The Portrait Of Tribal Culture

Chittaranjan Das

[Chittaranjan Das (1923-2011) was a leading essayist in Odia literature. His essays are thought provoking and cover topics from the fields as diverse as education, social work, sociology and religion. His style of presentation of the subject is unique and inimitable. This piece is the translation of his speech delivered in Odia on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee Function of Odisha Sahitya Academy in December 1982 and included in the collection of his essays and speeches Odisha O’ Odia published by Eastern Media, Bhubaneswar. With this article, we begin a Section where translated version of articles written in regional languages on tribes will be published. -Managing Editor.]

We the non-tribals who talk about the tribals are often easily discernible from the tribals. As a deer is dear to a hunter and cheers him, as a tamed tigress remains an object of affection for the owner’s fancy, as the guinea pigs are liked by the elite scientists engaged in the serious scientific investigation, in the same way, most of us like the tribals.

In the words of Veriar Elwin, we study the tribals, at the most, with a museum interest, and with the same interest, we love them too. While pursuing such interest we never wish to be one amongst them. We always consider it wise to maintain a safe distance from them, as we feel scared to be intimate. Howsoever deep our attraction for tribals and their culture could be, it only goes to the extent, which is very touchingly put by Sj Laxmi Narayan Sahoo in his poem ‘The Natural Man’ where it is said “ but you must be above, below, must be the other”.

Tribal culture is a complete culture. In the last (nineteenth) century, a European researcher on culture had described the tribal people as Dusk Race and Night Race. Needless to say, he had considered only the Europeans as the Day Race. In India we the non-tribals sometimes think of the tribals possibly in the same way. It is a blind belief, rather an ego- driven blind belief. Tribal culture is not at all a simple culture –howsoever diminutive or knotless it may seem from outside; in reality it exhibits everywhere diversity and breadth. Tribal life consciousness is perhaps comparatively less widespread in comparison to our modern life consciousness. It has more than one reason, more than one historical determinant.

The Tribal society, in other words, is said to be a primitive society. In the history of human civilization, these societies and civilizations are regarded as the primitive society and civilization. Many a times, the isolationist critics of the developed society deal with the word ‘primitive’ as having a derogatory meaning. The reality is that the tribal society is relatively a less mobile society. May be in that sense we may entitle it as primitive. From various aspects the tribal society is a closed society, and is synonymous with sensitivity and stagnancy. Yet inside its boundary, each tribal society has its own economy, polity with conventional rules and regulations. And as an appendix to it, there are also different religious beliefs, worshipping and propitiation practices; songs and dances, ecstasy and guilt consciousness. Unitary tribal societies are small in size and area, the horizon of the assumptions and axioms for reciprocal relationship and interactions is quite local, and therefore instantaneous.. The means and technologies used in the collective tribal life are also of very rudimentary level. The complex division of labour found in modern society is never seen in tribal society. A tribal doesn’t change his environment; rather his environment serves as a beacon to highlight his total action and counteraction. A tribal accepts himself as a part and parcel of nature that surrounds him. Therefore, a tribal doesn’t desire to conquer nature, rather within nature he makes the abode of his life most favoured , and considers that as the triumph of his true life.

The paradise of a tribal is on this earth. All his sorrows, his perceptions and emotions are regulated by an animistic sacredness. Therefore, his experience of divinity is not at all controlled by any elusive hedonistic detachment. It is possibly in the tribal culture that one finds the direct expression of the well-articulated life-view as presented in ‘The idea of the Holy’ by German critic Rudolf Otto. In the terrestrial faith of the tribal almost everything is direct, perceptible and hence lively. If any culture remains fundamentally symbolic, life in such culture manifests itself in all its richness and grandeur.

In tribal society and culture, concept of individual does not exist; in fact, such concept has not been born yet. It is the Community, which is the only all-important and all determining authority in their society. But in that collectiveness and its authority, we do not find the extremism and oppression of modern collectivism of various shades. In such scenario, we discover a kind of participation mystique. In the universe of tribal culture, the umbilical cord of the individual attached to the society is still in tact, and has not yet been snapped. The extent of weaning in society that could engender individual in a man has not occurred in the tribal society. It is, at once, the charm and the handicap of the tribal society. A society always provides an individual a wider field for movement; a society moves forward through individuals’ lives; all kinds of new changes become possible. It is for this reason alone that we find the collectiveness in every worldly imagination of a tribal society , from its meadows to its universe of thoughts, as if individualism has become a taboo. In a tribal society, an individual has certain assigned roles only; sense of individualism is almost absent there. Man becomes artificial, when he alienates himself. On deliberately accepting the artificiality, may be he rises, step after step, and acquires confidence to do something new. But in the tribal society there exists no individual divorced from the community. Hence, the entire mutuality in their society has its origin, probably, in an unconscious, and therefore, plain fellow feeling without any hue or characteristic. To move away from the bind of the collectiveness of the community life is the greatest disaster for a tribal man. For him social death is more miserable, more improbable than bodily death. What modern alienation means in the so-called civilized society has no relevance in a tribal society.

In Indian scriptures the tribals have been described as forest dwellers. Everywhere in the world, the tribal groups dwell inside the forest areas. This, however, should not be the reason to conclude that the tribals always lived in the forests. In the African sub continent, which was once known as Dark Continent, the archeologists have also discovered many proofs about the existence of prosperous ancient civilizations. Before the Aryan influx into India, the non-Aryan tribals were not at all forest dwellers; they had their own country, own polity and administration. They were displaced by the Aryan invaders, and became forest dwellers. The Aryans appropriated their religion, culture and customary life style. It was more an appropriation than coordination. The entities, which tribals held in their imagination as of some value and consequence, were embellished with Aryan dress and definition and given identity as Aryan Gods. Lord Jagannath of our Odisha is perhaps an example of this process. Those who have brought Lord Jagannath by such appropriation say it is a confluence. But in this process those who have been deprived of are still feeling deceived.

Poverty is the most common feature of the tribal society and it is seen worldwide. It is as if the tribal has accepted life as nothing but “to endure”. That tribals have remained naïve over the ages is a misconception prevalent in the non-tribal society. Are they not naïve, when, on asked, they would even cut and offer their fingers? Should it be termed as naivety, endurance or a self-inflicting helplessness? In India out of every hundred, seven are tribal, whereas in Odisha it is twenty-three. In our state (Odisha) we find 62 different tribal communities, which constitute half a crore population. In the state, there are at least three districts, where the tribal population is higher in proportion than the non-tribal population. Almost 97% of the tribals live in rural areas or in forest areas. The rest 3%, the so-called city dwellers, as reported, live marginalized in city slums. According to 1971 census, while the percentage of literates in Odisha was 26%, the literacy among tribal people was even less than 10%. In case of women, this percentage remained at 2.5%. If the textbook measures and definitions of below poverty line (BPL) are applied, then 99 out of 100 tribals live below it. The irony is that they still live in a condition in which they were living perhaps 500 years back, yet they have remained extremely indifferent. In the reckoning of many of us, they are yet to be considered as human beings. Even they consider themselves as if they were jungle trees or mountain stones.

The non-tribals go to the tribals with a superiority feeling of guardianship, which in the words of the anthropologist Knoebar is an “ethnocentrism of the benign kind”. They go to them to show sympathy. It is a superstition that is prevalent in Indian culture that sympathy to the poor enables one to reap the fruits of holy deed. In the larger book of accounts of Indian tradition, sympathy has been entered so atrociously that in it there is no place for fellow feeling and the feeling of being one with the poor. In our world, the well accepted attitude of the civilized human beings towards the disadvantaged tribals, as has been in vogue, is what the noted anthropologist Malinowski has said, “discriminative give and individuous take”. While discussing Indian literature and culture, we, most of the times, remember the tribals with meaningless emotion. It is a kind of ill inspired emotion, which is synonymous with ‘worthless earnestness’, the term coined by Karl Marx. Such emotion, howsoever innocent it may appear, is in reality nothing short of barbarism. Almost with this kind of emotion dominated barbarism, we have brought the tribals into our literature, danced their dances in the capital city and collected their folk songs. We feel immensely elated and gratified in bringing these things to the corridors of the civilized society. We indeed feel so relieved. This is escapism; the eagerness for which gives us a lot of consolation, amnesia and a feeling of attainment, particularly when our surrounding and present appear to have become defunct. By this we have perhaps raised our glory, and with the real faces hidden under the masks, the visible faces appear boastfully pleasing. But no gain has come to the tribals. The obscurity in which they were living is still continuing. Humiliations have been there as they were, and their economic poverty has made these humiliations eternal, as if they were kept secured in a sealed cover.

The society, where many plans and programs are designed with the expectation that there shall be change, should have leadership emerge from within it to prepare and give effect to these plans and programs. This has neither occurred in Odisha nor in India, in bringing about social changes in tribal society. We, the non-tribal lords, have made up our minds to get richer by pushing tribals deeper into poverty. We, the non-tribals, have gone as teachers to teach the tribals. We are teaching them to remain subordinate to us by losing their self-respect through ridiculous imitations. We are imposing on them our models, and, in a very crude way, we are throwing them in to our pits. In political arena too, we have put our fetters around their legs. With all our good intentions, we have started destroying their foundations, which were once their own.

The real growth and development of tribal people is possible only by tribal leadership, never by the feudal lords. The day, on which a tribal can speak of his own what his culture really is, it’s past and future, on that day a truthful description of the tribals will be available. Those home returned tribals, whom we have taught to remain as our tamed elephants and, by removing them from their real roots, have made them dance in the streets and official functions as a pathetic edition of us, also cannot provide the real picture of the tribals. So, the real process is neither showing them sympathy nor extending slavery to them; the real process is their conscientization. This is the process to begin looking at tribals not as tribals but as human beings. This is a process to create a dynamic and throbbing conscience so that the tribals do not feel as tribals but as human beings.

According to Evans Pritchard, an anthropologist, we enable ourselves to understand our own society and culture in a wider perspective only if we delve deeper into the society and the cultures of others. It is only then that in the background of a larger human experience and social life, we understand ourselves more completely and realistically. May be in this direction it shall be useful to study the tribal society and culture and determine its real self. Those who are outside of us, and whom we have kept vanquished with their thighs crushed, we continue to neglect them following a perverted self-serving arrogant tradition of neglecting them as unkempt aborigines. This is notwithstanding the immense harm it has caused to the mankind in India for ages and inspired us to assume ourselves as divine beings. We have held such neglect as our privilege. The more we, the non-tribals, inspired by true fellow feelings, move close to the tribal society, the more we study and learn from it and get benefited, the better we can understand ourselves as human beings, the better we can live genuinely connected to our tradition. It is only then that a soul will be available to all our acquisitions. It is only then that a true harmony will be possible in India. It is only then that the misfortune of small fishes being devoured by big ones and forest dwellers devoured by city dwellers can be averted.

Translated from Odia by: Anjali Sahoo and Birendra Nayak