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How Women In Tribal India Form Living Bridges Between Their Traditions And The ‘Modern’ World

Posted: August 3, 2017

For women in tribal India, what is life like today? How are they retaining long-rooted traditions in a world that doesn’t seem to value them?

Tattoos are considered very ‘in’ today. The concept of live-in relationships is not appreciated in India barring a few cosmpolitan pockets. But do you know that these were part of ancient traditions among many tribal and rural groups in India?

Bringing to light this hidden world is an interesting new book.

Dr. Erach Bharucha is the Director of Environment Education and Research at Bharati Vidyapeeth University, Pune. He is a well-known wildlife photographer and nature conservationist. Following in the footsteps of Sumant Moolgaokar, the noted industrialist and photographer, Dr. Bharucha has documented their long-term research on the lives of tribal people in India through his book, Living Bridges. Through their photographs, the author paints a picture of how traditional practices and the organic knowledge of previously remote cultures, are slowly vanishing.

At the same time, what emerges is a picture of people from these cultures, including women, finding their own ways to retain elements of traditional knowledge.

Here I present some interesting nuggets from the book especially when it comes to women from tribal and previously unexplored parts of India. Some of these cultures have come into greater contact with ‘mainstream’ India only in the last few decades.

The wisdom of women

The narrative begins at the Stone Age when women were considered equal partners in hunting.

In many tribal cultures, women had a say in important family decisions as seen in the Gadaba tribes around the river Mahanadi. Along with bearing children and looking after them, women have an active role in farming, keeping the family together during migration and gathering resources for fuel and food.

In many communities, women enjoy their share of tobacco and alcoholic beverages which help them bear the cold, besides being an integral part of the community’s feasts and other celebrations.

Bison Horn Maria women at a community cel

Bison Horn Maria women at a community celebration

Food is one area where despite the arrival of rice and wheat thanks to the public distribution system, communities still prize traditional knowledge. The women of Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh featured in Living Bridges were proud of their knowledge of traditional food revealing how important the traditional feast was to them. The wonderful flavours came from the unusual ingredients obtained from the forest prepared traditionally with earthen pots and firewood. The millets and other local grains cultivated from their own farmland, fish from the nearby rivers, eggs from the poultry, meat from the livestock, fruits from the trees, roots and leaves from the forest had become part of their staple diet over time.

bhumij-woman

Women from tribes across India have left their stamp on history with their unique representation of fashion. Women in many communities were expert weavers of traditional costumes.

The ornaments were often made of heavy silver. Thick necklaces made of silver or other metal, strands of beads, conch shells or old coins and nose rings, anklets, armlets were common among women. Large earrings were used for stretching their earlobes, in some cases.

In the interiors of the eastern Himalayas, Apatani women sported a long blue tattoo from the forehead to the nose tip and used large nose plugs on both nostrils. The Bison Horn Maria women of Chattisgarh traditionally sport a red hairband and loom-woven short saris. The Bonda women of Odisha used iron neck beads and metal rings to cover their torso, while women of a few communities never covered their breasts after marriage.

The tattoos were culturally valued adornments and had traditional significance. The fabrics and paintings usually included motifs of either geometric patterns or leaves and flowers, birds, mangoes, trees, animals – all linked to their forest habitat.

Over the years, women in many communities have adapted to modern clothing like saris or salwar kameez. The traditional attire is now limited to special occasions and festivals. Youth are discouraged from facial tattooing and using ornaments harmful to health. The silver jewellery has been replaced with aluminium or artificial jewellery. Bodies covered by bead strings now have an all-purpose nightgown thrown over the beads!

Are women in tribal India better or worse off today?

Urban spread resulting in the receding of forests has changed the lives of women for both better and worse. Women who still rely on fuelwood now have to walk longer distances to gather resources. Though rural education schemes have been implemented, girls still have to go through lonely forest paths to reach their schools in villages nearby. On the other hand, women’s traditional medicinal knowledge such as using neem and turmeric are appropriated by us without rewarding them for the source.

The metal artworks of Bastar, the Warli art of Maharashtra, the widely popular Gond paintings of Central India, the Saora art from Odisha, the pashmina shawls of Kashmir, the embroidered handloom weave products or the bamboo mats and baskets from the North East have a huge demand in cities. Yet, skilled traditional workers are rarely paid their due credit.

As tribal and rural communities look for alternate ways of living to sustain themselves, there is a dire need to develop new ways to retain their traditional knowledge and cultures. If not, the diverse cultures and the traditional craftsmanship of ancient communities in India would soon disappear in the hubbub of modern life.

Get yourself a copy of Living Bridges, a beautiful introduction to a richly diverse world replete with rare detail and breath-taking images, it is a much-needed record of cultures and spaces that are already fading from memory and from land.

Supported by Harper Collins. All images provided by Harper Collins.

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