If you’ve been to Santiniketan, you might have noticed how Santhal settlements are scattered around the town. There is a Santhal village located just across the main road from my own neighbourhood as well. Despite the proximity, however, my interactions with Santhals are not on equal ground: my landlady employs a Santhal maid and gardener and I speak to them when necessary. At the weekly market, I might admire the folk dancing and drumming and toss a few coins into the collection pot. And when it’s about to rain, I cycle through the Santhal village when taking the shortcut home.
Though my interactions are superficial, I find that living close to tribal villages does make you more aware of their issues. It is glaringly obvious, even to a passerby, that the majority of Santhals do not enjoy the same type of lifestyle as the Visva-Bharati staff and students. Their roads are not as well paved, there are no streetlights, and the houses are not as large or well endowed as that of the other residents of Santiniketan. Most of the departments do employ Santhals, though in custodial positions. Outside the Santhali department, I doubt if there is even a handful of Santhali faculty.
My uncomfortable realisations in Santiniketan were compounded while visiting Vizag earlier this month. I decided to take a day trip to Araku Valley, located about 110 kilometres from Visakhapatnam. The tour included a visit to Araku Tribal Museum and lunchtime tribal dance performances. I found the museum ‘essentialising’ and was disappointed at the lack of thought given to labelling and explaining different traditions and customs. Creating a life-size diorama might seem like the right aesthetic choice but is a poor way of handling cultural material.
If anything, these portrayals make us believe that tribal people are somehow trapped in the past, yet to find modernity. It would be useful to see contemporary photographs of tribal councils and festivals to give visitors more of a nuanced perspective and understanding of changing tribal lifestyles in India. I always like to think about who is creating these images—and what agency or agenda they might have. Creating an image of a timeless tribal might be good for encouraging more tourism in the area—but unfair in depicting the reality of life in Araku.
This type of presentation is not unique to Araku — even in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, anthropologically questionable dioramas dominate museum spaces devoted to tribal information.
One of my other key discomforts with the tour in Araku was how our tour guide spoke about tribes in the area. He made statements like “80% of families here are women-led households because the husbands are all alcoholics and are unable to provide for their families.” I looked around the bus and everyone seemed to buy the information—when I questioned my grandpa about it later, he didn’t seem to find it distressing the same way that I did. Alcoholism in tribal communities shouldn’t be treated as a vice but as a consequence of a larger problem—unemployment, mental health issues, etc.
Perhaps my unease with this dialogue stems from the fact that my homeland also has an ugly past and present with its native people. Back in Arizona, I grew up a few miles away from a reservation but there too, my personal interactions were few and far between. I realised—just last year—that Native American reservations often don’t have access to fresh food, steady electricity, or even indoor plumbing. It’s no stretch to claim that India’s tribal people have a similar plight to the Native Americans in the United States—few opportunities, minimal community infrastructure—painful relocation has been a reality for natives in both nations. While Native Americans were forced onto reservations, many tribes in India have lost their homes due to the buyouts by multinational companies and government-approved development initiatives.
Unfortunately, in both nations, these groups are marginalised, unable to join the mainstream conversation and stereotyped. If anything, they deserve our attention and support, not callous judgment.
In front of Kala Bhavan, the art department in Santiniketan, are two notable monumental sculptures by Ramkinkar Baij. “Mill Call” depicts two Santhal women and a child en route to work, while “Santhal Family” shows parents, children, and a dog-headed home from the market. Wonderful examples of modernism, the pieces are positive and powerful representations of the Santhal tribe. Realistic and majestic. The pieces give me hope, for how we can shape our conversations and policies to give tribals the respect and opportunities that they deserve.