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India, This Side

Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh documents tribal culture of Gujarat

Print edition : Sep 16, 2022 T+T-

Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh documents tribal culture of Gujarat

Pithoro art, which serves as a living chronicle of memories for the Adivasi community in Tejgadh. 

Pithoro art, which serves as a living chronicle of memories for the Adivasi community in Tejgadh.  | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

It offers a unique space for the study of tribal communities.

Koraj is not on the map of the Indian railways. It is not even on the map of the State roads in Gujarat. It is not a district town nor a taluka town. It is now seen just as subdivision of a village panchayat. But when you climb up the tall hill known as Koraj-no dungar—the Mount Koraj—you can see hundreds of plains and low hills spreading into Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The view from the top is breathtakingly panoramic. In ancient times, before the Holocene, some 12,000 years ago, this was a place of human habitation. It has at least one cave with pre-Holocene “paintings”, still intact thanks to the anonymity of Koraj. Except for a few scratches made on them by latter-day lovers, the work of our early ancestors is still there.

What is remarkable is that the graphic style of the Koraj paintings continues to show up in the contemporary arts of Adivasis in the surrounding villages. Other forms have indeed been added to the original. For instance, the bead work of later millennia has taken a stable place in the life of the Adivasis. The arrival of horses in India through Sind has found its reflection in the “Pithoro”, or sacred paintings, of the Rathwa Bhils of the area.

Discovering Koraj hill

I went to the Koraj hill for the first time in early 1996 when a student of Archeology came to me in great excitement with a broken piece of red-pottery that he had found near Koraj on a casual visit. This piqued my curiosity. I used to teach at the M.S. University of Baroda in those days, 95 kilometres from Koraj. Soon after, I made a visit to the place and learnt from the local Adivasis that up in the hill there was a cave with an unnamed supernatural presence. Despite their reservations, they accompanied me.

Halfway towards the hill, I noticed square bricks spread all over the ground and some broken walls and a structure that looked like a stepwell, a medieval feature of Gujarat. The stepwell is majestic. The broken wall extends over an area of a kilometre or more. Peacocks, leopards and pythons are seen in plenty in the thickets and the wilderness of Koraj. The material signs appeared like the ruins of an early medieval kingdom.

Highlights
  • The Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh documents the age-old art traditions of Gujarat’s tribal communities.
  • One of its focus areas is Pithoro art, sacred paintings which are made by the entire community.
  • It has published Babo Pithoro, an illustrated catalogue of 550 paintings curated by Narayan Rathwa
  • Academics and thinkers such as Mahasweta Devi, Narayan Desai, Ramachandra Guha, Rajmohan Gandhi, and Gail Omvedt, have visited the Adivasi Academy to offer lectures and interact with the residents.

I decided to brush aside the easy conclusion as not too far from Koraj—perhaps 50 km as the crow flies—is the medieval capital of Mahmud Begra (1458-1511), known as Champaner. No medieval ruler would have invested huge amounts to construct a capital close to another adversarial capital. I therefore decided to think of the historical Koraj city as belonging to an earlier era, probably destroyed by a latter-day invader.

Also read:The pit stop at Chinchani

Some years later, Dr K.K. Chakravarty, an eminent scholar of rock art, visited the place and ascertained that the cave up the hill was pre-Holocene, and the ruined town at least a thousand years old.

When I first made the visit to Koraj, I was getting ready to leave my university job and settle in an Adivasi village. I thought Tejgadh, a village which could not recall its history beyond the last eight or nine decades but was just five kilometres from Koraj, would be an ideal place. And so, Tejgadh became the place where I decided to settle and work. After years of struggle, the work took the form of the Adivasi Academy.

Another sample of Pithoro art. 
Another sample of Pithoro art.  | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

In Tejgadh, I noticed large Pithoro paintings on the walls of Adivasi houses. These cannot be described adequately as “paintings”, for they have more to them than just colours, lines, shapes and figures. They are wrapped in rather elaborate rituals. Besides, there is no single painter “doing” it. The entire community participates in the making of Pithoro. The making is spread over several days, with specific norms of when to share food with all villagers during the making of Pithoro, when to invite the shaman to review the work, when to offer meat and wine to Pithoro, and when and how to close the entire ritual process. The best way of expressing this in the English language is to say that “the making of Pithoro is the highest form of religion” as far as the Rathwas are concerned. The painting contains several levels, each indicating historic memories belonging to different periods. Thus, the Pithoro is a living chronicle of memories for the community.

Documenting art traditions

In my work with the Adivasis, it was but natural for me to focus on their art traditions. Initially, I asked them to collect all their oral songs and stories, which they did; and they indeed have a rich wealth of songs. Within a year, we published them under the title The Songs of Tejgadh. Then I asked some young men to collect as much information as they could about the houses adorned with Pithoro. Travelling extensively in numerous Rathwa villages, they put together an illustrated catalogue of 550 paintings, published as Babo Pithoro. Curated and edited by one of them, Narayan Rathwa, it is an excellent piece of ethnography. In my university days, I would have imagined such a project taking several years and getting marooned in discussions about funding. But, here in the tribal world, the work was faster, more dependable, and almost cost-free.

Having realised these strengths, I got some of the Adivasis to take an interest in their musical instruments, others in their textiles, and yet others in their dance forms and theatre. Though I knew what I was doing, I did not know that they would show so much enthusiasm. In the months and years that followed, on their own, some began to document their woodwork, stonework, pottery, and sculpture. Through their activity, many makers of these objects from near and distant villages started coming together at Tejgadh, and helped with the documentation and making of catalogues. The objects they produced also came together.

Also read:The tale of two villages

Teachers and students of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad came to Tejgadh to see what the Adivasis were doing, and camped there for two months. Artists from the M.S. University of Baroda started visiting these camps and meeting the “tribal artists”. Academics and thinkers from all parts of the country visited Tejgadh to offer lectures and to have discussions with the residents. These included persons like Mahasweta Devi, Ramachandra Guha, Rajmohan Gandhi, and Gail Omvedt, to mention just a few. The word spread. Visitors from other countries, too, started making study visits to Tejgadh.

Mahasweta Devi and Narayan Desai at the Adivasi Academy. Academics and thinkers from all parts of the country have visited Tejgadh to offer lectures and have discussions with the residents.
Mahasweta Devi and Narayan Desai at the Adivasi Academy. Academics and thinkers from all parts of the country have visited Tejgadh to offer lectures and have discussions with the residents. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

In a short period of four years since I initiated the Adivasi community’s self-search, well-known architect Karan Grover offered to design and construct the campus for the Adivasi Academy, for that was the simple term I had thought of using for the experiment. The renowned artist Bhupen Khakhar agreed to join and head the trust created for the activity. Others donated books to supplement my collection that I had moved to Tejgadh. Soon a library of over 50,000 titles came to be. Young friends from universities in India and the US helped pull together funds to get the campus in place.

On August 15, 2004, eight years since I first visited Tejgadh, the great Gandhian Narayan Desai, Mahadev Desai’s son, and Mahasweta Devi reached Tejgadh to bless the campus of the Adivasi Academy that had come up at the foot of the Koraj hill. The timeless traditions that the Adivasis had preserved for millennia continues to live here.

Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and chairperson, The People’s Linguistic Survey of India.