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Friday, Oct 18, 2019

Father of the tribe

Anthropologist Verrier Elwin rubbed elbows with the elite of both Britain and India. Yet, he was the subaltern’s trusted friend, writes KumKum Dasgupta.

books Updated: Feb 21, 2009 22:56 IST
Kumkum Dasgupta
Kumkum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times

The Oxford
India Elwin
OUP | Rs 795 | pp 351

In the Oxford University Press catalogue, anthropologist-poet-activist Verrier Elwin’s books on tribal India appear in the ‘Academic’ section. But don’t go by this — Elwin’s writings easily transcend such watertight divisions.

His body of work on tribal India (he has 19 books to his name) can be an easy read even for a person with a passing interest in the tribal world. No high-sounding academic jargons here. The narratives are informative, incisive and witty.

While Elwin looks at India’s rich tribal world with an outsider’s gaze in some, in others, he becomes the insider looking at the world through the tribal viewfinder.

The Oxford India Elwin draws from a wide range of his writings. It is a potpourri of his autobiographical and scholarly writings with more than a hundred visuals that gives a glimpse of the fast-eroding richness of the tribal world. In a good introduction titled ‘Elwin for Tomorrow’, author-activist Ganesh N. Devy focuses on the importance of Elwin today. Along with a background on the tribal world, its interaction with the colonial rulers (who came up with a ‘misguided’ piece of legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871) as well as post-Independent India, he puts Elwin’s work in perspective.

“His [Elwin’s] involvement with them went far beyond anthropological interest, aesthetic fascination, or altruistic community work. In the course of his work, Elwin became increasingly aware that defending tribal well-being was his responsibility,” says Devy.

However, the importance of Elwin does not end with his understanding of this world. His policy prescriptions — how to handle matters tribal (they were supported by Jawaharlal Nehru) have stood the test of time. Unfortunately, the state policy, as of today, has moved away from these directives and is paying a heavy price for it. Elwin argued, as Devy says, that for any development plant for tribals to succeed, it must acquire a ‘tribal touch’. Respect the tribal way of life and culture was the bedrock of the policy, he proposed.

The most fascinating parts of the book are the chapters on the Muria and Ghotul [literally, a night-club] and the ‘Myths from Middle India’. In a world of shrinking cultural options, the documentation of this oral history is a treasure trove.

Elwin could have worn another hat easily: of a travelogue writer. The documentation of his travels in the north-east is rich with information and anecdotes.

A splendid collection that can easily reach out to everyone: read it from whichever angle you want. Elwin has something for everyone.

First Published: Feb 21, 2009 22:55 IST

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