The history of India’s Adivasis dates back to the pre-Aryan era. For ages they reigned over the Subcontinent’s hilly terrains. But over the centuries those with access to the written word (apart from other things) gained prominence over those whose traditions were rooted in the oral culture. During the colonial period, Adivasis were given the new designation of tribal, and in post independent India, they are known as the scheduled tribes. The essence of the tribe was interpreted as “a stage of evolution”, as opposed to a type of society. When education centres were opened, the syllabi focused on the socio-cultural roots of select communities, which deprived non-Adivasi children of knowledge of Adivasi culture and denied Adivasi children the pride of their heritage.

Scholars voiced their concern about this. The British anthropologist Verrier Elwin, who had lived with the Gonds for twenty years in the 1930s and ‘40s wrote in his book Tribal Art of Middle India: “Tribal India is to be filled with thousands of small schools – there is danger that they will be led to reject the old life and that they will be given in its place little idea of how to have rhythm and vitality, exuberance and delight.”

In 1987, J Swaminathan, the artist, writes in Perceiving Fingers (Bharat Bhawan, Bhopal), reflecting on Elwin’s foresight: “The situation, if anything, has not changed for the better. That such communities should be left alone to themselves doesn’t seem to be a viable proposition either. Their jungles no more belong to them, they can no more practice their traditional mode of cultivation in the name of conservation of forests (which are anyway being systematically destroyed for catering to “urban and development needs”) they cannot seek and hunt game any more and the inroads of the money economy are seemingly irreversible.”

Thousands of Adivasi youth have migrated to the cities in search of a livelihood and many are becoming disconnected from their tradition, while their children are cut off from their heritage. Some Adivasi communities have been able to keep their children rooted in their traditions and generate interest in others about their way of life. In this Website, we explore the rich cultural traditions of three such Adivasi communities as manifested through their art – the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh; the Bhils of Madhya Pradesh and the Bhils of the Udaipur region of Rajasthan.

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Indira Mukherjee