Tribal World In Transition: A Study On Odishan Tribes

Paramananda Patel

Dance and Song Changing Adibasi
Painting Transition in the form of Imitation
Craftmanship Impact of Education and Modern Society
Housing Inbuilt changes in the performing art
Tribal origin of popular dances Conclusion 


    The tribal life and culture in Odisha is not world apart, it is an integral part of its general life and culture of the non - tribal world. It has influenced and is also influenced by the non - tribal i.e. modern world in more ways than one. Each has shared to an extent in the life style and celebrations of the others.

    The “Cultural Stability” of India, is a product of exchange & amalgamation of cultural manifestations. The Cultural varieties and distinctiveness, though each emanate exotic colour, yet ensure the formation of a rainbow. This rainbow is considered as the accepted cultural pluralism of our ancient country.

    The classical Indianness of glorious past is reflected in the cult & institution of Lord Jagannath, which stands now as a milestone of Odishan chapter of cultural stabilization out of tribal and non-tribal cultural exchange.

    Odisha is unique in the country for the splendor and bounties of nature coupled with panorama of rich Social life and glorious achievements of its people in art and architecture. Apart from it, the tribal people of the State are the most fascinating lot that attracts the world most. The sixty-two tribal communities that inhabit the state are widely different from one another in terms of their demography, house pattern, dress and ornaments, economic life, social organisation, religious practices, plastic, performing arts and traditional crafts, language and degree of acculturation.

    On the one end of the folk - urban spectrum, there are hunting and food gathering Birhors, Bondas & Hill-Kharias, Swidden, cultivators like Juangs, Lanjia Saora and Kutia Kondhs, and at the other end, there are Gonds, Santals, Oraons, and Mundas who have taken to settled cultivation in the plains, and industrial work in the mining and industrial belts. In between these two extremes are found many tribal groups who are horticulturists and artisans.

Dance and Song

    Some of the primitive sections of the tribal groups are the most colourful ones, and have a fairly high level of performing and plastic arts, songs and dances that punctuate their industrious social life. To them dances and songs are part of their life and sources of enjoyment and relaxation. There is a saying “Senge susun Kajige Durang”, which means what they talk is song and the way they walk is dance. Different folk musical instruments are used in accompaniment of singing and dancing for different occasions such as birth, death, marriage, name giving, attainment of puberty by a girl, sowing of seeds, harvesting, wearing new flowers and eating new crops and fruits, hunting, curing illness, thanks giving to dead ancestors and unseen spirits.

    As in the case of performing arts each tribes has its own plastic arts and traditional crafts distinctly produced to meet its own cultural and religious needs.



    Saora icon making is related primarily to mallers of disease and sickness, epidemics, childbirth and death. There are two distinct stages in the making of this art. In the first stage, the ritual divination by the Priest leads to the identification of the spirit that has caused a disease or death, which needs to be propitiated. Secondly, instead of an attempt to ward off the evil or malevolent spirit here the spirit is brought into the installed painting arch and imprisoned in a ritualistic way on one-dimensional temple in the icon. But due to influence of Christianity most of the Saoras have forgotten the designs and motifs. But currently, the converted Saora as well as non - Saora Communities are into developing such paintings for commercial purposes. Basically non - tribal people adopt idital paintings in a different way, because of its commercial value. These are in shape of greeting cards, screens, decorated wall design etc. The idital paintings depicted around the avenue walls of Bhubaneswar by non-tribal artisans are another example of its kind.

wall painting

    Like Saora, Santal, Dongria Kondh, Juang, Gadaba have their own style of painting. The Santals decorate their houses very colourfully without any ritual bias. The Dongrias, the Juangs, the Gonds and the Bhumiyas also decorate their walls in various ways.


    Their artistic impulse is evident in several articles of daily use, which they make or fabricate. A tobacco container of Kutia kondh, the wine container of the Lanjia Saora, the comb of Juang and Kutia kondh are objects of ritual, used as subjects of fine art. It shows that in tribal societies there is no distinction between art and craft, between an activity that is done during leisure time and another activity, which is of the normal working day. Art, here is no monopoly of specialists. On the other hand it is the concern of every person and very much a product of social and family requirement. Whether the carved doors of the Kondhs with traditional figures and images, or the Juang combs made of bamboo etched superbly with various designs, whether it is textiles of the Dongria kondhs and the Bondos woven in handlooms, whether it is the tobacco pouch or the painting on grain baskets during the kedu festival of the Kondhs - all these show unmistakable sign of a highly developed impulse to adorn, to decorate and to beautify.


    The tribal people show no less creative urge and talents, ingenuity and craftsmanship in domestic and other functional architecture. The intimate linkage between the house and the life style of a family, which is not often met within urban housing projects, is very clear in tribal housing. In a tribal society a house is not merely an enclosed space in which a man lives, it is a sanctified stadium in which various facet of man’s attitude, his hopes and aspirations, frustrations and angers find symbolic expression. It is the space in which numerous rituals and cultural practices are performed.


Tribal origin of popular dances

    It is observed that the popular Chhow dance, which is a part of martial royal tradition, has its basic rhythms, movements and gestures shaped by some ingredients of the local folk tribal dance forms. The orchestra and movement of the Chhow comprise strains and influence of Santal -Ho Musical Pattern as well as Dantha Dance Patterns with their far-reaching influences. The Sambalpuri Folk Dances has also same tribal origin. These examples can be multiplied and all these show how in the work, ways and thoughts in society and religion, in ritual and culture, in plastic and performing arts, the tribal world in Odisha has stood in close proximity to the neighbouring non - tribal world, each acting on the other, learning from the other and thereby enriching both the parties.

    The tribal life and culture in Odisha is not world apart, it is an integral part of its general life and culture of the non - tribal world. It has influenced and is also influenced by the non - tribal i.e. modern world in more ways than one. Each has shared to an extent in the life style and celebrations of the others.

Changing Adibasi

    The word Adibasi is losing its significance. In the tribal cultural heritage, change is inevitable. We find a lot of changes in economic, social and communication system. As a result, the Adibasi who was once leading the life of a closed and compact social group, is gradually undergoing transformation. The new economic system imposed for their upliftment has opened the awareness of open thought. This tribal society is generally tradition bound and tribal economy is also more or less guided and influenced by their tradition, this is why their world views or thought process is different from the open minded thought of modern society. Since their life as well as society is rooted in tradition it is not so easy on their part to accept the new ideas, modern technology used for their development and upliftment.

    But, now-a-days, we also find psychological changes among tribal people in Orissa. Commodification of culture is gradually gaining ground in their society due to improvement in communication network and other technological development. As a result, it has its impact on their socio-cultural system. It leads to the process of change in mind and thought breaking the age-old traditional system and the worldview of the tribals.

Sabha (Meeting place)


    In the present paper, I do not want to take the shelter of any theory or model to justify or prove my point of view. Here, I primarily depend on my own experience, which I have gathered during my involvement in tribal areas for quite sometime from which emerges the extent of impact of modernity on tribal society.

Transition in the form of Imitation:

    Tribal’s are becoming economically sound and in them is visible the growing individualism. This is an important cause to expedite transition in tribal society. In this context, mention may be made of an incident. I had been to Rayagada district in connection with study of language among the Dongria kondhs. Micro - Project working for them has taken special care and efforts for plantation of Pine Apple, Orange, Banana, Jackfruit, Mango etc. in these areas with a view to improve their economic conditions. It is also reflected and evident from the wristwatch on their right hand and transistor on their left shoulder. Video culture had already penetrated into their villages. This was a new means of entertainment. It has attracted the young generation in particular. This has tremendous impact on their traditional institutions and mode of recreation like songs, dances etc. I was surprised to note cassettes of film songs and imitation of dances in filmy styles dominating their traditional institutions. 


    On one market day I was wandering in Chatikona the head quarters of Micro-project. I was surprised to see a new but interesting incident. The young ladies of Dongria community were standing in queue in front of an astrologer. The parrot was bringing up the card and the man / astrologer was telling them their future and destiny. Dongria kondhs who believe in their own physical ability, who have the capability to change the earth are now under the influence of Hindu fortuneteller. It is a burning incident to prove to what extent our value system has influenced their mind and heart. It is an interesting observation to note here that their social / group life has become more complex and self-centered. 

Impact of Education and Modern Society:

    The tribes of North-Western Odisha were educationally conscious prior to independence. This may be the result of Christian missionary authorities that the tribals of this region were relatively advanced in the sphere of education and health. At present maximum number of tribal boys and girls belonging to Sundargarh, Keonjhar, Balasore and Mayurbhanj districts are availing the facility of education. They have also received reservation facility in the sphere of employment and politics. Undoubtedly, the tribal people of this area are economically self-reliant, self-sufficient and have better exposure to politics as compared to other parts of the State of Odisha. As a result, some of them have established themselves as an intellectual group in their society. In view of this development we find emergence of three categories among the tribal people / community:


    First, employed and salaried (intellectual) group with sound economic background but this class is very tiny. Secondly, local businessmen who are educated and have access to local politics. This section is also a small one. Thirdly, the illiterate, poverty stricken lower section of the tribal people, are really the largest one. The upper class is economically and educationally sound and is acting as the intellectual advisory / counseling class to the second group who are active in local and village politics to fight for the right of the larger tribal group. In other wards the upper class controls the lower class by using this middle class as a weapon. The lower class is under the control and guidance of the middle class. This is an important aspect of cultural transformation and transition. The first group is already detribalized; only by name they are now tribals. In other wards, the upper class is sponsoring the cultural transformation in the tribal society. I have a friend from Ho community of Keonjhar. His children are highly educated and well established. His daughter got married to a non-tribal Brahmin groom. I had an opportunity to attend the ceremony at his newly constructed house. Affinal relatives from other castes like Brahmin, Khandayat were present on this occasion. There was no sign of caste barrier. Apparently it was a social function of modern society. Brahmin priest was invited to perform the rituals. All the items of a modern fashion have enriched the decoration of house. Interestingly, there was a signboard of Ho Samaj Susar Akala. After the ritual, I asked the house owner about the signboard. He informed that the children were staying outside. So, I have formed this Ho Samaj Susar Akala to do something to preserve and promote the Ho Cultural heritage, which is decaying. This is about the attempt to save the lost glory by a lost person.

    Here is one more example of another Santali Tribal friend. He is a primary school teacher. He is also a good political organiser in his local area. I had been to his house. He showed me his house, which is surrounded by Jahira, His forefathers are worshipped in the kitchen. However, I was astonished to see his Thakur Ghar where Srimaa, Sri Aurobindo, Anukulachandra alongwith Jagannath, Rama, Krishna, Durga, Kali etc. are also worshipped. The place of worship is well decorated. Everyday he spares two to three hours daily in offering worship to these deities and thereafter goes for other works. 

Inbuilt changes in the performing art :

    It is said that tribal performing art has had a glorious past. But it is a matter of concern that the present state is not so optimistic. It is true, that changes are inevitable to human society and tribal society is no exception. Changes are appearing in each and every aspect of plastic and performing art in tribal society. But these changes have not come about overnight. Rather they are gradual. The forces that operate in this process of change are the forces of modernization, urbanization as well as adoption of modern technology. Changes in the cognitive process coupled with spread of communication and the question of identity, are primarily responsible for mutation and permutation in the tribal society. Due to the impact of the above elements, the indigenous socio-cultural aspect of the tribal society is threatened with extinction. As a consequence, the possibility of losing the tribal identity is looming large on the many tribal groups and sub-groups whereas such culturally dispossessed people are floating on the current flow-of transition anxiously looking for a footage. They are also trying their level best to revive their art and craft so that the richness of their ethnic past can be recovered.

    With a past of congenital aversion for commercialism, the tribals are now being very much conscious of the competitive world around them; they have an urge how to adjust themselves with the crass materialism. In this context Ho, Munda, Santal, Paroja, Koya, Bhottada are shinning examples.

    In a twin occasion, I had gained some first hand information of the cultural resistance as well as the in result of cultural impact of the outside world, while participating in Koya dance drama and Santal theatre..

Geetkudia Tradition

    In the first instance, I had been to Malkangiri, the land of aboriginal tribe to participate in a Geetkudia workshop. Once upon a time Geetkudia tradition among tribals of undivided Koraput and Kalahandi were very popular. But now-a-days film cassettes and modern songs are fast replacing these tradition bound institutions. However, in remote areas these traditions still prevail. In this tradition, Geetkudia (Male) competes with a Geetkudiani (Female). If Geetkudiani is defeated, then Geetkudia can marry to the singing girl, even if he has more than one wife. There I came to know that there is a dance drama tradition among Koya community of Malkangiri and adjoining Bastar where occasionally they perform “Mao Pata” and “Pendul Pata”, two dance dramas of their area. We requested them to perform any one of the dramas, and they performed Pendul Pata dance drama in the workshop. They enacted the dance sequence in such a way that it would not be inferior to any of the mainstream Odiya or Bengali Jatra (opera). But unfortunately, this seminal tradition is now being threatened with extinction.

Santal theatre

    In contrast to our experience in Malkangiri, the yatra/opera tradition of Santal is found to have undergone changes so much so that the theatres preferred widely throughout the Santali belt is just a carbon copy of Oriya and Bengali theatres with filmy flavour. This, it is feared, shall uproot the traditional Santal Dance-Drama heritage.

    The concern at the decline in the pure form of the traditional dance-drama heritage led the Academy of Tribal Languages and Culture(ATLC) organised a Santal theatre workshop with Santali students of SC & ST Dev. Deptt. schools of Mayurbhanj district as participants. “Chalak Tuyu” (clever Jackal) was the play enacted and it was based on a folktale of Santals. Some theatrical angles to the Original story were added in the process of its dramatisation mainly to highlight its contemporary social relevance. The participants themselves have developed the play in their own dialects and contributed much to the use of their ritualistic songs and dances in the production process.

    The drama began with an old man narrating a story to the children. “There was a tiger king in the Similpal hill. The King’s family includes his queens and two cubs. The cunning jackal from outside used to enter into the forest and snatched away regularly the foods of the cubs in the absence of their parents. The jackal impersonating a crafty money lender initially used to take away the food from the cubs in the absence of their parents but finally with the full knowledge of their parents.” Here the storyteller narrated the menace of the moneylender in the form of cunning jackal. The cunning animal cheated even the ferocious tiger. Finally the story ended with the death of the jackal. Exploitation was the theme highlighted in the story. This theme of the story was very much appreciated by all the viewers of the mainstream though the story has a tribal origin.

    Santali tribe experimented different forms and themes exclusive to their ethnic culture.

Conclusion :

    Based on the personal observation of the developments that are taking place among the tribes of Odisha, it is perhaps not too much risky to suggest that the rich traditional heritage still has tremendous potential to keep the tribes away from exploitation by both their own community elites and the non-tribals. The only necessity at present is to cautiously expose to the tribes to that part of their past ways of life, which needs to be adequately respected and hence at all costs preserved. The few attempts we have talked of in terms of recasting the traditional wisdom to suit to the present day needs might suggest the right kind of intervention that we need to do right now. Perhaps bold innovation with careful thought about the development needs of the tribal people is the need of the present time.



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