Tribal life
Adivasi life: Clash of Modernity and TraditionJayalakshmi K

A time freeze is what many of us would love. Something that takes us back to the 'good old times' when life was simple and stress-free when we laughed a lot and did not worry unduly about the morrow. A time when wants were few and waste very less; when we still were in sync with nature.

But sadly, the winds of modernity have swept us off that land and whisked us into a place of unlimited dreams and desires that bring with them unending worries and stress. We now live perpetually in the future which haunts us. We work towards that future. We worry about that future. The present moment slips by unnoticed.

Tribal life
A tribe chieftain speaks on a phone during a workshop for tribal people Jayalakshmi K

Then, some of the educated and sensitive among us see hope suddenly in small, isolated patches where people are still living a relatively happy life. We suddenly want to tell them what happened to us and why it is best to not listen to the winds of change. But perhaps, it is a bit too late. The wind is faster than Usain Bolt.

Sadly, we watch ourselves from the past. We watch how modernity is upsetting the balance in the Adivasis' life and rue the day we set out to 'educate' them. That is irreversible.

So, what can we do?

A recent workshop organised by Pipal Tree on 'Cultural Spaces for a Sustainable Future' saw tribal activists and thinkers conclude that the tribal/adivasi culture was the best model for a sustainable and peaceful society. Pradip Prabhu, an activist of the Kashtakari Sanghatna who has lived with the Warli people in their homes, spoke of how the tribe lived in harmony with nature. The forest is an endowment that came with ancestors and a source of their well being.

Tribal life
Adivasi women are seen wearing sarees and kurtis while an older woman dresses in traditional attireJayalakshmi K

The central deity of the Warlis is Hirva, which literally stands for green, but at a deeper level to chlorophyll which sustains all life on earth. The Waghoba is the tiger spirit protects the community and Saori, the forest spirit. There is no concept of human mastery or ownership of nature.

But now, modernity is destroying all that wisdom slowly, lamented Pradip.

In fact, despite his success in procuring tribals' rights and the major role he played in the drafting of PESA and FRA, he is most let down by the result of education on the tribal youth in the 80s. This has only alienated them from the culture. True, earlier there were days when all families starved for days in a week and that was no more necessary. But instead, what happened is that there was conspicuous consumption among the community. All the wealth that came into the family was appropriated by the youth, who turned up quite useless to the community!

Theologist and tribalist Yangkahao Vashum from Manipur noted how the youth in his tribal community are all enchanted by modern living, education and amassment of wealth. The traditional Hornbill fest has turned into one about pleasure seeking and fun.

Tribal life
A young Adivasi woman is seen donning an 'Anarkali' dress common in urban areas Jayalakshmi K

Interestingly, another approach to this 'assault of modernity' comes from the work of Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra. The founder Dr H Sudarshan too is concerned over alienation of youth from the culture, but his work in the BR Hills region of Karnataka has focussed on an education relevant to the youth. He was able to incorporate the local dialect, culture and environment into the lessons rather than the standard western pedagogy.

Strengthening the core culture of the tribes was necessary, he too feels. However, he has been able to negotiate a middle path for the Soliga youth by setting up eco-tourism centres run entirely by them. As a doctor too, he has been successful in merging some aspects of the tribal medicine into the healthcare system he has set up and training the girls as midwives.

However, some observations at the same workshop pointed to another aspect of this race for reviving traditional cultures. Are we romanticising too much on these cultures? It is those brought up in western education that most feel the need to nurture indigenous culture, according to artist and theologian Jyoti Sahi.

Who saves whom could be more than a tricky question. Is it we the modern civilisation that needs saving or the indigenous cultures? In the name of this saving, many times activists have been accused of undermining the future of the tribal youth. Maybe, it is better to let them decide their future. Maybe it is all a part of their evolution and learning of loss.

Some members of the once nomadic tribe called Hakki Pikkis in Karnataka have taken the term nomadic to a global level. They collect money and go abroad to sell their wares, mostly herbal concoctions. This tribe that once were largely hunters who lived on the meat of small animals and birds of the forest has thus found a new livelihood. Without being 'educated' they manage to visit places like south-east Asia and conduct business but not without risks. Recently a group from Shimoga was arrested in Rwanda.

Tribal life
An elderly Adivasi woman is seen in the conventional attire of the tribesJayalakshmi K

Not all go abroad. Many roam around selling trinkets and the like, while a good section of the old lot prefers to beg, seeing a respectability to it. Vinod Raja's documentary 'Bird trapper or beggar' reveals the changing lives of these tribes who have been forced to settle.

Things have not been all bad for the Adivasis and progress has happened too. For instance, the primary health centres have come as a boon. Most of the women from the tribes of H D Kote who had assembled for a dialogue on their culture last month did welcome the western medicine saying that it was a help with major health issues. For minor ailments, they still prefer the herbal way.

There was also the general consensus that child marriages have come down a lot. But marriage, in general, has become a costly affair! In some of the tribes, the boy and girl used to simply elope and come back a couple some days later. Or the boy's parents would pitch a tent in front of a suitable girl's hut and wait for her consent. Now with the whiff of modernity, marriages too have inflated into a costly show, replete with dowry demands.

There are the externally visible differences between the old and the young, not only in facial features but in clothing too.

A dhoti tied high up on the chest and another draped over the shoulders, barefoot and sans any jewellery -- that is the garb of women over 60. The same piece of clothing is used for three years before going for a new one! Small-built as a rule, with deep lines of crow's feet, etched all over the swarthy face, curly hair, thickish lips, the elders look much like their Adivasi brethren across the nation and one is almost tempted to join the dots with the tribals of Andaman or Australia.

But then the younger generations have lost the distinct look of their elders, perhaps from marriages outside the tribes. The youth look like the local villagers and dress like them too, in jeans and salwars. In contrast to the elders' frugal ways, some of the younger girls at the event made a splash in finery that could be their city contemporary's envy.

Clearly, the youth enjoy the 'fruits' of modernisation in the movies they see, the clothes they wear, the food they eat and the phones they carry! They do not seem to regret the change much.

Education is a big selling point and the elders have no greater demand than a good future for their children. "We do not want them to suffer like us."

Whether it be the Jarawas of Andamans or Yerawas of H D Kote, once removed from their isolation, is it fair or even realistic to expect a return to olden ways? Is it more than wishful thinking to want to keep them in the forests when their aspirations have changed?

Who decides for whom?