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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 39 September 23, 2023

How Long Will the Soap Opera Over the Tribal Museum Continue ? | Amarendra Kishore

Saturday 23 September 2023, by Amarendra Kishore


Millions of indigenous people in the country will now see the beautiful representations of their traditions and cultural artifacts adorned in various museums across the country. At present, there are several such colorful museums. Recently, news appeared that many museums are being established throughout the country with the aim of familiarizing the new generation with the pride of tribal history and giving tourism a new boost in different tribal areas. These museums will preserve and promote the songs, music, handicrafts, and artistic skills of people with tribal identities. These selected regions in the country include Rajpipala in Gujarat, Lambasingi in Andhra Pradesh, Raipur in Chhattisgarh, Kozhikode in Kerala, Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, Hyderabad in Telangana, Tamenglong in Manipur, Kolasib in Mizoram, and Ponda in Goa, where museums are being constructed that will primarily showcase indigenous human remains and cultural heritage. The government wants to use these museums as a medium to nationalize the valor and patriotic deeds of tribal warriors who fought against the British and refused to bow down.

The question arises about the current condition of indigenous people throughout the country. How prosperous is democracy in the homeland of those brave warriors like Birsa Munda of Ulihatu in Jharkhand and Gunda Dhur of Nethanar in Chhattisgarh? In what circumstances are their descendants living today ? Additionally, an extremely significant fact is how sensitive the government is towards the ancestors of tribal combatants. It needs to be observed how well the birthplaces of these tribal warriors, their descendants, and their people are equipped to meet the real needs of life. The government’s concern for the indigenous people is commendable, but the question remains as to how inclusive it is in terms of their beliefs, sentiments, and aspirations when it comes to the implementation of hundreds of development programs, thousands of industrial projects, and their impact on tribal emotions and ideas. Is nature respected as a priority for the government? Are development projects related to progress, completeness, and prosperity deeply connected with the richness, strength, and intensity of their sentiments? To understand this, one must learn about the side effects of the 5,334 dams, 399 power plants operated by coal, gas, and nuclear power, more than 6,000 factories, and the tales of destruction in areas affected by 1,375 mines and the lives of their residents. These stories will help to understand how in these 75 years, nearly 2.25 crore original inhabitants of India have been displaced in the name of the country’s development, accomplishments, and prosperity. How their culture and way of life have been squeezed, marginalized, or completely destroyed. That’s why their vibrant culture, interesting lifestyle, and their lively spirit have got a place in museums.

Before connecting indigenous people with patriotism, nationalism, and the nation, the government needs to understand that indigenous communities did not fight against the British for the protection of the geographical boundaries of the Indian sub-continent to remove foreign rule. Their struggles were not driven by the desire for any heritage, property, or kingdom. Instead, the fight of these residents, who were disconnected from the mainstream in places like Kakori, Meerut, and Chauri Chaura, was aligned with the emotions of the national struggle, which aimed to preserve the integrity of their sacred land. The British had initiated encroachments in the forests, so the indigenous people wanted the forests to remain pure and the abundance of water resources to be sustained because the existence of tribal society is based on these three natural elements. After independence, indigenous people lost this national struggle against their own people.

It raises the concern whether the governments of the country have respected these three elements of nature i.e. Jal (water), Zameen (land), and Jangal (forest). Did the governance system, the enforcement of the law, and the perspective of the system reflect gratitude toward the essence and significance of national struggles? Furthermore, what is the primary objective of showcasing indigenous culture, tribal life, and their art in museums? Does any society, household, or region of indigenous India appear as beautiful as the image created by immersing the indigenous residents in the vibrant light filled with distinctive colors in the museums? On one hand, indigenous communities are being uprooted from their settlements due to harsh policies and oppressive rules, while on the other hand, the diverse art of museums captivates the enchanting decoration of tribal lifestyles in long corridors. It is significant from the perspective of museums that indigenous customs are based on mythical beliefs, hence their preservation and representation are crucial. These customs are rich with stories, symbols, and meanings of worship, sacrifice, spiritual energy, unseen powers, and extraordinary yet practical philosophy. Since tribal museums glorify the aesthetics of forest culture, they attempt to integrate the seemingly ordinary indigenous life into art forms to make it extraordinary.

It is claimed that through these museums, people get the opportunity to understand an unknown world. It is true that all the artworks in the museum are made by indigenous people, but does anyone try to understand the circumstances these artists and craftsmen face in the present days? Is the primary objective of museums to understand tribal lifestyles and bring them to the general public, or is it to generate revenue by exhibiting their artistic and cultural heritage as mere artifacts? Are these museums exploiting the fading art and culture of indigenous communities or preserving their traditions like a mummy (an old preserved corpse) in the name of museums and collecting money through tickets? Are these funds, worth millions, being misused in the name of making museums more beautiful, neglecting the name of culture itself?

It is true that there are employment programs in the name of tribal welfare, strict laws for security and dignity, and various ministries, commissions, and authorities to promote progress in the lives of indigenous communities. However, the harsh realities of tribal life emerge in various forms. The institutions that are the heritage of democracy do not seem to protect the unique musical instruments of the Gond tribe or safeguard the cultural traditions of the Bharewa and Ghadwa in Chhattisgarh. In the lives of those tribes, such as Bastar, Udaipur, Palamu, and Gumla, there are numerous customs, traditions, and beliefs, but constitutional and legal protections do not effectively exist there. If you don’t believe it, search for words related to the incidents, tragedies, and narratives of tribal society on internet search engines. This will help you understand the situation better. The story does not end here. The trade between tribal art and products is also progressing rapidly. It is necessary to question the government’s inaction in this regard.

The good news is that the non-tribal population of the country understands that the tribal society, referred to as "Adivasi," is still alive and supports the preservation of indigenous values. The cycle of emotions in that society, which is deeply rooted, has not yet come to an end. It would be better to keep the tribals away from exhibitions and showcases and not display replicas of the sacred places under the resplendent trees in Bhopal, Raipur, or elsewhere. Creating a museum is a significant achievement, but it is much more important to protect those villages whose identity is their indigenous values, thoughts, and style, which arouse curiosity around the world. In this country, there are hundreds of tribes with their own affairs, their own way of living, and traditions. They have their own religions, beliefs, faiths, and customs. They have totems and ritual practices. Some emphasize lineage, some have forest goddesses, and others have clan deities. There is a network of myths that shadows their thoughts, and if they are influenced by their ancestors in their daily lives, they also have experiences of spirits. Unfortunately, they have been neglected with great insensitivity.

Their languages have depth, their dances have meanings, they have folk traditions related to farming, and from grains and forest produce to hunting, they have a wealth of stories, proverbs, and riddles. There are interesting narratives of life, living symbols, and intriguing oral traditions. Most of these have disappeared. It was the government’s responsibility to protect and preserve all of these in the same land and environment where ancient civilizations have flourished for thousands of years. By formulating various policies for the conservation of these qualities, it was essential to establish museums in every tribal-dominated village, honoring and recognizing their indigenous heritage. The total cost of constructing a hydroelectric project could have been used to create dictionaries of all the languages of the country. The living tribal museums could have been established in five thousand tribal villages across the country.

But this is the era of spectacles. It is a time of showmanship and exploiters. They want to steal the applause by showing more and more. However, it must be understood that turning any caste or tribe into a spectacle is a severe blow to its identity, pushing them far away from their fundamental roots. When, with great indifference, tribals are moved from their land in the name of development and settled somewhere else, their true identity, their tribal consciousness, and their connection to their ancestral heritage based on the local environment are severed. That is why, a series of tribal museums is essential to preserve the treasure trove of tribal culture— an aged-long culture that might be extinct very soon.

(Author: Amarendra Kishore is a Delhi-based development journalist and expert on tribal issues of India and Southeast Asia)

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