than, for example, their Dalit colleagues, and therefore also to issues of “folklorization” and to the appropriation of Adivasi aesthetics by mainstream artists (Rousseleau 2014; Guillaume-Pey 2018). This is certainly true of Nirmala Putul and Mahadev Toppo. The former is the most famous Santali poet17 who writes in Hindi and is known for works such as Apne Ghar Ki Talash Mein (“In Search of One’s Own House,” 2004), Nagare Ki Tarah Bajti Shabd (“A Voice like the Thundering of Drums,” 2005) and Beghar Sapne (“Homeless Dreams,” 2014). His poem “Santhal Pargana” addresses the cliché surrounding the protected Santal area, founded in 1855, which is now but a repository of tribal tradition. Putul particularly regrets the lack of perspectives for younger generations, who have been alienated from their ancestral roots for the sake of a Western market economy.18

Santhal Parganas
Is not Santhal Parganas anymore!
Very few remain now
Who retain our language and clothing.

In this race towards the market,

And in the ever-expanding forest of concrete,
Their identities have been lost.

It’s transmuting its form;
Bow-arrow, drum, kettle-drum and pipe –
Everything is being collected for museums
And forced on time’s hearse.

For its betterment,
The organizations are sprouting like wild-grass;
These are the so-called social workers,
These are the officers, flatterers, contractors, middlemen

  • 19 Nirmala Putul, “Santhal Pargana”: Nagare Ke Tarah Bajte Shabd, 26–27. Translated from the Hindi by (...)

Feeble indeed is what is left
In Santhal Parganas;
Only their tales
Of what was their civilization!19

  • 20 He also co-edited an anthology of tribal poetry from Jharkhand (Kalam Ko Teer Hone Do, “Let the Arr (...)

22Another prominent voice airing this issue is that of Mahadev Toppo, an Oraon or Xurux/Khurukh author who published essays, short stories and poetry in Hindi.20 In his collection of poetry Jangal Pahad Ke Path (2017) or Lessons from Forest and Mountain (translated by S. K. Sonkar in 2020), he celebrates the Adivasis’ closeness to nature, in contrast to the “contemporary anthropocentric Indian value system.” However, it is in his satirical portrayal of the supposed “superiority” of mainstream Hindu society and of the appropriation of Adivasi knowledge and voices by Indian or foreign scholars that his work is particularly original.

6.2. On the morality and politics of dance and sexuality: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

23The Santal doctor Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar made a name for himself as an author who raises controversial and, in the context of Adivasi literature, novel issues. In The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (2014), for which he won the Muse India Young Writer Award in 2015, he thus discusses the difficulties faced by a rebel Santal woman, which include accusations of witchcraft on the part of her own people. The compilation The Adivasi will not Dance (2015) paints a more variegated picture of Santal people’s lives (Gomez 2019). The eponymous tale follows Mangal Murmu, a poor old man who refuses to dance at a government function when he learns that it is on the occasion of the foundation of a development project for which a Santal village has been displaced. The old man explains to the President of India (“Johar Rashtrapati-babu”), who arrived for the occasion, that Adivasis cannot dance to please the very people who destroy their land and their health:

You will now start building the power plant, but this plant will be the end of us all, the end of all the Adivasis. These men sitting beside you have told you that this power plant will change our fortunes, but these same men have forced us out of our homes and villages. … How can this power plant be good for us? And how can we Adivasis dance and be happy? Unless we are given back our homes and land, we will not sing and dance. P. 187

24Another story from the same volume, “November is the Month of Migrations,” describes the fate of a very poor Santal migration worker, who, waiting for a train to take her to work, ends up accepting food and money from a policeman in exchange for sex. The story certainly caused a stir and, as initial reactions saw it not so much as a denunciation of Adivasi living conditions as an offence to the dignity of Santal women, it even earned its author a short ban from the Jharkhand government in 2017. In a powerful statement to support Sowvendra Shekhar, Sanjay Srivastava, however, argues that the novelist’s “stories of Santhal lives are unsentimental renderings of quotidian struggles and aspirations, as opposed to representations of Disneyfied noble savages” (2017). Equally controversial, if not more so, is Sowvendra Shekhar’s story My Father’s Garden, in which he openly declares his homosexuality. Such works have earned him harsh criticism on the part of his fellow Santalis on the grounds that he paints an overly negative picture of rural Santal life, thus tarnishing the reputation of his own community. On the other hand, he has been acclaimed for paving the way for a more realist movement in Adivasi literature, in the manner almost of a “Santali Maupassant.”

6.3. Identity conflicts

  • 21 Particularly in the poem “A maduâ sprout on the grave,” Angor (2016:53–55).
  • 22 “The six-lane freeway of deceit,” Angor (2016:73–75.
  • 23 “Death of the mother tongue,” Lands of the Roots 2018.

25The Oraon/Kurukh writer Jacinta Kerketta was a freelance journalist and a Human Rights activist before she became known for her poetry. She writes in Hindi and English in order to reach a wider audience. In her articles, as well as in her poetry collections such as Embers (Angor, Adivaani 2016) and Lands of the roots (Jarom ki zamin, 2018), she draws attention to the political and environmental infractions taking place in the name of “development.” She denounces the exploitation of forests and land, the pollution of rivers, the deeply engrained poverty and despair of villagers who are being exploited for their votes and driven to suicide by “vulture” moneylenders.21 At the same time, she casts a critical eye on Adivasi society and, drawing on her mother’s experience (Consolaro 2018), highlights its adversity to feminist quests. In this vein, she mentions the backward gaze into an idealized past of “the good old days”, the danger of alcoholism among the male population, people’s lack of political awareness and their allegiance to football, the “opium” of the people,22 the dilemma of the young generation caught between village life and exciting yet deceptive city opportunities (see the poem below), and people’s abandoning their mother tongue, just as her own mother did “[f]or the sake of her children’s future.”23 In conclusion, Kerketta calls for resistance, in the footsteps of Birsa Munda as well as of Buddha and Fidel Castro (“Arrows of Sido-Kanhu and Fidel,” Land of the roots 2018). By virtue of her engagement and her literary prowess, Kerketta has become one of the most prominent Adivasi artists and activists today. Some of her work echoes that of Alpa Shah’s powerful rendition of the Nightmarch (Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas, The University of Chicago Press, 2019):

What happens
To that Adivasi boy
Leaving his village for the city?

How on reaching the city
He skillfully conceals
His ancient history up his sleeve
And quietly rolls up into a bundle
The ancestral legacy and heritage
That accompanied him from the village.

He has in the city now managed
To procure many a new borrowed things
Bought in instalments –
New language, attire, vernacular,
New ways of life and behaviour,
And a delusive sense of confidence
That gradually eats away
At the very roots of his existence.

Drained of all his energy
Repaying his loans in instalments
He heads back to his village,
Walking in unsteady steps.

His existence. By those bricks injured
Gives way on the soil of the village.
Fallen thus to the ground he beholds
For the first time his native land
And breathes in the earthy smell
Of the crops of pristine civilization
And is drenched in the dew of his existence.

He senses for the very first time
Energies erupt from prehistoric stones [erected for the dead in old Adivasi villages]
And cumulate in his very bones
For a brief moment,
And this time he shall rise
To reawaken, to revive.

“Reawakening,” Angor (2016:109–11).

7. Films and documentaries

  • 24 This film uses Sora painting style to denounce the shots fired (Guillaume-Pey 2018:161).
  • 25 The Niamgiri movement combines environmental and Kui/Kond committees with international NGOs: see F (...)
  • 26 A local political representative.

26In recent years, film has become increasingly popular as another medium for pro-Adivasi activists as well as for Adivasi artists. An early example is the film Hul Sengell: The Spirit of the Santal Revolution, directed by Daniel J. Rycroft, Joy Raj Tudu and D. Mardi (2005), which traces the present Adivasi plight back to the Santal Revolution of 1855. More recent police infractions, such as their firing at protestors against the mining of Adivasis’ and other peasants’ lands in Kashipur (2001) and Kalinga Nagar (2006), continue to spark outrage and to fuel a vast protest movement. The Oriya activist and filmmaker Surya Shankar Dash has been documenting people’s protests since 2004, in the animated short films Shot Dead for Development (2007, 1 min.)24 or Niyamgiri: The Mountain of Law (2008, 9:49 min.).25 In The Human Zoo (2010, 9:41 min.), Dash challenges the folkloristic staging of “primitive” Konds at the “tribal fair” (Adivasi mela) in Odisha (Rousseleau 2014). From 2009 onward, the filmmaker also began to instruct young Adivasis in basic camera work. In 2018, Dash attended the first Indigenous International Film Festival put on by indigenous filmmakers from Borneo and Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand in Bali, alongside the Dalit filmmaker Soumya Ranjan Mallik and Dinja Jakesika, a Kond woman sarpanch.26 Subsequently, in February 2019, Dash and his Video Republic collective staged India’s first International Indigenous Film Festival in Odisha, which was conceived as a platform for dialogue and resistance (Joshi 2019).

  • 27 G. Devy, M. Devi and L. Gaikwad founded the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT- (...)

27Another well-known name today in Adivasi film is Dakxinkumar Bajrange, of the Chhara community (belonging to the sub-category of DNT: Denotified and Nomadic Tribes) of Ahmedabad. Starting out as a playwright in Gujarat, he became known for the play Bhudan (2002) about Budhan Sabar, who was killed while in police custody in Bengal (Bajrange Chhara 2010). Encouraged by Ganesh Devy and Mahasweta Devi,27 Bajrange went on to found the Budhan Theatre Company (2004), in order to advocate for the rights of his community. He subsequently took up producing documentary films, and sometimes taught at the Tribal Academy in Tejgadh. His work is inspired by real events and often characterized by social theater aesthetics. Particularly noteworthy amongst his seventy or more films are Fight for Survival (2005), about the lives of snake charmers, and The Lost Water, (2007), about Agharya salt workers in the Kutch desert (Friedman 2011). On his website, Bajrange has also published short stories, addressing, for instance, the terrible condition of DNT communities during the Covid lockdown, as well as podcasts and full-length films (see budhanpodcast in the website list). In collaboration with the anthropologist Alice Tilche (University of Leicester, UK), Bajrange has realized film projects such as the very sensible Broken gods (2019). This film addresses the coexisting “dynamics of preservation and erasure” among Gujarat Adivasis towards their older forms of rituals (wall paintings, etc.) and their willing “reform” to a Hindu modernity represented by local gurus, despite the latters’ explicit denigration of Adivasi heritage (Tilche 2022: chapt. 4).

28In Jharkhand, meanwhile, Biju Toppo and Meghnath Bhattacharya have been making films together since 1995 and have won eleven film festival awards. Their work, activist documentaries published by the film production company Akhra, promotes political self-determination (Hamare Gaon me Hamara Raj, or “tribal self-rule”, 2000) and denounces the violent repression of local demonstrations against the industrialization of Adivasi areas (From Kalinga to Kashipur, 2004), as well as the oppression of supposedly Naxalite Adivasis (The Hunt, 2015).

29In recent years, an ever-increasing number of social media communities have been influential in Adivasi activism, such as the new online TV channel Tribal India TV. Noteworthy too are some non-Adivasi websites and NGOs whose contributions to the Adivasi cause have been significant: the Adivasi-Koordination, a German association (1993) promoting Adivasi Human rights; the Adivasi Art Trust, a London-based charity (2007, dir. Michael Yorke and Tara Douglas) which runs collaborative movie projects staging Adivasi myths and stories and which works mostly with young Northeastern tribal artists, but also with Gonds (among whom Venkat Raman Singh Shyam) and Odisha Adivasi groups (Guillaume-Pey 2018:162), and, last but not least, the Tribal Cultural Heritage in India Foundation (2008) with Ludwig Pesch and Elisabeth den Otter in the Netherlands as a streaming platform for Adivasi festivals and artists.

  • 28 Theater festivals still exist in eastern India, such as Under the Sal Tree organized by the Rabhas (...)
  • 29 A ‘contemporaneity’ which is more dynamic than Jagadish Viswanathan (Jangarh Singh Shyam’s mentor) (...)

30To conclude, I would like to emphasize, first of all, the fact that historical and ethnographic analyses alike show the importance of performance, centered on dancing and singing, in older forms of expression in Adivasi culture. Aimed at village audiences, performances had a close connection to the social fabric of the village and, thus, strong local undertones. The first outside perspectives, that is, the urban Indian and, later, the colonial gaze tended to stigmatize such customs as ‘jungly’ and ‘primitive’, if not indecent. By the same logic, original scripts, independent from dominant languages, and literacy as such played an important part at the beginning of the “aborigines/Adivasi” cultural movement which gave way to the Jharkhand Andolan. Social theater plays were instrumental during this period.28 It was R. D. Munda who eventually de-stigmatized dance by adapting it to an urban audience and redefining it as a form of vital self-expression of unified Jharkhand. This era also saw the rise to fame of Adivasi painters, even if they initially felt compelled to stick to an idealized and essentialized version of their art. Later, critical and self-assertive voices began to appear in commentaries on paintings (see Venkat Raman Singh Shyam). A look at contemporary Adivasi literature and at the work of several well-known writers highlights the three main issues they face today: folklorization and appropriation, moral judgement and identity conflicts. In recent years, documentaries, films and the internet have played an increasingly important role in and for Adivasi art and activism. The growing popularity of performance and film can be seen as a revival of a tradition of orality, albeit, this time, with a global audience. A central issue therein is the question of what the Adivasis themselves consider to be an integral part of their heritage, and what they would prefer to forget or to erase from their communal memory (Tilche 2022). In the sense that oral transmission is essentially the constant re-working, refreshing and updating of so-called tradition, Adivasi artists are no doubt “contemporary29” in their manifold interpretations of the heritage and experiences of their people.

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Bibliography

Selfies with Birsa Munda’s descendant, who was honored at the conference (photo author)

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Carrin, Marine. 2015. Le Parler des dieux. Le Discours rituel santal entre l’oral et l’écrit. Nanterre: Société d’ethnographie.

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Gomez, Luis A. 2019. “Men, Groves and Ailments in a Santal Writer… Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s Style is Proof of a New Voice in India.” National Herald India, February 17. Retrieved February 28, 2024 (https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/reviews-recommendations/men-groves-and-ailments-in-santal-writer-hansda-sowendra-sekhar).

Guillaume-Pey, Cécile. 2018. “From Ritual Images to Animated Movies: The Transformative Journey of the Sora Paintings (Central-Eastern India).” Pp. 142–69 in India and its Visual Cultures: Community, Class and Gender in a Symbolic Landscape, edited by U. Skoda, and B. Lettman. New Delhi: Sage.

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Rousseleau, Raphaël. 2014. “‘Tribal Artisans’ and Artists in Odisha: Between Craft Promotion, ‘Ethnic Tourism’ and Indian Primitivism.” Pp. 121–34 in The Politics of Ethnicity on the Margins of the State: janjati/Adivasis in India and Nepal, edited by M. Carrin, P. Kanungo and G. Toffin. CNRS-MSH, Paris: Centre de Sciences Humaines - Delhi: Indian Council of Social Research, Primus Books.

Rousseleau, Raphaël. 2017. “L’Art ‘tribal indien (adivasi)/vernaculaire contemporain’ à travers ses théoriciens: J. Jain, J. Swaminathan, A. Garimella.” Implications Philosophiques. Issue Arts et Pouvoir, Inde et Iran contemporain, edited by S. Taussig. Retrieved February 28, 2024 (https://www.implications-philosophiques.org/lart-tribal-indien/).

Rousseleau, Raphaël. 2020. “From Literature to Visual Arts: Verrier Elwin’s Collection and Definition of Adivasi Art.” Journal of Adivasi and Indigenous Studies X(2): 30–43. Special issue The Performative Power of Indian Tribal Art, edited by M. Carrin and L. Guzy.

Rousseleau, Raphaël. 2022. “Colonial in the Vernacular: The God Jagannath and His ‘Tribal’ Origins in the State of Odisha (India) through Historiography and Present Ethnography.” Politika, Passés futurs 11(2). Retrieved February 28, 2024 (https://www.politika.io/en/article/colonial-in-the-vernacular-the-god-jagannath-and-his-tribal-origins-in-the-state-of-odisha).

Ruud, A. E. 2003. Poetics of Village Politics: The Making of West Bengal’s Rural Communism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Singh, K. S, ed. [1982] 2006. Tribal Movements in India. Vol. 2. Delhi: Manohar.

Singh Shyam, Venkat Raman, and S. Anand. 2016. Finding My Way. New Delhi: Navayana (unpaginated).

Srivastava, Sanjay. 2017. “What the Ban on ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’ Tells Us about India’s Political Life.” The Hindustan Times, August 14.

Tilche, Alice. 2022. Adivasi Art and Activism: Curation in a Nationalist Age. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Tirkey, Mahli Livins. 2013. Tribal Origins and Culture (With Special Reference to Tribes of Chotanagpur). New Delhi: Bosco Society for Printing and Graphic Training.

Trivedi, Rajshree and Rupali Burke, eds. 2018. Contemporary Adivasi Writings in India: Shifting Paradigms. New Delhi: Notion Press.

Xaxa, Virginius. 2008. State, Society, and Tribes: Issues in Post-Colonial India. New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley, Pearson-Longman.

Selected films and websites:

Hul Sengel: The Spirit of the Santal Revolution, Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in collaboration with the University of Sussex, Santali with English subtitles, 2005, 46 min.

Mundari Shrishtikatha in Animation as Narrated by Dr. Ramdayal Munda (Creation of the Earth, Creation of Day and Night by Singbonga, the Supreme Deity), Tuhin Paul dir., Meghnath prod., Akhra with Tata Steel Foundation, Ranchi, no date, 8:37 min.

The Hunt. The Condition of Human Rights in Tribal Areas of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chattisghar, Biju Toppo dir., New. Delhi, Public Service Broadcasting Trust, 28 min.

Shot Dead for Development, in 60x60secs, 2008, Surya Shankar Dash dir., London, Moti Roti prod., 1 min. https://www.youtube.com/user/VideoRepublicTv

Niyamgiri: The Mountain of Law, 2008, 9:49 min.

The Human Zoo, 2010, 9:41 min. https://ifnotusthenwho.me/films/indigenous-culture-reduced-human-zoos/

Fly Ash Pollution in Kalinga Nagar, 2010, 7:38 min.

Budhan stories, films and podcasts: https://www.budhanpodcast.com/

Broken gods, 2019, 42 min. https://www.alicetilche.com/film/broken-gods

Adivasi-Koordination: https://www.adivasi-koordination.de/en/home-en/

Adivasi Art Trust: http://adivasiartstrust.org/

Adivasi Resurgence: https://adivasiresurgence.com/

The Johar Journal: https://joharjournal.org/

The Journal of Adivasi and Indigenous Studies: http://joais.in/

The Tribal Intellectual Collective India (TICI): http://www.ticijournals.org/

Tribal Cultural Heritage in India Foundation: https://indiantribalheritage.org/#gsc.tab=0

Tribal Design Forum: https://www.tribaldesignforum.com/

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Notes

1 By Adivasi, I mean peoples from central India who consider themselves the “first inhabitants” of the area (see § 3). Gond and Warli painters are the most famous Adivasi artists (see § 5). The Gonds are an important Adivasi group of central India (see below), while the Warlis live in Maharashtra.

2 This article was in the editing process when I came to know Alice Tilche’s Adivasi Art and Activism (2022) which is a long-term study of the changes in Adivasi art and curatorial choices in Gujarat. I have included a few comparative references but could not fully do justice to this major work.

3 Post-functionalist anthropologists have shown that orality constantly actualizes “tradition” (See Lutgendorf 1991; Babiracki 2001).

4 Xurux or Kurukh is the Dravidian language spoken by Oraon peoples living in Jharkhand, often in close proximity to Munda as well as to Ho and Kharia smaller Adivasi communities.

5 See the Tarzan series relocated to India, more recently Raavan (dir. Mani Ratnam 2010, Reliance BIG Pictures, 131 min., whose demon is “Veer Munda”), Baahubali (dir. S. S. Rajamouli 2015, and 2017; Arkha Media Works, 158min.; Hindi version : Kumar and Sharma 2022) or the B-movie MSG 2 The Messenger (co-dir. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a convicted “saint,” and Jeetu Arora 2015, Akikat Entertainment, 191min.) still depicting Adivasis as savages who should be improved by urban Hindus (Manu 2015).

6 The Bhils are the largest Adivasi group (speaking an Indo-European language) which spread from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh; the Gonds or Koitors (speaking a Dravidian language) are the second group, which spread from Gujarat to Telangana; and the Santals are the third community (speaking a Mundari language), in an area that stretches from Odisha to Assam. The Konds or Kuis/Kuvis are Dravidian-speaking groups living in Odisha, while the Mundas are a Mundari-language-speaking group living in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Bengal. All the wars mentioned in the text were movements that tried to counter any infringement on their local sovereignty, as well as to regain their former lands. Among the leaders of these movements, Birsa Munda remains the emblem of Adivasi resistance.

7 “The Tribal Folk”, “speech delivered at the opening session of the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Areas Conference held in New Delhi in June 1952,” The Adivasis, The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt of India, New Delhi 1960 [1955]: 1–7. Due to its role in the administration of Scheduled Tribes (see Benbabaali [2008, 2013] for example), Indian anthropology still favors functionalist monographies.

8 “Memorandum submitted by the Chota Nagpur Improvement Society” (Unatti Samaj 1928) and “Deputation on the Backward Tracts (continued) together with Deputation from the Chota Nagpur Improvement Society,” Indian Statutory Commission, vol. 16, Selections from Memoranda and oral evidence by Non-Officials, London, His Majesty Stationery Office, 1930, part 1:446–7 (435–8; 446–455).

9 Santal dramas follow a Bengali and Oriya tradition of social and political theatre (see Ruud 2003).

10 I would argue that this expression draws on Elwin’s functionalist view of tribal vital energy.

11 See for example R.D. Munda’s poem “The Pain of Development” (Vikas Ka Dard) (Yudhrat Aam Aadmi, 2001, 62, translated from the Hindi by Mridula Rashmi Kindo in The Johar Journal, 1, July–Dec 2020.

12 With less freedom in terms of their movements and time, women rarely get similar opportunities.

13 Tilche (2022:17). Alice Tilche made a participative ethnography during the creation of Vaacha, Museum of Voice, by and for Adivasi peoples, which is associated with the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh (1999) and where journals in Bhil, Rathwa, Chowdri languages are edited. Both institutions were created by Ganesh Devy, former professor of English literature and founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre (Vadodara 1996). Devy further organized the Chotro conferences dedicated to post-colonial literature and “orature,” which both influenced local curators and contributed to the reification of Adivasiness (Tilche 2022: chapt. 7).

14 Lingo is both a god and a civilizing hero, who freed the Gond gods who had been locked in a cave by Shiva, depicted as a high-caste god.

15 The Constitution of India distinguishes between tribes living in Central India (art. 244.1 and the 5th Schedule) and in Northeast India (art. 244.2, 275.1, 371G and the 6th Schedule). In short, the dominant tribes of the north-eastern States enjoy much greater autonomy in political and educational choices (and often better access to English literacy through old missionary schools), than tribes of the central States, who only appear as linguistic and cultural “minorities” compared to regionally dominant languages and Hindu cultures.

16 The best-known Adivasi writers in Maharashtra and Rajasthan are Vinayak Tukaram and Hariram Meena.

17 Nirmala Putul’s books have been translated into many languages, and have received many awards (Sahitya Samaan 2001, Bharat Adivasi Samaan 2006, Vinoba Bhave Samaan 2006).

18 The Munda writer Anuj Lugun and the Kharia cultural activist Vandana take a similar stand in their writings (see Poyam 2021).

19 Nirmala Putul, “Santhal Pargana”: Nagare Ke Tarah Bajte Shabd, 26–27. Translated from the Hindi by Vasundhara Gautam; The Johar Journal, 1, July–Dec. 2020.

20 He also co-edited an anthology of tribal poetry from Jharkhand (Kalam Ko Teer Hone Do, “Let the Arrow Become the Pen,” 2015), a collection of his articles on the Adivasi worldview (Sabhyon ke Beech Adivasi, 2020), and received several awards (Jharkhand Indigenous People’s Forum, 2016; the All India Kurukh Literary Society, 2017).

21 Particularly in the poem “A maduâ sprout on the grave,” Angor (2016:53–55).

22 “The six-lane freeway of deceit,” Angor (2016:73–75.

23 “Death of the mother tongue,” Lands of the Roots 2018.

24 This film uses Sora painting style to denounce the shots fired (Guillaume-Pey 2018:161).

25 The Niamgiri movement combines environmental and Kui/Kond committees with international NGOs: see Felix Padel and Samarendra Das, Out of this Earth (New Delhi, Black Swan 2010).

26 A local political representative.

27 G. Devy, M. Devi and L. Gaikwad founded the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG, 1998). Mahasweta Devi (1926–2016) denounced the injustice done to the Lodha and Sabar “denotified” or ex-colonial “Criminal Tribes,” in articles and Bengali novels such as Aranyer Adhikar, 1975; Chotti Munda & His Arrow (translated and introduced by G. Chakravorty Spivak, 2002 [1980]).

28 Theater festivals still exist in eastern India, such as Under the Sal Tree organized by the Rabhas of border areas in Bengal and Assam (director: Sukracharjya).

29 A ‘contemporaneity’ which is more dynamic than Jagadish Viswanathan (Jangarh Singh Shyam’s mentor) supposed in his definition of Adivasi vision of time as circular (Rousseleau 2017).

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption Photo of the Founding members and leaders of the Adivasi sabha, 20th January 1939, in Singh [2004:105]
Credits Copyright Jayant Jaipal Singh
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9010/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 253k
Title Figure 2
Caption Venkat Raman Singh Shyam self-portrait. Courtesy S. Anand
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9010/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 328k
Title Figure 3
Caption The closing play of the conference, on Adivasi identity and ecology by a Ranchi-based theatre company (photo author)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9010/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 449k
Title Figure 4
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9010/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 247k
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References

Electronic reference

Raphaël Rousseleau, From Performance to Literature and Cinema: Adivasi Art and Activism, with a Focus on Eastern IndiaSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 31 December 2023, connection on 19 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/9010; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/11vws

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About the author

Raphaël Rousseleau

Prof. Anthropology, Université de Lausanne, IHAR – FTSR, SwitzerlandAssociate CESAH, Paris

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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