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My Mother Is Inspired By Birsa Munda To Protect Tribal Culture, And I’m Inspired By her

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Written by Leelavathi and Translated from Tamil by Nisha Felicita

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received in my life was from my mother on my 33rd birthday. It was a drawing of Birsa Munda, the legendary Adivasi freedom fighter and leader. My mother is a Malekudy tribal woman, and she wanted to celebrate and remember my birthday by drawing a picture of one of the most well-known figures of Adivasi resistance. 

The drawing of Birsa Munda my mother gifted me

My mother, Kaveramma, is an educator and has a deep desire to serve as a great official to our tribal community and the larger society. She was born in the village of Yavakapady in the foothills of Tadiandamol Hill, the highest peak in Kodagu district of Karnataka. She wanted me to be a good example and become a high ranking official who would help our community and do social work. 

After marriage, I am now able to raise and educate my children, who are now from the same village as my mother. When I was a child, I used to go home once a week while I was studying at Kakkabbe Ashram School from 1st to 4th grade. I shared whatever I learned in school with my father and mother, especially the poems. They still remember some of these and teach the same songs to my children, Darshan and Sadhana. 

My mother worked as a child, and she dreamed of ensuring a different and better life for her children. She wanted us to be educated and make something of themselves. She often helped my father with his work with the community.

My father was a social worker in Kodagu district. On the day of the 50th Indian Independence Day, he was recognized and awarded for his extensive social work in the district. My mother was overjoyed that day and the look on her face as she was greeted by the Deputy Commissioner while my father received the award was priceless!

My mother worked hard to keep the work my father started going. She mentored 14 women from the Adilakshmi Self Help Groups that my father had started. 

Songs About Tribal Life

While doing her work, she used to beautifully sing folk songs in the Kodava language, many of those songs are composed by her. She used to have us write down what she composed. The songs composed by my mother are about the lives of the tribal children, the relationships of the tribals with the forests and their work for the forest. Some songs were also about the effects of human activity on the forests.

Every single word in these songs encompasses layers of meaning and guidance for human beings on how to live in harmony with nature. She also used to perform the Kodava folk dance called Ummatat with her friends and also received an award for her dancing skills. 

My Mom’s Unforgettable Cooking

Apart from her dancing, singing and professional skills, my mother is also an excellent cook. Nobody in my family can cook like her. In fact, her cooking is so delicious that the owners and staff of the Taj Hotel in Madikeri (Coorg), who enjoyed the pork curry, kanile curry, kayi puli chutney and akki roti my mother cooked, once invited my mother as the Chief Guest for an event at Taj. 

Every year for a week, about 60 to 100 people were trained by my parents, and my mom cooked for the trainees, too and everyone enjoyed the tasty dishes she cooked. 

As a tribal woman, she enjoyed an independent life, knowing the importance of education, living life in balance with the environment- knowledge she also passed down to us.

Her Cardamom Plantation And Its Destruction

Prior to the passing of the Forest Rights Act 2006, the Forest Department cut down and destroyed 10 acres of cardamom planted by her mother. When we were still children, we used to visit and help out with work at the plantations. I too had started working in the same plantation with the hope of keeping it thriving. The plantation was surveyed under the Forest Rights Act. After getting permission for it, the then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah obtained the documents for their land. 

Both my parents were labourers, but they also knew the importance of education. They knew if they sent us to school, we would read, write, and accomplish what we had in mind. They also taught us to live comfortably and content with what we have in life and not be greedy for things that are not ours. 

A newspaper clipping featuring my mother

At the forefront during tribal rights protests

Along with my husband, my mother was at the forefront of every protest organized in and around Tadiandamol Hill. During those protests, they fought for 500 acres of tribal land that was encroached upon and occupied by the upper caste men, to go back to the tribals with the proper documents. These types of protests have been the highlight of her life, these protests are the ones that left an imprint of Birsa Munda in her mind.

This drawing of Birsa Munda that she gifted me reminded me of all her struggle and strength and inspired me to be strong, just like her. I am always learning from her how to be brave, courageous and work to protect tribals, our traditions and practices so that we can pass them onto the next generation. 

My mother is a strong tribal woman, and I hope to become more like her as I grow older.

This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.

About the author: Leelavathi belongs to the Malekudiya tribe of the Kodagu district of Karnataka. She has completed her Masters in Social Work (MSW) and is now actively working for the welfare of the Adivasis and tribals and their rights. She works with the Center for Justice and Peace in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu. She aims to promote Adivasi and tribal culture and traditional knowledge. 

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